This page includes some of the hundreds of images that I found while researching Central Park: The Early Years, which covers Central Park from the 1850s to 1870s. The Guides Who Know videoguide app on Central Park (in progress) covers the Park from its conception to the present.
I’ll be adding several images a week to this page. You can also find them on my Pinterest board Central Park: The Early Years. A strange array of related images is on my Pinterest board Central Park on a Tangent.
New York, 1811 and onward: the Commissioners’ Plan
North is to the right. The area in black is already built up. The areas in white were slated to be parks. The largest of those, labeled “The Parade,” is approximately where Washington Square Park is.
Croton Reservoir, 1842
Central Park was originally laid out symmetrically around the original Croton Reservoir.
In this map of the Reservoir in the Manhattan street grid, north is to the right: the reservoir ended at 86th Street, where a few pieces of its wall are still visible behind the NYPD precinct. The rock at the left (southwest) is where the Belvedere now stands.
1848: New York
Choosing a site and a plan for the Park
1853: Possible sites for the park
Egbert Ludovicus Viele’s topographical sketch of Central Park, published in the report of the Board of Commissioners for 1857. The Board’s first annual report is here on Google, here on the New York City Parks Department’s site, but neither one includes a scan of this and the following map; I’ve scanned this one from Heckscher’s Creating Central Park.
More on Viele in this post.
Viele’s report to the Board of Commissioners, published in their Annual Report for 1857, included three sweeping views. This one shows the view west from Summit Rock, where the Belvedere now stands (79th Street). The original reservoir is to our right (north).
This is the view from Bellevue Rock looking north. That’s Mount St. Vincent in the center (around 106th St.). I haven’t pinned down the location of Bellevue Rock. Viele’s report says only:
All through the upper portions of the park, superb views may be obtained from prominent points: Vista rock, Summit rock, Mount Prospect, Bellevue rock, and Mount St. Vincent, embrace views of the Hudson and East rivers, the entire city, Long Island, and Long Island Sound … a complete panorama of New York city and its suburbs. Three of these views accompany this report.” (Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners, 1857, p. 42)
The third view in the 1857 Annual Report is from Mt. Prospect. That’s Mt. St. Vincent in the center again, so perhaps Mt. Prospect is the site now called the Great Hill, on the west side of the Park at about 106th Street.
Viele also included a cross-section of the Park from Eighth to Fifth Avenues, which serves as a reminder of how difficult the terrain was.
1857-1858: Competition for a plan for the Park
In 1857, the Board of Commissioners ran this ad seeking plans for Central Park.
1858: The Greensward Plan
The original Greensward Plan is about 10 feet long. When I last queried the Parks Department, it was scheduled to be repaired and made available as a digital file. Until that happens, here’s a photo of it as shown in Heckscher’s Creating Central Park – an excellent book that you should definitely read if you’re interested in the early history of the Park.
The woodcut version published in the New York Times on 5/1/1858 is easier to read.
1858: Another entry in the competition
By March 1858, the deadline for the competition, a total of 35 plans were submitted to the Board of Commissioners. The symmetry of this one is hilarious, given the wildly varied terrain of the site of Central Park.
1858: work completed in the Park
The Second Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park, covering 1858, published in 1859 (here on Google, here on the NYC Parks Dept. site) illustrated the Balcony Bridge, on the west side at 77th Street. I haven’t been able to figure out from reading the Report whether it had been constructed, or this was a proposal. I’m inclined to think it’s a proposal, since the trees and other plantings wouldn’t have been in place in 1858.
1859: Mount Saint Vincent
The Sisters of Charity of Mount Saint Vincent (est. 1846) established their motherhouse at McGowan’s Pass, roughly 103rd Street near Fifth Avenue. In 1859, after the land it sat on was taken for Central Park, the Sisters moved their home to Riverdale. The former convent was used as a restaurant and statuary gallery until it burned down in 1866. The Mount Saint Vincent Hotel (a.k.a. McGowan’s Pass Tavern) was constructed on the site in 1884 (we’ll get to that in a while) and razed in 1917: nothing of the buildings is left now but a few foundation stones. See the excellent article by Daytonian in Manhattan.
The Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners for 1859 (published in 1860) included these north-south cross-sections at Sixth and Seventh Avenues. They give a vivid idea of what those constructing the Park had to deal with.
The construction of the Park was such a major event that prints of it were published. This one shows construction of the Mall (Promenade). The Arsenal is behind the trees toward the left.
Work on the southern end of the Park was well underway by 1859, when the map below was drawn. The Extension (106th to 110th Streets) is marked off with a dotted line: the land wasn’t actually purchased until 1863. A formal garden is sketched in where Conservatory Water now stands, just north of 72nd Street. The large space between the 79th and 86th Street Transverses, and between the old reservoir and Fifth Avenue, is empty. For a while it was home to a herd of deer. In the 1870s, it was allotted to the Metropolitan Museum (more here).
This illustration from the report of the Board of Commissioners for 1859 shows Bethesda Terrace (still under construction in 1862) with a simple fountain on the site of the future Angel of the Waters (dedicated in 1873). The illustration is signed by Jacob Wrey Mould, who was responsible for many of the ornamental details in Central Park.
View of Central Park in 1859, probably looking south from where the Belvedere now stands.
The Third Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park, covering 1859, published in 1860 (here on Google, here on the NYC Parks Dept. site) illustrated more bridges. As with the previous year’s report, these seem to be sketches of the bridges as they’ll eventually look, rather than bridges that had already been constructed. See, for example, the “Description” in the Report on p. 34.
Marble Arch separated pedestrians from vehicles at the south end of the Mall. There’s a great early pic of it in situ here. Under Robert Moses, it was smashed to bits and buried. He surely got things done, did Mr. Moses. More on Marble Arch here.
Dalehead Arch carries the West Drive over the bridle path near the present-day Heckscher Ballfields.
Glade Arch is east of the Ramble.
The cast-iron Pinebank Arch carries pedestrians over the bridle path in the southwest part of the Park.
The cast-iron Bow Bridge carries pedestrians from the area near the Mall across the Lake to the Ramble. Olmsted and Vaux, who designed the Park as a pastoral retreat, wanted visitors to take their time strolling around the Lake in order to reach the Ramble. The Board of Commissioners, however, often favored the Park as a meeting place and center of culture. They demanded a shortcut from the Mall to the Ramble. That’s why we have the elegant, cast-iron Bow Bridge (For more on the bridges added to the Greensward Plan, see Central Park: The Early Years, chapter 5.)
The Green Gap Arch carried the East Drive over the bridle path near 59th Street. The path is now closed off.
Denesmouth Arch carries the 65th Street Transverse above pedestrians, near the (much later) Zoo. According to Forgotten-NY: “It used to feature four ornate castiron lampposts, three of which were stolen; the 4th is in safekeeping somewhere.”
This is a sketch for one of the transverse roads, designed to carry commercial traffic across the Park.
You may think you recognize this one, but you don’t.
Oval Arch, in the southwest corner of the Park, separated pedestrians from the bridle path. Robert Moses demolished it in order to enlarge the playground that became the Heckscher Ballfields.
The Oak Bridge is on the west side of the Ramble, roughly at 77th Street.
Rustic Arch is also on the west side of the Ramble.
A rustic-style bridge in the Ramble.
And the heart of the Park: Bethesda Terrace, viewed from across the Lake. The Terrace was completed in the mid-1860s, but the Angel of the Waters fountain wasn’t dedicated until 1873.
1859: The Park’s first sculpture
By 1855, New York had a thriving population of German immigrants: only Berlin and Vienna had larger German-speaking populations. Among the events in New York celebrating the centennial of Friedrich Schiller’s birth was the dedication of this sculpture. But sculptures didn’t quite fit the pastoral vibe that Olmsted and Vaux were trying to create in the park; they tucked Schiller away in the Ramble. It has only been in its present site, near Beethoven and the Naumburg Bandshell, since 1955.
In their Fourth Annual Report (1860, published in January 1861), the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park set out 4 pages of rules and regulations for the Park that give a vivid image of what was going on in the Park in its early years. For example, so many stray animals were captured and put in the Park’s pound that a minimum price for the sale of horses, dogs, goats, swine, sheep and geese was set. The Board also had strong words to say about fireworks, fortune-telling, perambulators … Who’d have suspected our ancestors of such shenanigans?
The Fourth Annual Report has no illustrations.
The Greywacke Arch is just west of where the Metropolitan Museum now stands.
Plan for a proposed conservatory, which never rose above its foundations, but gave its name to Conservatory Water near 72nd Street. (Didn’t you ever wonder why that pond had that name?)
Proposed wooden music pavilion designed by Jacob Wrey Mould. Erected in 1862, it stood near where the Naumburg Bandshell is today. More pics soon. The last image I could find of it was ca. 1916: it seems to have disintegrated.
The Arbor, at the northeast end of the Mall.
Shaded seat near the Ramble.
A shaded seat southwest of the Ramble.
Rustic frame for Park regulations.
Boat landing on the Lake.
These are from the annual report of the Board of Commissioners (their fifth), reporting on 1861, published 1862.
Transverse Road 2 is at 79th Street. Bridges over the transverses do not have cool names: this one is just “Bridge E”.
Cross-section of a gravel road.
Structure of the carriage roads.
Sketch for part of the wall around Central Park. For more on the walls and gates, search those terms below, and see the three posts beginning here on the naming of the gates.
Part of the mechanism for keeping the Lake clean.
1862: north end of the Park
Glen Span takes the West Drive over a pedestrian pathway at about 102nd Street, east of the Pool and west of the Loch. According to the Central Park Conservancy’s site, the bridge was constructed in 1865; twenty years later, for maintenance reasons, the wooden sections were replaced with stone, making it look quite different today (image here).
Cast-iron bridge by the new Reservoir to carry pedestrians over the bridle path. It’s known as “Bridge No. 28” or the “Gothic Bridge, for the pointed arches used in its design.
1862: in the Ramble
The Ramble, with Bethesda Terrace and the Mall in the center distance. Now that the trees have had 150 years to grow, this view is no longer possible.
In the Ramble: the mouth of the cave near the Rustic Arch. The cave was closed to visitors long ago.
I can’t remember if this Evergreen Walk was actually built or not: sometimes the Board of Commissioners’ annual reports show projects planned rather than finished. “East of the Ramble” could mean anywhere between 72nd and 79th Streets, between Fifth Avenue and the East Drive.
Rustic boat landing on the Lake.
1862: Southern end of the Park
The men most responsible for Central Park, captured by French photographer Victor Prevost.
The figure by the pillar of Bethesda Terrace is either Jacob Wrey Mould or French photographer Victor Prevost.
Construction of Bethesda Terrace.
Plan of Bethesda Terrace and the north end of the Mall. North is to the left.
I assume these dove-cots were in the southern part of the Park.
Sketch of Calvert Vaux’s proposed Casino, a restaurant for ladies northeast of the Mall, where the SummerStage now stands. See my post on Vaux.
1862: Central Park and the Civil War
Union soldiers drilling in front of the Arsenal, before being sent off to the front line. For more on the Arsenal’s history, see this post.
The west side of the Arsenal, ca. 1863-1865. This large open area is now occupied by the zoo.
The walls around Central Park and the gates to allow entry were a subject of much debate. On the names finally chosen, see the three posts starting here.
During the early years of the Park, a fire tower stood where Belvedere Castle was later built. Here it is looming over the tunnel in the 79th Street Transverse.
The Southeast Reservoir Bridge carries pedestrians over the bridle path south of the Reservoir and just west of Fifth Avenue, near 86th Street.
The Winterdale Arch carries the West Drive over the bridle path at about 82nd Street.
Trefoil Arch takes pedestrians under the East Drive near the Boathouse.
Boat landing on the Lake, with the Bow Bridge in the background.
1863: Sculpture and ornament
Tile ornament for the ceiling of the tunnel leading to Bethesda Terrace.
Eagles and Prey, by Christophe Fratin, was created in 1850 and donated to Central Park in 1863. The Commissioners, who were having problems with roving goats eating the plantings, probably found the sculpture grimly amusing: see this post. It still stands just west of the Mall.
The Board of Commissioners’ report for 1864 (published in 1865) reported that the Casino opened in early 1864; so this illustration from the 1863 report is either work in progress or still wishful thinking.
1864: South end of the Park
Concept for the Bethesda Fountain. It wasn’t dedicated until 1873, although the sculpture was completed a few years earlier.
From an early guidebook: Perkins, The Central Park, 1864: gawky adolescent elm trees on the Mall, looking north toward the Arbor. The Naumburg Bandshell now blocks this view.
A bird cage near the Mall – given the style, probably the work of Jacob Wrey Mould.
Drinking fountain – probably also Jacob Wrey Mould’s work.
1864: Lake and Ramble
Two landings on the Lake.
Rustic Arch in the Ramble, which carries one pedestrian path over another.
The Bow Bridge, from an early guidebook: Perkins, The Central Park, 1864.
Playmates Arch, near where the Carousel now stands, carries the East Drive over a footpath.
In 1864, when Central Park was six years old, Louis Prang published a set of chromolithographic cards, each 4.25 x 2.5 inches. They provide a fascinating glimpse not only at what the Park looked like at the time, but at what its highlights were considered to be. I spotted a set of these cards in a catalogue of William Reese Company a few years back; Mr. Reese was kind enough to send me photos.
Alas for you, WordPress doesn’t approve of high-res uploads. These are printed full-page at the end of my Central Park: The Early Years, and also used on the covers.
In the set below, left to right and top to bottom:
- The Island, The Rustic Bridge, Entrance to Cave, The Lake
- Rustic Arbor, The Brook, Moonlight on the Lake, Cascade
- The Arch, The Ramble, Boat Landing, Marble Bridge [sic, for Bow Bridge!] over the Lake
In the set below, left to right and top to bottom:
- Rude Stairway, Abode of the Swans, The Silver Lake, Entrance to Cave from Lake
- The Tower [the firetower, where the Belvedere now stands, seen from the edge of the original Croton Reservoir], Ornamental Bridge, The Drive, The Bridle Path
- The Music Temple [formerly near the north end of the Mall], Sunset on the Lake, Rustic Arbor, A Glimpse of the Lake
In the set below, left to right and top to bottom:
- The Marble Bridge [i.e., Marble Arch, formerly at the south end of the Mall, now gone], Vine Arbor, Bust of Schiller, The Fountain [a figurative sculpture was always intended for Bethesda Terrace, but Angel of the Waters wasn’t dedicated until nine years after the Prang postcards were published]
- On the Ramble, near the Lake; Fancy Bridge No. 14; The Casino [formerly near the northeast end of the Mall, now gone], Bridge at the 7th Avenue Entrance
- The Cove, Rustic Bower, Rustic Arbor, Evening on the Lake
Map of Central Park in 1865. To zoom in, see it on the David Rumsey Map Collection site.
Famed architect Richard Morris Hunt’s plan for updating the Arsenal into a home for the New-York Historical Society.
The famous “Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York” was published in 1865 by Egbert Ludovicus Viele. The “Viele Map” shows Manhattan’s original streams, marshes and coastline, with the city grid superimposed. Those planning new buildings in the 21st century still consult the Viele Map. The blue rectangle roughly in the center is the old reservoir, at the center of Central Park. More on Viele in this post.
One of the lost sculptures of Central Park: Commerce, originally placed near the Merchants’ Gate at the intersection of Broadway, Central Park West, and 59th Street.
Bethesda Terrace viewed from the Ramble, with the placeholder fountain.
The Blockhouse (far left) and view of Harlem Heights. The Extension (106th to 110th Streets) was purchased in part because of the historical associations of the Blockhouse: more on that in a blog post soon. (Search this site to see if I’ve gotten to it yet.) The land for the Extension was purchased in 1863.
The Blockhouse in the 1860s.
The Mineral Water Pavilion at the northwest edge of the Sheep Meadow was in a colorful Moorish style: see the fabulous write-up (with photos) by Daytonian in Manhattan. This drawing appeared in the annual report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park in 1867, while the pavilion was still in the planning stage. The pavilion was razed in 1957, under Robert Moses.
The Dairy opened in Central Park in the late 1860s. This drawing appeared in the annual report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park in 1868, while it was still in the planning stage. On the Dairy and the “Swill Milk Scandal,” see my post on ForgottenDelights.com. For more on the Dairy’s history, see Daytonian in Manhattan.
Tigress and Cubs, by Auguste Cain, was placed on Cherry Hill in 1866. For the peacock joke and Clarence Cook’s thoughts on Tigress, see this post.
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- Central Park: The Early Years covers Central Park from the 1850s to 1870s. Details here, or order on Amazon here.
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