History Of New York’s Central Park

History Of Central Park

Featured Photo: Ingus Kruklitis / Shutterstock

Stretching across Upper Manhattan from east to west is New York City’s infamous Central Park. As the fifth-largest park located in the city, this urban gem takes up 843 acres of space and has become the most visited park throughout the United States of America. When visitors take it upon themselves to make the most out of their New York City experience as tourists, Central Park almost always fits in the itinerary. The 1853 approval to develop a 778-acre park as a means to beautify Manhattan Island’s upper region featured landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as the designing team behind the “Greensward Plan.” This proposal won over the design competition to earn the right to bring the concept of the park to reality, starting in 1857.

Getting Started

The fast growth of New York City saw its population quadruple between 1821 and 1855, especially on Manhattan Island. The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 looked into outlining Manhattan’s street grid and open space designs but did not consider Central Park at that time. This changed in 1840 with the demand of New York City’s elite looking for the construction of a large park. On May 5, 1851, the New York City Common Council was addressed by the city’s mayor at the time, Ambrose Kingsland. The proposal of Central Park officially began that would ultimately lead to Upper Manhattan’s most prized landscape. After much debate on how to go about the development of this park, it was finally decided in 1853 to locate it around the geographical location of Croton Aqueduct’s thirty-five-acre reservoir. The Central Park Act was passed that same year by the New York State Legislature to get this project underway.

As soon as the team of Olmsted and Vaux were given the green light to begin the construction of their Greensward Plan park project, the first step was to seize and raze Seneca Village and its existing structures. This was a settlement that had a mostly black community, as well as Irish, that had been there since 1825. Upon the agreement to develop the park, 1855 marked the year these people were relocated in order to accommodate the need for Central Park’s development. Up to this point, what is known as Central Park now served as a collection of villages that was also the home of Mount St. Vincent’s Academy. Using the eminent domain edict, approximately 1,600 residents were forced to relocate.

In 1858, the first phase of New York’s Central Park was opened to the public. In 1859, additional land was purchased along the park’s north, expanding its overall size from 778 acres to 843 acres. As of 1876, Central Park was finally completed in all its magnificence as Manhattan Island’s scenic crown jewel. What started out as a $1.7 million dollar project swelled to $7.39 million as the teams assigned to complete the task met with the challenges of rocky and swampy terrain.

As over five million cubic feet worth of soil and rock were removed, in their place was topsoil sent in from Long Island and New Jersey. This was necessary in order to establish fertile soil for implanted fauna and flora to flourish. This lengthy project had over twenty thousand people work together to transport the dream of Central Park into a reality. While this project was underway, five laborers died from work-related incidents. As tragic as this sounds, the death toll was remarkably low given fatality rates are usually considerably higher when taking on a project of such magnitude.

There were also creative and political challenges that erupted, seeing Olmsted resigning from his position as one of the park’s primary designers in 1862 when neither he nor the Chief Commissioner of Central Park’s Andrew Haswell Green could reach an agreement. As a result, Green took over from Olmsted. The following year, Vaux also resigned as he didn’t care for Green’s administrative pressure either.

As superintendent, Green implemented a micromanagement system that oversaw even the smallest details as a means to carefully monitor and reduce the costs that were involved in building the park. He also accelerated the construction process, even continuing as planned despite the American Civil War beginning in 1861. As ambitious as Green was to complete Central Park, he and his team were careful to preserve McGowan’s Pass for its historical connection to the Revolutionary War and the McGowan Family’s tavern establishment they had there from 1756 until the 1840s. McGowan’s Pass has since become incorporated into the park as part of the extension that was purchased in 1959.

Moving Forward

Before the completion of Central Park, it had already gained a considerable amount of popularity that saw visitors from all social classes begin to visit the first phase of the park once it opened in 1858. By 1865, Olmsted and Vaux were both rehired, both of them overseeing the erection of the Children’s District, the Ballplayers House, the Dairy, Belvedere Castle, and Harlem Meer. They also oversaw the structures on Conservatory Water and the Ramble and Lake.

Traversed with a system of roads and walkways, accessing Central Park by public transportation is easy enough, as are the recreational ride opportunities such as horse-drawn carriages, as well as bicycles. As an ideal location to cater to concerts, special events, and sporting activities, Central Park has earned an impressive history as one of New York City’s finest destinations to simply enjoy yourself in a scenic setting that still remains as breathtaking today as it did when it was first constructed.

As of April 1870, the Central Park Commission was briefly run by Tammany Hall’s William M. Tweed, who used his political might to revamp the park’s commission membership. It was downsized from eleven members to five. Green was still on board, along with four Tammany-connected members. It was also in 1870 that both Olmsted and Vaux resigned again before returning in 1871 after Tammany’s Tweed embezzlement scandal was publicly revealed. The Central Park Commission appointed new members that would take over the park’s administrative and structural concerns. Although the partnership between Olmsted and Vaux dissolved as of 1872, the construction of Central Park continued until 1876.

Falling Behind

By 1879, the expenses to keep Central Park maintained reached a nadir as taxpayers demanded budget cuts that were also met with neglect by Tammany’s administration. With the increased visitor count that took place over the years, by the time the 1890s rolled in the park met with several challenges. When the New York City Subway opened up in 1904, the ability to reach Broadway theater and Coney Island took away Central Park as New York City’s dominant destination for leisurely and recreational activity.

Before the turn of the twentieth century, architect Samuel Parsons took over as Central Park’s superintendent and was responsible for restoring the nurseries and trees of the park in 1886. However, 1911 saw the Democratic Party, mostly run by affiliates associated with Tammany, see to it Parsons was removed as their indifference towards Central Park couldn’t care less that it was in a state of decline. This resulted in several groups forming up that advocated on behalf of the park’s deteriorating condition. Many of them, including the city’s Parks and Playground Association, operated under the Parks Conservation Association before the Central Park Association was created in 1926.

The Park Association of New York City came to be in 1928 when the Central Park Association and the Parks and Playgrounds Association merged. It was also in 1926 philanthropist August Heckscher had a playground named after him after he donated play equipment. The Heckscher Playground became a popular destination among financially challenged immigrant families. In 1927, Herman W. Merkel was assigned to improve upon Central Park’s current state, which was riddled with crime and deterioration that turned the once prestigious park into a nightmare. Through Merkel, Central Park underwent a restoration project that also saw eight additional playgrounds added to it. There were also underground irrigation pipes installed as one of many modifications that were suggested to improve upon the park’s ability to keep up with the routine maintenance of plantlife care.

The Great Change

Additional modifications and upgrades were also suggested to improve upon the esthetics of Central Park but when the Great Depression gripped the American nation, New York City was not immune to the financially crippling effects that came from it as the apathetic Tammany-era Democrats failed to better protect the citizens of New York City, including Manhattan Island. When Republican Fiorello La Guardia became the new mayor of New York City in 1934, one of the first acts he did was get rid of the puppet show that was led by Tammany, using his newly appointed Central Park commissioner, Robert Moses, to do it.

It was the Tammany legislation responsible for leaving Central Park in such disarray with weeds, dust patches, decaying fauna, and vandalism. With the new legislation in place, the restoration needed to bring Central Park back to its former glory began. This included a rat extermination program to clean out the Central Park Zoo, as well as remove the shantytown known as Hoover Valley which was located at the north end of Turtle Pond. Sheep’s Meadow was also removed to make way for the Tavern on the Green restaurant. It was also during that time that the Wollman Rink was installed, as well as twenty-one playgrounds. All of these projects to improve upon the state of Central Park came from the New Deals Program and as donations from the public.

During the 1960s, Central Park became the hub of political and social activity as activists and lobbyists used the popular location as a means to address a captivated audience. This was also during a time when New York City was not able to find a strong replacement for Moses so as a result, the state of Central Park began to decline again. However, there were great artistic additions that still make Central Park a favorite venue for entertainment. Shakespeare in the Park became a permanent fixture in the Delacorte Theater. Summers in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow and Great Lawn saw the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera make their way as favorite forms of entertainment.

Central Park History

Photo: S.Borisov / Shutterstock

This was also the era that brought forth Lasker Rink as Central Park’s skating rink in the winter and as a pool during the summer. Unfortunately, all this wasn’t enough during the 1970s as Central Park once again fell victim to neglect. In 1973, there was a report that cited the park was suffering from erosion, tree decay, and vandalism. The Central Park Community Fund was created based on the recommendation from a professor from Columbia University that would see 1979’s Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis appoint Elizabeth Barlow, the executive director of the Central Park Task Force, as Office of Central Park Administrator.


It would be through Barlow the first of Central Park’s visitor structure centers after the Dairy was restored and reopened to the public in 1979. In 1980, the Sheep Meadow reopened after it was restored to its former glory. Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the USS Maine National Monument, and the Bow Bridge were also restored. What started out as short-term renovation projects became long-term in 1981 after Davis and Barlow announced a ten-year management and restoration plan that saw a fiscal budget of one hundred million dollars. In 1983, the neglected Belvedere Castle was restored and reopened while the Central Park Zoo shut down in order for it to undergo a full reconstruction program. It was also in 1983 that Central Park agreed to cancel any large gathering venues as a means to reduce as many complications as possible while performing much-needed maintenance to the park’s entire infrastructure.

Belvedere Castle

Photo: Alon Adika / Shutterstock

As of 1985, a fifteen-year restoration plan was mapped out that saw landmarks restored, as well as a 1987 involvement of Donald Trump renovating Wollman Rink. It would be in 1988 the Central Park Zoo reopened after undergoing a four-year renovation project that cost thirty-five million dollars. In 1993, a campaign costing over fifty million dollars saw the restoration of bridle trails, Central Park Mall, Harlem Meer, and the North Woods. There was also an overhaul of the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond that finally finished in 1997. It was also in 1993 that the Upper Reservoir was decommissioned as part of the city’s water supply system. It was renamed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir a year later.

Fifty years after Robert Moses cleaned up Central Park, the Central Park Conservancy was created as a means to continue to keep up with the maintenance needs of New York City’s most beloved urban park. This also included installing upgrades as technological advancements gave an opportunity to either refurbish or redo existing designs that have decayed over the stretch of time. The Conservancy serves as a non-profit organization to raise the funds needed in order to maintain the park’s annual needs.

Central Park Today

Now owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Central Park Conservancy has managed New York’s Central Park since 1998. Registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1963, this urban park became a roadmap for other urban parks around the world as they strove to achieve at least something as close to it as possible. In 1974, it became a New York City scenic landmark. The actual demographics of Central Park have it adjacent to the neighborhoods of Harlem to its north, Midtown Manhattan to its south, as well as the Upper West Side and Upper East Side. This is a two-and-a-half-mile-long park from north to south and half a mile wide from east to west. Within the park are twenty-one designated playgrounds for children.

As a means of crime control, Central Park has its own precinct that is patrolled by the New York City Police Department. Due to the size and popularity of this urban park, there is also the need to ensure the safety of all park visitors is kept as optimal as possible so that it can remain as a place for all to enjoy. The police also monitor any illegal activity, as well as vandalism, from various individuals and gangs that pose security risks to the city and the public. In addition to this policing service, there is also the Central Park Medical Unit that operates within the park. As volunteers, medical emergencies are provided for those in need, speeding up the response time that would otherwise take at least half an hour for the city’s emergency medical services to arrive.

Going into the twenty-first century, renovations, restorations, and structural maintenance of Central Park continue. The Central Park Conservancy also restored Bethesda Arcade in 2007, then the Ramble and Lake in 2012. Bank Rock Bridge and the Gill were also restored to their former glory, as was the East Meadow. After a New York City Council proposal in 2014, Central Park began to close off the use of vehicular traffic from the park’s drives. It was established closing off several drives leading into the park would not adversely affect traffic flow in the area but also protect Central Park’s environmental quality as New York City’s favorite recreational center for activity. The Central Park Conservancy has been vigilant in keeping up with renovations and restorations so that the public can enjoy all the magnificent main attractions and side features Central Park has to offer for years to come.


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