clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How New York's Central Park Escaped Dozens of Misguided 'Improvements'

New, 3 comments
Suze Myers

One of the first visitors to Central Park was famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who mistakenly thought he was seeing untouched Manhattan. Park architect Calvert Vaux recalled Greeley remarking that "they have let it alone a good deal more than I thought they would."

Greeley wasn't alone in his misapprehension. To this day, the park is so cleverly designed that some people don't realize it's an entirely built environment. This illusion of nature is the result not just of the vision of Vaux and his partner, Frederick Law Olmsted, but also due to the park's stewardship—and the public's willingness to speak out—over succeeding generations. Since Central Park's inception, there have been dozens of "proposed mutilations, intrusions and perversions" (to borrow a phrase from the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society) that would have made the park unrecognizable. Some proposals were mundane (like a store); some ridiculous (an airport); and some—such as Tavern on the Green—we don't even recognize as alterations any more.

In their 1967 book Central Park: A History and a Guide, Henry Hope Reed and Sophia Duckworth published a map of thirty-three "'Improvements' Suggested for Central Park since 1900," which included everything from a 1903 exposition building to a World War I display of trench warfare to ceding land from 106th to110th Streets for a public housing project. But Reed and Duckworth's map of "improvements" (the word appears in scare quotes in almost every instance) only scratched the surface.

Even before Reed and Duckworth made their map, a 1918 New York Times article titled "If 'Improvement' Plans Had Gobbled Central Park" listed twenty-two incursions, with the proviso that "many other proposed grabs are not shown in the picture, for lack of room." Scanning through the Central Park Commission's annual reports as well as those of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, it becomes clear that there has rarely been a time when someone in New York hasn't had a an ill-conceived idea for making Central Park a better place.

Where various of these schemes could have gone in Central Park. Illustrations by Suze Myers.

The park's first radical makeover came in 1870, the result of an overhaul of city government by the notoriously corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed. For years, Tweed had been advocating that New York be given greater autonomy in its own affairs, or what is known as "home rule." Too many decisions, large and small, required the approval of the state legislature. Tweed's advocacy, however, was for all the wrong reasons—he and his cronies saw Albany as interfering with their attempts to skim money from the city's treasury.

In April 1870, the legislature approved Tweed's new home rule charter, and the so-called Tweed Ring was handed the reigns to Central Park, which up to that point had been a state park. Tweed installed his friend Peter B. Sweeny on the board of commissioners and Sweeny immediately began remaking the park: straighter paths, shorter trees, and deluxe new buildings. Vaux and Olmsted resigned in protest, which left Vaux's assistant architect, Jacob Wrey Mould, in charge of bringing Tweed and Sweeny's vision to fruition.

While projects large and small—like the overwrought horse-watering trough on Cherry Hill—were completed during the Tweed era, the most significant building was a new sheepfold for the flock that roamed on Sheep Meadow. Tweed and Sweeny envisioned a barn that would not only "accommodate two hundred sheep, but also a sheep museum featuring exhibits on animal husbandry, wool samples, and framed portraits of the sheep." Of course, Tweed and Sweeny also had visions of cash. The Ring's main method of embezzlement was to skim fifteen percent off the top of costs of construction projects, and since Mould's sheepfold would be both enormous and elaborate, it was going to cost the city over $70,000 (+/- $1.3 million today).

Sheep in Central Park. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

When it was completed, The New York Times bemoaned the "hideous structure, intended for a 'sheepfold'" that was both "totally unfit for the purpose for which it had been built" and "inconvenient of access." In another editorial, they rather harshly likened Mould's design to "the outer walls of a jail." But from 1871 until in 1934, a sheepfold it remained (sans museum and portraits) until Central Park commissioner Robert Moses evicted the flock and converted the space into Tavern on the Green, a beloved (at least with tourists) destination, and at one time America's highest-grossing restaurant. While the food has recently gone downhill, the idea that Tavern on the Green is an architectural "mutilation" of the park wouldn't get much traction today.

The Tweed Ring collapsed in 1871, and today many have forgotten that Tweed was also responsible for securing both the location and the funding for the second major construction project in the park in the 1870s: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Built by Vaux and Mould between 1877 and 1880, the museum originally had a much smaller footprint (roughly today's medieval galleries), but it was still a major encroachment in a park that was to have had "no buildings in it save those absolutely essential for actual physical comfort." However, contemporary criticism of the museum was muted, perhaps because the building had been designed by the park's original architect or perhaps because too many powerful New Yorkers were behind the project. The exception came from the museum's president, who thought Vaux and Mould's design was "a mistake." That mistake became the last major building in the park for nearly a century.

This certainly wasn't for lack of trying. In its annual report from 1911 (that's the "mutilations, intrusions and perversions" issue), the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society noted that even before Vaux and Olmsted had won the contest to design the park, the city's Board of Alderman was already attempting to alter it. The first proposal, in 1854, was to narrow the park by 400 feet on each side. When this was voted down, the city instead passed a measure to relocate the southern border of the park up to 72nd Street and narrow the remainder. Had Mayor Fernando Wood not vetoed the law, we might have a park today with a southern edge at Bethesda Terrace.

What if Central Park included a steamship?

The preservation society also enumerated many "additional propositions [that] had been advanced and discountenanced" before 1872. These included the installation of permanent circus tents; a fully-rigged ship and/or steamship (presumably on the reservoir); a graveyard for distinguished New Yorkers; a "People's Cathedral"; and a centrally located building for the "continuous exhibition of merchandise for sale in the city."

It's hard to pin down how serious these proposals were. Searching Central Park's annual reports prior to 1872 reveals no mentions of circus tents or fully-rigged ships. The source for most of the items on the preservation society's list was an 1872 letter to the park's president, Henry G. Stebbins, from Vaux and Olmsted, newly restored to power after Tweed and Sweeny's ouster. In it, they begged Stebbins to let the park remain bucolic and not a repository for half-baked ideas. Did any of these outlandish proposals really make it across Vaux and Olmsted's desks? Or was the list merely their hyperbolic attempt to demonstrate just how badly things could go if they were not in charge? After all, while they'd been gone, an obnoxious sheepfold had been erected. Could circus tents be far behind?

What if Central Park had a gift shop on Bethesda Terrace?

In the 1880s, with Vaux and Olmsted's tenure permanently ended, more proposals streamed in. Some were dismissed as too disruptive; for example, in order to stave off the use of the park for the upcoming World's Fair, the State Senate passed a law in 1881 "prohibiting the use of Central Park for public fairs." Yet a decade later, in 1892, that same legislature—in defiance of "home rule"—passed a law authorizing the building of a racetrack in the lower quadrant of the park. The measure was strongly supported by upstate legislators whose districts just happened to be the breeding ground for thoroughbreds. Many wealthy New Yorkers, who saw the park as the perfect place for a "speedway," also approved of the proposal, and the measure passed despite the indignation of the Central Park commission.

The racetrack debate brought to the forefront a simmering class conflict: Despite its nickname as the "people's park," there had been tensions in Central Park from the beginning. Early park ordinances, for example, limited the park's use on Sundays, the only day most laborers had off. Olmsted and Vaux's wide "Drive" (today's ring road) encouraged the use of private carriages in a city where only the wealthiest five percent of the population owned a private vehicle. To the city's elite—who, by 1892, had moved to Fifth Avenue facing the park—the park was supposed to be a convenient pleasure ground. What would it matter if the "people" lost a few acres of park for the racetrack?

A World illustration of the "desecration" of Central Park with a racetrack. May 10, 1892.

No one was prepared for the blowback. Joseph Pulitzer's World helped spur protests (and then took credit for them), and just 39 days after its passage, the speedway measure was repealed. The World crowed about "one of the most significant triumphs of public opinion ever known in this city." That might have been overstating things, but it was a clear signal that people didn't like the idea of the park being altered for the benefit of the few.

That being said, not all incursions were as easy to repel or so vehemently opposed. In 1911, $150,000 was allocated for a playground for "noisy sports" to be built in the vicinity of the North Meadow, a part of the city's ongoing battle to provide play areas for children in a city where many people still felt children should be seen and not heard. The Citizens' Union sent an angry letter to park commissioner Charles B. Stover warning him against the "popularization" of Central Park. As the Times reported, the Citizens' Union told Stover that "city authorities have no moral right and probably no legal right to convert a public park...into a nuisance to the very persons interested." They accused "overzealous advocates" of forgetting the importance of "green and beautiful landscape and good resting places."

These complaints did not stop the park's commissioners from trying to find ways to make the space more useful. Instead of a noisy sports field, tennis courts went up in the northern section of the park in 1913, which helped alleviate the crowding at 38 courts that had already been built on Sheep Meadow. (There's no mention of how the sheep—still two decades from banishment—handled that.) As Hope and Duckworth mention in Central Park: A History and a Guide, an ongoing problem in the twentieth century was the fact that "park use and 'active recreation'" had become synonymous. To the authors, this sad change was precipitated by the change in the use of the word park. Originally, the word had simply meant landscape; now there were "amusement parks" and "ball parks" that muddied the terminology:

Had [Central Park] been called, for example, "The New York Public Garden" there would have been no desecration. The sheep would still be on the Sheep Meadow and the Swanboats on the pond…. The word "garden," like the flaming sword at the Garden of Eden, might have protected the greensward.

A captured German U-Boat (sent to the United States by the British) is displayed in Central Park in 1917 to raise money for Liberty Bonds.

When The New York Times published its illustration of "'improvement' plans" in 1918, perhaps the oddest suggestion was a "site for trenches, which city authorities say are necessary for the Liberty Loan campaign."

America had entered World War I in April 1917, and by the spring of 1918, over one million United States troops had been sent to France. As part of the government's ongoing campaign to raise money for the war effort, the Treasury Department sold Liberty Bonds. An Emergency Loan Act in April 1917 authorized the issuance of $5 billion in bonds, followed by an additional $3 billion in October. To help patriotic Americans better visualize what their bond investment was paying for, the Liberty Loan committee began to think creatively. In October 1917, a captured German U-Boat was hauled to the park and set up in Sheep Meadow. Then, in March 1918, the committee announced grand plans for the North Meadow to show the horrors American boys were experiencing in Europe, including "barbed wire entanglements, dugouts, communication trenches, a battery of 75s, telephone post, first aid post, field kitchen, wrecked airplanes, shell holes and one camouflaged big gun." Evidently there was also to be at least some simulated warfare with "discharge of fireworks."

The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society immediately launched into a campaign to stop construction. Not only did they object to the noise and the inevitable crowds, but they made the valid point that the park was basically just being used as a big advertisement. This time it was for Liberty Bonds, but what was to stop the next pitchman from using the park as a way to push a product? At first, it seemed like the Liberty Loan committee would steamroll through any opposition, but then they discovered that the North Meadow wasn't well suited for trench building. Sheep Meadow was suggested as an alternative, but its irrigation system (not to mention the tennis courts and sheep) made it an impossibility, too. What finally killed the project, however, was the lack of available troops. It turns out that authentic trenches could only be dug by authentic soldiers, and they were too busy fighting the war to come to New York and participate in a PR stunt.

The 1920s and 1930s brought more off-the-wall ideas: a $100,000 statue of Buddha, radio communication towers, and even a new avenue down the center of the park to relieve traffic congestion. Perhaps the most pressing issue was what to do with the remnants of the city's old receiving reservoir, which had been knocked down in 1931. As park historian Sara Cedar Miller notes in Central Park, An American Masterpiece:

By the 1910s New Yorkers already envisioned the "vacant" space as an opportunity for modernization. Airplane landing ports, radio towers, sports arenas, an opera house, underground parking garages, and even a mausoleum for the storage of motion pictures (proposed by William Fox, founder of Twentieth Century-Fox)…. In the end, what the area became instead was a shanty town filled with homeless New Yorkers. To evict the squatters, Robert Moses suggested that the old reservoir be filled as a "Great Lawn for Play." Knowing Moses's love of cars, it's surprising he didn't jump on the parking garage idea, but the Great Lawn it remains to this day.

After World War II, Moses's push to make the park more egalitarian resulted in the first new buildings in the park in decades. New playgrounds popped up around the park's perimeter. A portion of the Pond was filled in 1949 for Wollman Rink; Lasker Rink and Pool followed in 1966. In 1962, theater impresario Joseph Papp constructed the Delacorte Theater for his free performances of Shakespeare, even though Moses objected and thought the whole thing was a Communist plot. But an equal number of structures were also vetoed, including a massive outdoor cafe in the southeast corner of the park to be funded by A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford and designed by Edward Durrell Stone (Stone also designed Hartford's self-financed art museum on Columbus Circle which was converted into the Museum of Arts and Design.)

Approved by the city in 1960, the two-story modernist building would have featured sheer glass walls and terraces overlooking the Pond. Despite objections from numerous groups such as the Municipal Arts Society, the city pushed forward with the plan until a lawsuit in 1963 brought by nearby Tiffany & Co (which feared it would "cheapen" the neighborhood) brought development to a halt. John Lindsay, campaigning for mayor in 1965, threw his weight behind establishing a cafe at Bethesda Terrace instead, and once he was elected, the Hartford cafe was scrapped.

After the opening of Lasker Rink, new construction came to a halt again. Reed and Duckworth's map shows the area from 106th to 110th street filled by a massive public housing project, but this may have been fear-mongering on their part; there is no evidence that anyone seriously proposed anything this radical.

In fact, the most radical proposal of all time wasn't about building in the park at all—it was about tearing the park down and starting from scratch.

In 1904, architect Ernest Flagg—today best known for the demolished Singer Tower on lower Broadway—wrote an essay for Scribner's magazine in which he proposed selling off Central Park west of Seventh Avenue and east of Sixth Avenue and using to proceeds to acquire "all the land lying between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, from Christopher Street to the Harlem River." In doing so, "the city would then have a strip for a park [a] thousand feet wide and more than ten miles long, lying right on the central axis of the city, where it would do the most good to the greatest number of inhabitants. Here could be constructed a thoroughfare worthy of the metropolis of the new world."

Flagg's argument was based on two assumptions: First, having a sprawling, bucolic park might have been fine in the 19th century, but times had changed, and it was outmoded in a city of skyscrapers. Second, the park was just inconvenient. Why not have Central Park actually be within a few minutes walk of most New Yorkers and not stuck way up north of 59th Street?

Flagg's idea never made if off the pages of Scribner's, but the idea that New Yorkers should live in proximity to open space has been a goal for over a century. The city is currently working on a plan to have 85 percent of New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk from a park by the year 2030. Let's just hope that for the millions of people who find respite in Central Park, its current stewards, the Central Park Conservancy, ignore any modern-day Ernest Flaggs, advertising hucksters, or speedway aficionados and leave the park alone.

· Central Park coverage [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]