Blockhouse, Central Park

Manhattan has always been a target, first for its harbor and rivers, then as a commercial center. The British sailed in to grab it from the Dutch. The Dutch briefly grabbed it back. In 1776, the British grabbed it from the rebellious Americans. (See Hamilton post 13.) So when the War of 1812 began a generation after the Revolution, Americans hastened to build defenses around New York Harbor, in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Governors Island, Bedloe’s Island, and Ellis Island.

Castle Williams on Governors Island, completed in 1811. Image: New York Public Library

But in August 1814, those devious Brits sent a fleet to … Connecticut. New Yorkers panicked. What if the British attacked from Long Island Sound? DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York, said he would rather “die in a ditch than tamely and cowardly surrender this delightful city.” New Yorkers hastily constructed three fortified lookout posts on the heights of Manhattan. The last one standing is the Blockhouse in Central Park. On this map, it’s just above Ft. Fish: a square with a “1” beside it.

Manhattan fortifications in the War of 1812. Image: Bowery Boys

The Blockhouse wasn’t within the original Central Park, which was symmetrically arranged around the receiving reservoir of that modern marvel, the Croton Aqueduct. With boots on the ground, though, it made sense to add the “precipitous and wildly picturesque heights” from 106th to 110th Streets. They offered wonderful, sweeping views. Besides, the city was responsible for cutting streets according to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, and hacking the grid through those rocky outcrops would have been labor- and cost-intensive.

Commissioners’ Plan of Manhattan, 1811 (redrawn). Image: Wikipedia

Viele topographical map, 1865. The bluff on which the Blockhouse sits ends below the “ER” in “North River.” Image: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Blockhouse and view of Harlem. Image: Cook, Description of the New York Central Park, 1869.

Blockhouse on its bluff, from a 1901 guidebook. Image: InternetArchive

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux obligingly integrated the “Extension” into the Greensward plan, adding features such as the Harlem Meer, the Loch, the Ravine, and another loop in the park’s drive. The addition of trailing vines and shrubbery transformed the 50-year-old blockhouse into a picturesque ruin.

Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, Greensward Plan, 1858. As shown in the New York Times, 5/1/1858

1859 map of Central Park; the Extension is to the right of the dotted line. Image: New York Public Library Digital Collections

Vine-covered Blockhouse in 1890. Image: Museum of the City of New York

But for some, the Blockhouse never lost its military associations. Veterans of the War of 1812 requested permission to erect a liberty pole at the Blockhouse on three holidays that celebrated victories over the British. July 4th is obvious. November 25th is the day the British evacuated New York City after the end of the Revolutionary War. (See this post on ForgottenDelights.com.)

Washington rides down Broadway after the British embark. Image: Library of Congress

And January 8th … Why January 8th? In early 1815, “Old Hickory” whupped the British at New Orleans. That kept the city and the recently purchased Louisiana Territory in American hands.

Edward Percy Moran, The Battle of New Orleans, 1910. That’s Andrew Jackson on the parapet. Image: Wikipedia

In the whole war of 1812, that was America’s greatest victory on land. Ironically, it was fought two weeks after treaty of Ghent was signed (December 24, 1814) – but five weeks before the news reached distant Louisiana.

The Blockhouse in what is now Central Park was finished two days before the treaty was signed. It was never used during a war.

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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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