Sheep Meadow and Tavern on the Green, Central Park

Sheep Meadow and Tavern on the Green, Central Park

Olmsted and Vaux slated the area in the southwest corner of Central Park for one of the required features of the Central Park competition: a military practice ground.

Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, Greensward Plan, 1858. As shown in the New York Times, 5/1/1858. North is to the right. The Parade Ground is near the upper left.

But plans change. To keep the pastoral mood of the Greensward Plan, the rough terrain was instead blasted, filled, and fertilized into a gently rolling meadow.

View of Central Park in 1860. North is up. The Sheep Meadow is on the west side, south of the Lake. Image: Library of Congress

Two hundred sheep kept the meadow’s grass cropped. Visitors didn’t have to worry about stepping on sheep pats … because visitors were not supposed to venture onto the lawns. Commissioner Andrew Haswell Green decreed, “The blades of grass that united, make up a lawn, can be enjoyed without pressing them underfoot.”

Sheep in the Meadow. Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park, 1868.
Shepherd in Central Park. Image: Clarence Cook, A Description of the New York Central Park,  1869
Cartoon from 1869: “The Central Park, a delightful resort for toil-worn New Yorkers.” Image: Library of Congress

The Tweed Years

The hard-working sheep lived in unobtrusive sheds until 1870, when Boss Tweed took control of the Park. Tweed and his friends liked building things. Construction gave a lot of scope for inflated bills and kickbacks. Tweed’s cronies on the Board of Commissioners ordered Jacob Wrey Mould to design a permanent home for sheep and shepherd near West 67th Street.

Sheepfold ca. 1870. Image: Wikipedia

When Tweed and company were expelled from office in late 1871, the park’s engineer reported that the very expensive new building was damp, lightless, and unventilated: wholly unsuitable as a home for sheep. Commissioner Green suggested turning it into an aquarium. Olmsted lobbied for razing it: it interrupted a pastoral vista. But the sheep continued to live there until the early 1930s, when their very lives were threatened.

Postcard of sheep in Central Park, ca. 1909-1916. Image: Wikipedia

The Moses Years

With the coming of the Great Depression, homeless men built “Hoovervilles” in Central Park. They caught and roasted the Park’s birds. It was feared that the sheep, too, might become emergency rations.

A “Hooverville” in Central Park, 1930s.

Enter Robert Moses, who was named park commissioner in 1934. Moses hustled the sheep off to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Then, with federal funds, he transformed their former pasture into one of the park’s great open spaces.

The 1960s-1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sheep Meadow was the place to hold large-scale events, from New York Philharmonic concerts to Vietnam protests to “love-ins.”

1969 event at Sheep Meadow. Image: National Building Museum.

But all those feet pressing on the grass had a deleterious effect, as Commissioner Green expected. The meadow turned into a dust bowl. It was only restored in 1980, by the Central Park Conservancy.

Tavern on the Green

As for the Sheepfold, Moses transformed it into a moderately priced restaurant that he called “Tavern on the Green.”

Tavern on the Green in 1934. Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park for 1934.

The private restaurateurs who ran Tavern on the Green for decades turned the patio into the famous Crystal Room and wrapped the trees in lights. For decades, the Tavern was the highest-grossing restaurant in New York – a favorite venue for celebrity spottings and celebration dinners. (Google “Tavern on the Green Crystal Room” for photos.) Today it’s open again, under new management. A few of the details of its days as a sheepfold are still visible.

More

  • For more early images of Central Park, see my pages on images through 1860; 1861-1865; and 1866-1870. For more on Central Park in the nineteenth century, see my book Central Park: The Early Years (details here).
  • This post is based on the forthcoming Guides Who Know app on Central Park.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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