Parks of the Upper East Side

Carl Schurz Park

East End Avenue to East River, East 84th to East 90th Streets

Nearby Neighborhoods: Upper East Side, in Yorkville

This picturesque park, partially hidden along the East River, is one of the city’s bestconcealed secrets. A stroll along the promenade provides beautiful views of the river, the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, the Triborough Bridge, Randall’s and Wards islands, and, of course, Gracie Mansion, the 18th-century mansion that serves as the Mayor’s official residence.

Carl Schurz Park is one of the city’s most dog-friendly–two dog runs offer plenty of space for pups to run around and mingle, while the promenade offers a lovely place to stroll, with or without a furry companion. A playground at the end of the park holds fun for kids of all ages.

Carl Schurz Park, named by the Board of Aldermen in 1910 for the soldier, statesman, and journalist Carl Schurz (1829-1906), overlooks the turbulent waters of Hell Gate. The first known Dutch owner of the land was Sybout Claessen who was granted the property in 1646 by the Dutch West India Company. Jacob Walton, a subsequent owner, built the first house on the site in 1770. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army built a fort surrounding the Walton residence to guard the strategic shipping passage of Hell Gate. After a British attack on September 8, 1776, the house was destroyed and the Americans were forced to retreat from the fort, which the British retained until the end of the war in 1783.

The land was purchased from Walton’s heirs in 1798 by Archibald Gracie, a Scottish shipping magnate. He built a mansion there in 1799, where his illustrious guests included future United States president John Quincy Adams and future French king Louis Phillippe. The estate, sold by Gracie in 1819, was acquired by the City from the Wheaton family in 1891. The first home of the Museum of the City of New York, from 1924-32, the mansion has served as the official residence of New York’s mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia moved there in 1942.

The southern portion of the park was set aside by the City as East River Park in 1876. The former Gracie estate was added in 1891 and a new landscape design by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons was completed in 1902. Maud Sargent relandscaped the park in 1939 when the East River Drive underpass was under construction. Charles Haffen’s sculpture of Peter Pan, created in 1928 for a fountain in the lobby of the old Paramount Theater, was installed in the park in 1975.

The park name honors Schurz, a native of Cologne, Germany. It was strongly supported by the large German community of adjacent Yorkville. After immigrating to the United States in 1852, Schurz quickly made his reputation as a skilled orator and proved to be instrumental in Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election campaign. His most significant political offices were that of United States Senator from Missouri (1869-1875), and Secretary of the Interior (1877-81) during the Hayes administration. In his later years, Schurz was editor of the New York Tribune and an editorial writer for Harper’s Weekly. Schurz is also honored by Karl Bitter’s statue of 1913, located at Morningside Drive and 116th Street.

Recent improvements include the rebuilding of the stairs, the complete restoration of the playground and the opening of Carl’s Dog Run. These and other projects, including the planting of flowers, have been accomplished through a partnership between Parks and the Carl Schurz Park Association, which has demonstrated the community’s commitment to restoring, maintaining, and preserving this park since it formed in 1974.

St. Catherine’s Park

East 67th to East 68 the Streets, at First Avenue

Nearby Neighborhood: Upper East Side (in Yorkville)

Both St. Catherine’s Park and the nearby church were named for Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). St. Catherine was widely respected for her devotion to the poor and sick and for her incessant zealous labor. The youngest daughter in a large family, she lost many of her brothers and sisters in various plagues and thus gained a great appreciation for life and curing the sick. Eventually, this dedication was recognized and she was named the patron saint of those who heal the sick. Involved in public affairs, she was instrumental in returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome. She was commonly known for her visions of spiritual encounters with Christ, the most noted being when she saw Christ and herself engage in matrimony.

Across 68th Street and east toward York Avenue stands the park’s namesake, St. Catherine of Siena Church, founded in 1897, just ten years before the parkland was acquired. The church was originally built to serve the largely Irish community on the Upper East Side. A parochial school was established in 1906 in the basement of the church. A new era for the church came in 1932 when hospitals were built in the neighborhood and the church began to serve patients and staff.

The property for St. Catherine’s Park was purchased by the city of New York in February 1907 for use as a public playground. In 1914, it came under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department and was given its current name by the Board of Aldermen in 1918. Originally built in 1917, the park was redesigned by the Parks Department in 1941 and reconstructed the same year by the Works Progress Administration. All that remains from the 1941 renovations are the flagpole, comfort station, and sycamore trees. A cement perimeter wall constructed in 1971 was removed when the park was renovated in 1988.

In 1996, $510,000 in funds was allocated by Council Member Charles Millard for the reconstruction of St. Catherine’s Park. An additional $618,000 has been appropriated by Council Member A. Gifford Miller. The current design is largely modeled after the Florentine floor pattern of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (1280) in Rome, where the body of St. Catherine of Siena rests.

The spray shower area stands in for the center aisle, leading to what would be the altar where the flagpole stands. The play areas to each side represent the pews, and the paving pattern throughout the park resembles the actual floor of the church in Rome. The elephant spray shower makes reference to Bernini’s sculpture of an elephant that supports a 6th-century Egyptian obelisk and stands outside the church. Because St. Catherine was often depicted holding a lily, a symbol of new life, lilies have been planted throughout, symbolizing the rejuvenation of the park. St. Catherine’s Park not only has a long history in the neighborhood but also has religious and art historical associations that live on in the subtle park design.

Central Park

Central Park

Late in the 1840s, socialites Anna and Robert Minturn (later, joined by prominent publishers, financiers, and business leaders), led Manhattan’s upper-crust civic movement to create a landscaped public park to rival the best that Paris, London, and Vienna offered. After the research of appropriate sites ended, in 1853, like-minded groups had two choices: Jones’ Wood, a tract along the East River in the East 60s and 70s; or, a rocky, mid-island tract, including a swathe of Harlem Common viewed as an unlikely development site, because of its brackish swamps and irregular bluffs. After contentious wrangling—with more than a few interventions involving New York state legislators—the city council selected the first park commissioners, as well as the central site.

This expanse, from Fifth to Eighth Avenues, spanning West 59th to 105th Street, was already host to a handful of permanent structures—most prominently, the Sisters of Charity Mount St. Vincent Convent and School, an already aged facility built nearby the colonial-era McGowan’s Pass Tavern, sited at East 107th Street, near to Fifth Avenue. The principal residential structures included those within Seneca Village, an AfricanAmerican community with a population of 1,600, at West 82nd to 85th Streets, near Eighth Avenue. The most conspicuous owner was a member of the separate community called York Hill, which had until recently occupied the Croton Distributing Reservoir site. William Mathews then moved to Seneca Village, buying properties on West 84th and 85th streets. The village consisted of such buildings as a two-story frame farmhouse, with barn, stable, and shed at the rear. It belonged to George G. Root. At West 85th Street, another two three-story frame houses, built on the far corner as well as the additional lots behind, were owned by Epiphany Davis. Alongside the Davis property was the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and cemetery, with a greenhouse at the far end. On the south side of West 85th Street, also stood the spring and a few blocks south, were All Angels’ Church and their burying grounds. Nearby were vagrant shanties, occupied by Irish pig-keepers and German gardeners, and they were nestled between sporadic swamps, ponds, and rocky protrusions. Basically, it was the same on the East Side, from Lenox Hill to Highland of New York (now Carnegie Hill).

While these lands were being cleared of its inhabitants (and what a saga the displaced dwellers wrought!) a newly appointed committee announced a competition that would determine the designer of the forthcoming first American landscaped urban park. After extensive backroom deals and intrigues, Park Superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted, in association with British architect and landscapist, Calvert Vaux, their Greensward Plan was selected, which envisioned decidedly English romantic, pastoral expanses. The commissioners, however, would add their own stamp, through budget revisions and spending proposal paperwork.

The physical creation of Central Park began in 1857; continued throughout 1858, and then opened, in stages, over a period of 15 years. (Initially, the parkland encompassed 700 acres. It was expanded to West 110th Street, in 1863, and was then a total of 843 acres.) Along the way ten million cartloads of muck and mire were removed, three million cubic feet of earth and stone were hauled in, and 20,000 laborers (prison chain gangs among them) were utilized. Ultimately, a half-million trees and shrubs were planted, offsetting a handful of manmade lakes and ponds and 40 graceful bridges.

Immediately received as truly wondrous, Central Park’s grand, sprawling open spaces drew New Yorkers from every walk of life, and within five years more than seven million visitors to and from the city, were exploring it annually. While Olmstead and Vaux’s engineering feat was unarguably seminal, additionally important for Manhattan was the overall park design concept, with its far northern portion’s open and rolling meadows— highlighted by nearby hills and bluffs—contrasting and yet harmonizing with its southern portion’s formal dress grounds and promenades. At the same time, rougher grounds to the northeast, complete with Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battle sites (and a single still-intact fort) were left undisturbed, to retain the island’s rugged character. To the south, the creation of the Great Lawn, Sheep Meadow, and what is now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir helped to reflect the most rural nature the park’s surrounding blocks once were.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, undoubtedly the most notable among the park’s impacts and, by far, it is the most notable structure as well. The feat was accomplished through the efforts of a group of wealthy art aficionados who maintained that the city would benefit manifold from a museum displaying their collective treasures. With sufficient clout at Tammany-run City Hall, these prominent citizens lobbied for and won approval for what was to become the largest building within Central Park: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Work began in 1870, with designs by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, and the institution opened in 1877, continuously expanding and reflecting the work of many remarkable architects.

At the same time, the appeal of living due south of the new park was diminishing, and the residential blocks below 59th Street saw widespread conversions to commercial spaces. New Yorkers yearning for prestigious addresses were moving farther and farther north, and throughout the 1870s an eruption of mansions began along Fifth Avenue: first in the East 60s; within three decades, the swells had moved as far north as East 96th Street, inspired by the completion of the Carnegie’s urban estate, at East 90th to 91st Streets. The park’s western border, Eighth Avenue (renamed Central Park West in 1884, the same year as its most illustrious apartment house, the Dakota Apartments welcomed its first residents), found itself opposite Fifth Avenue’s Millionaires’ Row—in more ways than one. The western avenue perimeter developed in a more commercial vein, due to its proximity to many nearby theaters and low-rise multiple-family dwellings, resulting in tenements and boarding houses standing among early innovative apartment houses and luxury apartment hotels.

Like its sister avenue across the park, Eighth Avenue became host to another of the city’s most revered collections—the American Museum of Natural History, also designed by Vaux and Mould, and completed in 1877. The park-facing Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Rotunda was designed by John Russell Pope, in the grand Roman style, was begun in 1929 and completed in 1935. The institution on Manhattan Square (running from West 77th to 81st Streets), found a new neighbor in 1908, in the York & Sawyer and Walker & Gillette–designed New-York Historical Society building.

Eighteen blocks south, as the park’s southwest corner, is Columbus Circle. More than a major traffic hub (where Broadway intersects both Eighth Avenue and its cross street Central Park South), this plaza is home to the Maine Monument, a 44-foot Beaux-Arts limestone, marble, and gilded-bronze pylon (donated by William Randolph Hearst), in memory of the sailors aboard the USS Maine. Additionally, Merchants’ Gate, the most imposing Central Park West entrance, is its northeast and at Columbus Circle’s epicenter, is the celebrated statue of Christopher Columbus, which commemorated the 400-year anniversary of his discovery of America.

A southerly second plaza—no less architecturally significant—is positioned three blocks across town, at Central Park’s southeast corner. Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan’s only split semicircular plaza, (the park’s only external landscaped entrance) was designed in homage to Paris’s Place de la Concorde, and it is best known for its outdoor art. The north portion boasts a statue of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman; the south portion has an Italian Renaissance–inspired statue of Pomona, the Roman goddess of bounty (as the Pulitzer Fountain’s centerpiece). And rotating sculptures, installed biannually by the Public Art Fund, grace the adjacent Doris C. Freedman Plaza. All share one of the city’s most elegant backdrops, designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh in the French Renaissance–château style: the world-renown, (aptly named) Plaza Hotel.

The Highlights.

  • The Pond, and the Hallett Woods nature preserve, Grand Army Plaza, East 59th to 61st Street, at Fifth Avenue
  • The Central Park Zoo, East 62nd to 65th Street, at Fifth Avenue
  • The Dairy, at 63rd Street
  • The Arsenal, at East 64th Street and Fifth Avenue
  • The Carousel, at East 65th Street
  • The Mall and Summer Stage, 65th to 71st Street
  • Sheep Meadow, West 65th to 70th Street
  • Strawberry Fields, West 72nd Street, at Central Park West
  • Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, at 72nd Street, and dead center
  • The Lake, Bow Bridge, and Boathouse, at 74th Street
  • Conservancy Water, East 73rd Street, at Fifth Avenue
  • The Ramble, 75th to 79th Street
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, East 80th to 84th Street, at Fifth Avenue
  • Cleopatra’s Needle, at East 81st Street
  • Belvedere Castle, Turtle Pond, and Delacorte Theater, at 82nd Street
  • The Great Lawn, 82nd to 85th Street
  • The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and Upper Reservoir jogging track, at 85th to 94th Street, from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West
  • Engineer’s Gate, at East 90th Street and Fifth Avenue
  • The East and North Meadows, East 97th to 99th Street
  • The Conservancy Garden, East 105th Street and Fifth Avenue
  • The Blockhouse, McGowan’s Pass, East 106th to 108th Street  Harlem Meer, East 108th to 110th Street, at Fifth Avenue

The Gates.

  • Artisan’s Gate, Central Park South and Seventh Avenue
  • Artist’s Gate, Central Park South and Avenue of the Americas
  • Scholar’s Gate, at Grand Army Plaza
  • Children’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 64th Street
  • Inventor’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 72nd Street
  • Miner’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 79th Street
  • Engineer’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 90th Street
  • Woodman’s Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 96th Street
  • Vanderbilt Gate, Fifth Avenue and East 102nd Street
  • Pioneer’s Gate, Central Park North (110th Street)
  • Farmer’s Gate, Central Park North and Malcomb X Boulevard
  • Warrior’s Gate, Central Park North and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard
  • Merchant’s Gate, at Columbus Circle
  • Stranger’s Gate, Central Park North and Central Park West
  • Boy’s Gate, Central Park West and West 100th Street
  • All Saints’ Gate, Central Park West and West 96th Street
  • Mariner’s Gate, Central Park West and West 86th Street
  • Naturalist’s Gate, Central Park West and West 77th Street
  • Woman’s Gate, Central Park West and West 72nd Street

John Finley Walk

East 62nd to 82nd Streets, along the East River

John Jay Park

East 76th to 78th Streets