NYC Central Park History

Though of comparatively recent date, the Central Park, the chief pleasure ground of New York, has reached a degree of perfection in the beauty and variety of its attractions, that has made it an object of pride with the citizens of the metropolis.

For many years previous to its commencement, the want of a park was severely felt in New York. There was literally no place on the island where the people could obtain fresh air and pleasant exercise. Harlem lane and the Bloomingdale road were dusty and disagreeable, and moreover were open only to those who could afford the expense of keeping or hiring a conveyance. People of moderate means, and the laboring classes were obliged to leave the city to obtain such recreation. All classes agreed that a park was a necessity, and all were aware that such a place of resort would have to be constructed by artificial means.

The first step taken in the matter was by Mayor Kingsland, who, on the 5th of April 1851, submitted a message to the Common Council, setting forth the necessity of a park, and urging that measures be taken at once for securing a suitable site, before the island should be covered with streets and buildings. The message was referred to a select committee, who reported in favor of purchasing a tract of 150 acres, known as Jones’s Woods, lying between Sixty-sixth and Seventy-fifth streets, and Third avenue and the East River. There was a strong pressure brought to bear upon the City Government to secure the purchase of this tract, although the citizens as a rule ridiculed the idea of providing a park of only 150 acres for a city whose population would soon be 1,000,000. Yet the Jones’s Wood tract came very near being decided upon, and the purchase was only prevented by a quarrel between two members of the Legislature from the City of New York, and the city was saved from a mistake which would have been fatal to its hopes. On the 5th of August, 1851, a committee was appointed by the Legislature to examine whether a more suitable location for a park could be found, and the result of the inquiry was the selection and purchase of the site now known as the Central Park, the bill for that purpose passing the Legislature on the 23d of July, 1853.

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VIEW FROM THE UPPER TERRACE.

In November, 1853, Commissioners were appointed to assess the value of the land taken for the park, and on the 5th of February, 1856, their report was confirmed by the City Government. In May, 1856, the Common Council appointed the first Board of Commissioners, with power to select and carry out a definite plan for the construction of the park. This Board consisted of the Mayor and Street Commissioner, who were ex officio members, Washington Irving, George Bancroft, James E. Cooley, Charles F. Briggs, James Phalen, Charles A. Dana, Stewart Brown and others. The designs submitted by Messrs. Frederick L. Olmstead and C. Vaux were accepted, and have since been substantially carried out. The surveys had previously been made by a corps of engineers, at the head of which was Mr., now General Egbert L. Viele.

The task before the architects and Commissioners was an arduous one. With the exception of making a few hollows, and throwing up a few rocks and bluffs, nature had done nothing for this part of the island. It was bleak, dreary and sickly. “The southern portion was already a part of the straggling suburbs of the city, and a suburb more filthy, squalid and disgusting can hardly be imagined. A considerable number of its inhabitants were engaged in occupations which are nuisances in the eye of the law; and were consequently followed at night in wretched hovels, half-hidden among the rocks, where also heaps of cinders, brickbats, potsherds, and other rubbish were deposited. The grading of streets through and across it had been commenced, and the rude embankments and ragged rock-excavations thus created added much to the natural irregularities of its surface. Large reaches of stagnant water made the aspect yet more repulsive; and so ubiquitous were the rocks that it is said, not a square rood could be found throughout which a crowbar could be thrust its length into the ground without encountering them. To complete the miseries of the scene, the wretched squatters had, in the process of time, ruthlessly denuded it of all its vegetation except a miserable tangled underbrush.”

Looking around now upon the beautiful landscape, with its exquisite lawns and shrubbery, its picturesque hills, and romantic walks and drives, its sparkling lakes, cascades and fountains, it is hard to realize that so much loveliness was preceded by such hideousness.

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FOOT-BRIDGE IN CENTRAL PARK.

The Central Park, so called because it is situated almost in the centre of the island of Manhattan, is a parallelogram in shape, and lies between Fifty-ninth street on the south, and One-hundred-and-tenth street on the north, the Fifth avenue on the east, and the Eighth avenue on the west. It covers an area of 843 acres, and is about two and a half miles long, by half a mile wide. There are nine miles of carriage drives, four miles of bridle roads, and twenty-five miles of walks within its limits. It is the second park in the Union in size; the Fairmount Park at Philadelphia being the largest. It is larger than any city park in Europe, with the exception of the Bois de Boulogne at Paris, the Prater at Vienna, and the Phoenix at Dublin. A rocky ridge, which traverses the whole island, passes through almost the exact centre of the grounds, and has afforded a means of rendering the scenery most beautiful and diversified. A part of the grounds forms a miniature Alpine region; another part is the perfection of water scenery; and still another stretches away in one of the loveliest lawns in the world. The soil will nurture almost any kind of tree, shrub, or plant; and more than one hundred and sixty thousand trees and shrubs of all kinds have been planted, and the work is still going on. Any of the principal walks will conduct the visitor all over the grounds, and afford him a fine view of the principal objects of interest.

The park is divided into two main sections, known as the Upper and Lower Parks, the two being separated by the immense Croton Reservoirs, which occupy the central portion of the grounds. Thus far the Lower Park has received the greatest amount of ornamentation. It is a miracle of exquisite landscape gardening. Its principal features are its lawns, the Pond, the Lake, the Mall, the Terrace, the Ramble, and the Museum of Natural History. The main entrances are on Fifty-ninth street, those at the Fifth and Eighth avenues being for vehicles, equestrians, and pedestrians, and those at the Sixth and Seventh avenues for pedestrians only. All these entrances will ultimately be ornamented with magnificent gateways. Paths leading from them converge at the handsome Marble Arch at the lower end of the Mall.

Near the Fifth avenue gate is a fine bronze colossal bust of Alexander Von Humboldt, the work of Professor Blaiser of Berlin, which was presented to the park by the German citizens of New York, and inaugurated on the 14th of September, 1869, the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the great man.

Near the Eighth avenue gate is a bronze statue of Commerce, the gift of Mr. Stephen B. Guion.

At the extreme southern end of the park, and between the Fifth and Sixth avenue gates, is a small, irregular sheet of water, lying in a deep hollow. The surrounding hills have been improved with great taste, and the pond and its surroundings constitute one of the prettiest features of the park. The water consists mainly of the natural drainage of the ground.

Along the Fifth avenue side of the park, near Sixty-fourth street, is a large and peculiar-looking building, not unlike the cadet barracks at West Point. This was formerly used by the State as an arsenal, but was purchased by the city, in 1856, for the sum of $275,000. It has been recently fitted up as a Museum of Natural History, and the first, second, and third floors contain the magnificent collection of the American Museum Association. This collection is in charge of Professor Bickmore, and includes 12,000 birds, 1000 mammals, 3000 reptiles and fishes, and a large number of insects and corals. It is the largest and most perfect collection in the country. The famous collection of the Archduke Maximilian forms the nucleus of this one.

In the top floor of the Museum building is the Meteorological Observatory of the Central Park, under charge of Professor Daniel Draper. Here are ingenious and interesting instruments for measuring the velocity and direction of the wind, the fall of rain and snow, and for ascertaining the variation of the temperature, etc. The establishment is very complete, and a portion of it is open to visitors. The basement floors of the building are occupied by the offices of the Central Park authorities, and a police station.

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THE MARBLE ARCH.

The open space surrounding the Museum edifice is taken up with buildings and cages containing the living animals, birds, and reptiles of the collection. They are admirably arranged, and the occupants are all fine specimens of their species. These accommodations are only temporary, as the Commissioners are now engaged in the construction of a Zoological Garden, on Eighth avenue, between Seventy-seventh and Eighty-first streets, immediately opposite the park, with which it will be connected by means of a tunnel under the Eighth avenue.

Just north of the pond, and on the high ground above it, is a pretty gothic structure of stone, known as The Dairy. It is contiguous to the South Transverse Road, and supplies may be taken to it without using the park thoroughfares. Pure milk and refreshments, especially such as are suited to children, may be obtained at a moderate cost.

A short distance from the Dairy is the children’s summer house, near which is a cottage with toilette rooms, closets, etc., for the use of ladies and children. Near by are a number of self-acting swings, and a little to the north is the Carrousel, a circular building, containing a number of hobby-horses, which are made to gallop around in a circle by the turning of a crank in the centre of the machine. To the west of this building is the base-ball ground, covering some forty or fifty acres. A commodious brick cottage has been erected here for the accommodation of the ball players.

The paths from the Fifty-ninth street gates converge at the Marble Arch, which lies a little to the northeast of the Dairy. This is one of the most beautiful and costly structures in the park, and consists entirely of marble. Its purpose is to carry the main carriage drive over the foot-path without interrupting the level, and at the same time to furnish a pleasant access from the lower level of the Southwest Park to the Mall. A broad double stairway, to the right and left, leads from the Mall to the interior of the Arch. On either side runs a marble bench, on which, in the summer, the visitor may sit and enjoy the delightful coolness of the place; and opposite the upper end of the Arch, beyond the stairway, is a niche, around which is a marble bench. In the centre is a drinking fountain.

The Mall extends from the Marble Arch to the Terrace. It constitutes the grand promenade of the park, and near its upper end is the handsome music stand, from which concerts are given by the Central Park Band, on Saturday afternoons during the mild season. The Mall is about 1200 feet long by 200 feet wide. In the centre is a promenade, thirty-five feet wide. The remainder is laid out in lawns, and is shaded by four rows of American elms. The Mall terminates on the north in a spacious square or plaza, which is ornamented with two pretty revolving fountains, and a number of bird cages mounted on pedestals. In the spring and summer, numerous vases of flowers are placed here. On concert days, the upper part of the Mall is covered with rustic seats shaded by canvass awnings, where the visitor may sit and listen to the music. At such times, a large programme of the performance is posted on a movable frame placed opposite the music stand. These concerts are very good, and draw large audiences.

To the west of the Mall is a beautiful lawn, called the Green, covering fifteen acres, and terminated on the northwest by a hill, on the summit of which is placed a gaudy building in which artificial mineral waters are sold.

Along the northeastern side of the Mall, and elevated about twenty feet above it, is a rustic bower of iron trellis work, over which are trained wisterias, honeysuckle, and rose vines. This is the Vine-covered Walk, and from it visitors may overlook the Terrace, Lake, Ramble, and Mall.

Adjoining it on the east is an open square, in which carriages only are allowed. Across this square is the Casino, a handsome brick cottage, used as a ladies’ restaurant. The fare here is good, and the prices are moderate. The establishment is conducted by private parties under the supervision of the Commissioners.

In the grounds in the rear of the Casino, is a fine group of figures in sandstone, called “Auld Lang Syne,” the work of Robert Thomson, the self-taught sculptor, and a little to the southeast of this is a bronze statue of Professor Morse, erected by the Telegraph Operators’ Association, and executed by Byron M. Pickett.

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VINE-COVERED WALK, OVERLOOKING THE MALL.

At the northern end of the Mall is the Terrace, and between the two is a magnificent screen work of Albert freestone, in which are two openings whereby persons can leave their carriages and enter the Mall, or from it can cross the drive and reach the stairs leading to the Lower Terrace. A flight of massive stairs leads directly from the Mall to the arcade or hall under the drive, through which the visitor may pass to the Lower Terrace, which is on the same level. This hall is paved, and the walls and ceiling are inlaid with beautiful designs in encaustic tiles. It is now used as a refreshment room. The Terrace is constructed almost entirely of Albert freestone, and is very massive and beautiful in design. It is elaborately and exquisitely carved with appropriate figures and emblems, some of which are very quaint. Our engraving will give the reader a fair idea of its appearance from the water. In the summer, the slope adjoining the Terrace is studded with flowers, which give to the scene a very brilliant effect.

In the centre of the Lower Terrace is a large basin from the midst of which rises a fine jet of water. This fountain is to be ornamented with magnificent bronze castings, now on their way from Munich, where they were made.

The Central Lake washes the northern end of the Lower Terrace, and stretches away from it to the east and west. It is without doubt the most beautiful feature of the park. It covers between twenty and thirty acres, and is as pretty a sheet of water as can be found in the country. Upon its upper side are the wooded heights of the Ramble, which in some places slope down gently to the water’s edge, and in others jut out into the lake in bold, rocky headlands. The magnificent Terrace, with its fountain and flowers, and carvings, adorns the southeastern portion. To the west of the Terrace the lake narrows very greatly, and is spanned by a light iron structure, called the Bow Bridge, from its peculiar shape. It is used for pedestrians only. Heavy vases filled with trailing flowers adorn its abutments, and from this it is sometimes called the Flower Bridge. The western part of the lake is a lovely sheet of water, and comprises more than two-thirds of the whole lake. Its northwestern end is spanned by a handsome stone bridge, which carries the drive across that part of the lake, and close by is another, picturesquely constructed of wood, which conducts a foot-path across the head of the lake.

At the Terrace there is a boat-house, in which is to be found the manager of the fleet of pleasure boats which dot the surface of the water. The regular fare around the lake in the omnibus or public boats is ten cents. Persons may hire a boat for their private use on the payment of a moderate sum. They may either make the circuit of the lake in these boats, or may leave them at any of the six pretty boat-houses which are arranged at convenient points on the shore. The popularity of these boats may be judged from the fact that in 1869, 126,000 persons used them.

Whole fleets of snow-white swans are constantly sailing through the waters. They are among the finest specimens of their species in existence. At the opening of the park twelve of these birds were presented to the Commissioners by the city of Hamburg in Germany. Nine of these died, and twelve more were presented by the same city. Fifty others were given by some gentlemen in London. Of the original seventy-four, twenty-eight died, and the remaining forty-six with their progeny form one of the pleasantest attractions of the lake. A number of white ducks have been added to the collection. All the birds are quite tame, and come readily to the call.

On a bright moonlight night in the summer, the scene to be witnessed on the lake is brilliant. The clear waters gleam like polished steel in the moonlight, and are dotted in every direction with pleasure boats, each of which carries a red or blue light; the swans sail majestically up and down in groups; on every side is heard the dash of oars, and the sound of laughter and happy voices; and the air is heavily laden with the perfume of the flowers along the shore. No sight or sound of the great city is at hand to disturb you, and you may lie back in your boat with half shut eyes, and think yourself in fairyland.

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THE TERRACE, AS SEEN FROM THE LAKE.

In the winter the scene is different. Huge houses are erected on the shores of all the sheets of water in the park, and are provided with sitting-rooms, fires, restaurants, and counters at which skates may be hired for a trifling sum. The water is lowered to a depth sufficient to prevent the occurrence of any serious accident in case the ice should break, and the ice itself is carefully watched, and is scraped smooth after the sports of the day are over. Rotten ice is quickly detected and marked with a sign bearing the word “Danger.” When the ice is in suitable condition, a red ball is hoisted on the Arsenal, and little white flags, on which is printed a similar ball, are affixed to the cars running between the park and the lower part of the city. Then the pleasure seekers come out in throngs, and soon the ice is crowded. At night the lakes are lighted by numerous gas jets with powerful reflectors, placed along the shore. The Central Lake at such times is a sight worth seeing. The Commissioners prepare a code of liberal rules for the government of skaters, and post them at conspicuous points. All persons going on the ice are required to comply with them, on pain of exclusion from the sport.

To the east of the Central Lake, and along the Fifth avenue side, is a small pond, on the verge of which a large Conservatory, which is to be one of the principal ornaments of the park, is now in course of erection.

On the heights to the north of the lake lies the Ramble, which covers an area of about thirty-six acres, and is a labyrinth of wooded walks, abounding in the prettiest rustic nooks, with tiny bridges over little brooks, wild flowers and vines, and bits of lawn, and rock work, all so naturally and simply arranged that it is hard to believe it is not the work of nature. It is one of the most beautiful portions of the park.

At the northern end of the Ramble rises a fine gothic stone tower, which forms a prominent feature in almost any view of the park. This is the Belvedere, and is intended to serve as an observatory from which the entire park may be seen at a glance. The rock upon which it stands is the highest point in the park.

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VIEW ON THE CENTRAL LAKE.

At the foot of this tower are the Croton Reservoirs. There are two of them. The old or lower one is a parallelogram in form, covering an area of thirty-one acres, and capable of holding 150,000,000 gallons of water. The new reservoir lies to the north of the old, and is separated from it by a transverse road. It is a massive structure of granite, irregular in form, and extends almost entirely across the park. It covers an area of 106 acres, and will hold 1,000,000,000 gallons of water. Thus the two reservoirs take 136 acres from the park. The landscape gardeners have so arranged them that they constitute a very attractive feature of the landscape.

North of the new reservoir is the Upper Park. This has been less improved than the Lower Park, but is naturally very beautiful. A large part of it is taken up with the great ravine formerly known as McGowan’s Pass. It was through this wild glen that the beaten and disheartened fragments of the American army escaped from the city of New York after their disastrous rout at the battle of Long Island. Close by they were rallied in time to make a stand at Harlem Plains. On the hills in the extreme northern part of the park are still to be seen the remains of a series of earthworks, which have been carefully turfed over, and on one of these heights, known as The Bluff, is an old stone structure said to have been used as a block-house or magazine during the war of 1812-15. A small part of the “old Boston Road” is still to be seen in this portion of the park, and in the distance a view is to be obtained of the High Bridge, the Heights of Westchester county, and the Palisades, on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson, while Washington Heights rise boldly to the northward. To the eastward one may see the white sails of the vessels in Long Island Sound, and get a faint glimpse of the town of Flushing, on Long Island, and New Rochelle, on the mainland, while nearer are Hell Gate, the picturesque East and Harlem rivers, with their islands and public buildings, and the lovely little village of Astoria.

The park occupies the centre of the island, from north to south, for a distance of two miles and a half. The cross streets do not extend through it, and all vehicles of a business nature are excluded from the pleasure drives. It was foreseen from the first that it would be necessary to provide means of communication between the eastern and western sides of the island, without compelling wagons and trucks to pass around the upper or lower ends of the enclosure. At the same time it was felt to be desirable to make these roads as private as possible, so that the beauty of the park should not be marred by them, or by the long trains of wagons, carts, and such other vehicles as would pass over them. The genius of the constructing engineers soon settled this difficulty. A system of transverse roads was adopted and carried out. There are four of them, and they cross the park at Sixty-fifth, Seventy-ninth, Eighty-fifth, and Ninety-seventh streets. They are sunken considerably below the general level of the park, and are securely walled in with masonry. Vines, trees, and shrubbery are planted and carefully trained along the edges of these walls, which conceal the roads from view. The visitors, by means of archways or bridges, pass over these roads, catching but a momentary glimpse of them in some places, and in utter ignorance of them in others.

Near the northeastern end of the park is an elevation known as Mount St. Vincent. It is crowned with a large rambling structure principally of wood, to which is attached a fine brick chapel. The building was originally used as a Roman Catholic Seminary for young men. It is now a restaurant, kept by private parties under the control of the Commissioners. The chapel is used as a gallery of sculpture, and contains the models of the works of the sculptor Thomas Crawford. They were presented to the city by his widow in 1860.

Just below this hill is the North Lake, into which flows a stream noted for its beauty.

At the Fifth and Eighth Avenue gates are the stations of the Park Omnibuses. These are controlled by the Commissioners, and transport passengers through the entire park for the sum of twenty-five cents. They are open, and afford every facility for seeing the beauties of the place.

The original cost of the land included within the park was $5,028,884, and up to the close of the year 1869, there had been expended upon it an additional sum of $5,775,387; making the total cost of the park, up to January 1st, 1870, $10,804,271. Since that time it has cost about $1,000,000 additional.

The park is controlled by the Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks. The principal executive officer is the President. The discipline prescribed for the employés is very rigid. A force of special policemen, who may be recognized by their gray uniforms, has been placed on duty in the park, with the same powers and duties as the Metropolitan Police. One of these is always on duty at each gateway, to direct visitors and furnish information, as well as to prevent vehicles from entering the grounds at too rapid a rate. Others of the force are scattered through the grounds at such convenient distances that one of them is always within call. None of the employés are allowed to ask or to receive pay for their services. Their wages are liberal. When an article is found by any of the employés of the park, it is his duty to carry it to the property clerk at the Arsenal, where it can be identified and recovered by the rightful owner.

Improper conduct of all kinds is forbidden, and promptly checked. Visitors are requested not to walk on the grass, except in those places where the word “Common” is posted; not to pick flowers, leaves, or shrubs, or in any way deface the foliage; not to throw stones or other missiles, not to scratch or deface the masonry or carving; and not to harm or feed the birds.

No one is allowed to offer anything for sale within the limits of the enclosure, without a special licence from the Commissioners. There are several hotels, or restaurants, in the grounds. These are conducted in first-class style by persons of responsibility and character. Private closets for men, which may be distinguished by the sign, “For Gentlemen only,” are located at convenient points throughout the park, and cottages for ladies and children are as numerous. These latter are each in charge of a female attendant, whose duty it is to wait upon visitors, and to care for them, in case of sudden illness, until medical aid can be procured.

The establishment of the park has been a great blessing to all classes, but especially to the poor. It places within reach of the latter a great pleasure ground, where they may come and enjoy their holidays, and obtain the fresh air and bodily and mental enjoyment of which they are deprived in their quarters of the city. In mild weather they come here in throngs, with their families, and on Sundays the park is crowded with thousands who formerly passed the day in drunkenness or vice. The Commissioners have no trouble in enforcing their rules. All classes are proud of the park, and all observe the strictest decorum here. No crime or act of lawlessness has ever been committed within the limits of the Central Park since it was thrown open to the public. The popularity of the place is attested by the annual number of visitors. During the year 1870, 3,494,877 pedestrians, 75,511 equestrians, 1,616,935 vehicles, and 234 velocipedes, passed within the park gates. The total number of persons that entered the park during that year, including drivers and the occupants of carriages, was 8,421,427.

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