The Central Park, as it was known in the nineteenth century, had only been officially open for two years when Savage Girl arrives at the Delegate mansion in 1875. The scrupulously landscaped plot of 843 acres, designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was set in the middle of the island of Manhattan with the idea that the creeping city would eventually reach far enough uptown to surround it, even though the locus of mid-1800s New York was much farther downtown.
In 1853, when the Park was born by legislative fiat, the land between 59th and 110th Streets was occupied largely by poor squatters who according to one observer “lived off the refuse of the city, which they daily conveyed in small carts, chiefly drawn by dogs.”
German gardeners and Irish pig farmers occupied shanty towns known as Dutch Hill, Dublin Corners, and the Piggery, and a well-established African-American community called Seneca Village stood at what is now Columbus Avenue and 82nd Street — all of whom were displaced when the Park came in.
Among the more arcane activities of denizens was the nineteenth-century trade of “bone boiling,” which produced a byproduct used in sugar refining. The area encompassed swamps and bluffs, wooded areas, and massive rock outcroppings.
The Greensward Plan of Olmsted and Vaux was eight feet long and three feet wide, covered with stipple points designating vegetation, rock accents, footpaths and carriageways. A topographical tool and work of art all at once, the map specified structures that still exist today. The three and a half million square foot plot of land has remained remarkably the same, despite ideas that have been floated over time for such new things as stadiums, additional athletic fields, model farms and airplane landing strips.
The Park has 250 acres of lawns, seven bodies of water and 80 acres of woodlands. The Greensward plan called for some 36 bridges, all designed by Vaux, ranging from rugged spans of schist or granite to neo-gothic cast iron. The Mall’s double allée of elms comes to a stop at the Bethesda Terrace, whose centerpiece is the Bethesda Fountain. When Calvert Vaux designed the romantic Belvedere Castle in 1869, it was as one of the Park’s many whimsical structures, intended as a lookout to the reservoir to the north and the Ramble to the south.
The charms of the Park’s landscaping are largely man-made. During construction, 1,800 cubic yards of top soil were carted in from New Jersey to establish plantings. Laborers planted more than four million trees, shrubs and plants. More gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used at the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War.
From the start, leisure activities reigned in the Park. There was ice-skating on the Pond at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, in front of a much earlier version of the Plaza Hotel.
Elite New Yorkers flew in their coaches down the winding drives. They strolled in the Ramble. They enjoyed such novelties as goat carts, here portrayed in a 1870 lithograph.
Children sailed toy boats on the Reservoir Pond at 72nd Street just as they do today. The Central Park Zoo was chartered in 1875, and depended largely on the exotic gifts of wealthy benefactors. General Custer gave the zoo a rattlesnake, and General Sherman offered an African Cape buffalo, one of the spoils of his march through Georgia. One of the zoo’s most exotic donations was Charles the tigon,donated to the City in 1938. the offspring of a female African lioness and a male Siberian tiger.
The Carousel went up when the Park opened. Mules beneath the flooring provided the horsepower to pull the decorated wooded horses above, as pictured here in 1872 in Applebee’s Journal.
A flock of pedigreed Southdown and Dorset sheep grazed on the Sheep Meadow from the 1860s until 1934. I wonder what they’d make of a tigon in the Central Park Zoo.
8 responses to “Savage Girl’s Central Park”
I grew up thinking of New York, NY, as a huge, stinky, crowded, scary place where people had an accent and they moved away from there because they wanted to live out west where I lived. I became an adult and began to change my opinion. Now I am … older, and New York is on my bucket list.
Instead, supposedly vintage automobiles. Funny, that’s just what happened so long ago, cars replaced horses.
And, oh, NO! I just read the news: No more horse-drawn carriages ANYWHERE in NYC, any more? Oh, NO!
Lovely, thank you.
Very interesting; Savage Girl learned her way all around the edges of the Park, the Zoo, and the Carousel, right? (But I just read that Hercules has closed the winding drives in Central Park, this evening, saddening those present-day romantics who wanted a carriage ride in the snow, I’m sure.)