The Dene Shelter (Central Park Maintenance)

Dene Shelter, Central Park, New York (near 65th St.). Photo copyright © 2014 Dianne L. Durante

The rustic Dene Shelter, sitting high on a rocky outcrop, is a great place to enjoy a splendid view and think about how many, many things could go wrong in the man-made natural wonder that is Central Park.

After Egbert Ludovicus Viele did his detailed survey of the park in 1856, his first priority was to install mile after mile of drains to dry up the site’s pestilential swamps. (A different engineer took over after Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward Plan was instituted, with a different drainage system.)

Viele’s drainage plan, 1856. Image: NYC Municipal Archives.
Drainage system for Central Park’s pedestrian walks, from the annual report of the Board of Commissioners for 1865.

It was easier to get funds for the construction of Central Park than for its maintenance. The roots of the park’s tens of thousands of plants soon cracked open the drains. The ponds and lakes that had been painstakingly built according to the Greensward Plan turned stagnant, and became … pestilential swamps. One of the occupational hazards of the Central Park police in the 1870s was malaria.

Flourishing fauna

The Park’s plants were not programmed to grow according to the Greensward Plan. The rows of elms along the Mall grew into an arched canopy: a beautiful effect.

Elms on the Mall, 1864, 1910, and 2013. Images: Perkins, Central Park; Singleton, Children’s City; Dianne L. Durante, 2013

The trees in the Ramble grew just as quickly, soon obscuring the vista from the Mall to the Belvedere that Olmsted and Vaux had so carefully designed.

Bethesda Terrace in 1881, with view north to the Belvedere. Image: James D. McCabe, New York by Sunlight and Gaslight, 1881.
Ramble from Bethesda Terrace, 2014: nary a Belvedere in sight. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

By the 1880s, the park superintendent warned the Board of Commissioners that underbrush was choking the trees at the north end of the Park, and weeds and moss were taking over the meadows. Rustic-style bridges, benches, and shelters such as this one needed constant maintenance, and often didn’t get it.

Rustic bridge in the Ramble, 1859. Third Annual report of the Board of Commissioners, published 1860.

The Park in the 20th Century

By the 1920s, many New Yorkers could jaunt out to the countryside in their Model Ts. Central Park began to be regarded not as a pastoral retreat, but as a place for vigorous exercise. Unfortunately, the lawns had been designed to be gazed upon, not pressed under foot, under sneakers, or under cleats.

“Keep off the grass” cartoon, 1869. Image: Library of Congress
Tennis courts ca. 1904, probably on the Sheep Meadow. Image: Library of Congress
Public schools field day in Sheep Meadow, 1913. Image: Annual report of the Board of Commissioners.

During the Great Depression and the post-war middle-class exodus to the suburbs, Central Park became ever more derelict and dangerous. By 1964, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sneered that it was a “hoodlum haven.”

Belvedere Castle in the 1970s. Image courtesy Central Park Conservancy.

The irrepressible Thomas Hoving, who was park commissioner from 1966 to 1967, tried to attract visitors to “Central Park a-Go Go” and other events with mass appeal.

Build Your Own Castle flyer, 1966. From a press release.

Hoving’s successor treated vandalism as the public’s way of correcting errors in the original design. Litter, broken glass, and graffiti were everywhere. The Angel of the Waters gazed down benignly on guitar playing, pot smoking, and sex. Law and order, cleanliness and safety: soooo bourgeois.

Crowd in Sheep Meadow, 1969. Image:

The renaissance of Central Park began with the creation in 1980 of the Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy, a private organization, manages the park for the city and provides over 75% of its annual budget.

Great Lawn before and after the Central Park Conservancy. Images courtesy Central Park Conservancy

Due largely to the Conservancy’s efforts, Central Park is in a state that Olmsted and Vaux might almost recognize – from the Pond to the Blockhouse, and everywhere in between. If you love the Park, why not say “thanks” with a donation?


  • Disclaimer: I admire the work of the Central Park Conservancy, but I’m not affiliated with it.
  • For more posts on the Park, click on the “Central Park” tag in the Obsessions cloud at lower right. See also this page, on which I’m slowing putting all the early images of the Park that I’ve found in five (and counting) years of digital and print searches.
  • For more on Central Park in the nineteenth century, see my book Central Park: The Early Years (details here).
  • This post is adapted from a forthcoming Guides Who Know app.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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