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.
The Park came about as the brainchild of a group of well-heeled Manhattanites who wanted the city to emulate the great parks of Europe, the Bois de Boulogne, Hyde Park and other green urban spaces. Robert Minturn, his wife Anna, William Cullen Bryant and others, classic progressives all, took the lead in advocating the need for a large, verdant playground for both rich and poor, a place that would improve public health and provide jobs in its construction. According to Olmsted, the park was “of great importance as the first real Park made in this country—a democratic development of the highest significance.”
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 smalll 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, new 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 doubled allées 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, 1800 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 American Civil War.
Some elements we associate today with Central Park didn’t exist. The Metropolitan Museum, now sited at the east side of the Park between 83rd and 87th Streets, wouldn’t relocate until 1880 from a townhouse on 14th Street to a red-brick Victorian Gothic building (still part of the museum complex) at the edge of the greensward on the site of a meadow that the city had formerly fenced in as a deer park.
Central Park is a place that is quintessentially public, open to all, and yet offers individuals many sites that become personal favorites. The Dene (a term meaning valley) is one of those. A long stretch of pastoral landscape that exemplifies both the features and the intended effect of Olmsted’s design runs along the east side from the Conservatory Water and the verdant meadow known as the East Green to the north and the Zoo to the south, it features gently rolling lawns and shaded walks.
In 2007 the Dene’s rustic summerhouse atop a rock outcropping was restored, and a charming map to the feature was created. You can enter the park at 67th Street and Fifth, just adjacent to where the Delegates house would have stood, to get to the Dene and the historic structure.
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. 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, the offspring of a female African lion and a male Siberian tiger, that was donated to the City in 1938.
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.