By Sara Cedar Miller
In the winter or early spring, when the trees are bare or haven't yet bloomed, you can see one of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's original design intentions — one not visible any other time of year. If you're standing at the perfect spot on the Mall on a windy day, you can just make out the flag waving in the breeze atop Belvedere Castle half a mile away. Seeing the American flag over the Park was an important symbol during the years of the Civil War, when the Park was under construction. With the growth of the trees in the Park since then, we see that small but important detail only a few months a year.
Winter may not seem an ideal time to take in its views, but it's this time of year that the Park reveals itself. Most of the year the leaves fool us into thinking that distances between viewpoints are farther apart, and far more mysterious. Olmsted and Vaux admitted the necessity of "undignified tricks of disguise, or mere affectations of rusticity" in order to reach the sought-after effects of "simplicity, tranquility and unsophisticated naturalness" that they sought in their design. With no views through the foliage, Park visitors have a sense of adventure that winds through different types of scenery, not imaging what lay beyond.
Chris Nolan, a landscape architect and the Conservancy's Vice President for Planning, Design and Construction, says his "seasonal a-ha moment" is the change in scale when the skyline is visible through the winter landscape, such as from the first glimpse of Sheep Meadow from the West Drive. "It puts the Park concretely in the city," he says,"while during the other three seasons, the line between the two entities are less distinct."
Nolan compares the larger sense of space that the leafless Park has in winter to moving out of an apartment. "Without the furniture," he says, "you're surprised at what a bigger room it appears to be than when it was filled with one's possessions."
In the same way, the Park has expansiveness — particularly as the tree canopy today is much denser than it was in the 19th century. "With a blanket of snow, the meadows in particular change scale entirely," Nolan says. He cites Cedar Hill as the perfect example. "Before the paths are cleared and the sledders arrive, the path that bisects the two north-south meadows become one dramatic space."
While trees still frame views in winter as they do in the other three seasons, views in winter really open up, Nolan says. A good place to experience that is in the Ramble along the Lake path from Bow Bridge to the Gill, a landscape that was recently restored by the Conservancy. With a full canopy, the viewer's eye is led northward along the path, while in winter there is almost a continuous view of the Lake, Hernshead, Balcony Bridge and the western shoreline. To Nolan, the seasons "refresh one's perspective." Each season brings unique views and unique experiences.
As the Conservancy's Planner, Lane Addonizio, also points out, this is the time of year to walk through the Park to get your bearings. If you find yourself getting lost or confused in the Park during the warmer months, this is the time of year to figure it out — while also appreciating the rare beauty of a bare, but not barren, Central Park.