At 141.8 feet, Summit Rock is the highest natural elevation in Central Park. Like Vista Rock, the site of Belvedere Castle, it is a massive bedrock outcrop. Summit Rock originally commanded a view across the Hudson River to the New Jersey Palisades, making it a logical place for Olmsted and Vaux to provide both a carriage and pedestrian overlook. Although the view has been reduced over the past 100 years to a sliver along West 83rd Street, it's still worth pausing to relax on one of the stone benches.
As in many parts of the Park, past landscape restorations had enjoyed brief popularity but deteriorated with lack of maintenance. The restoration of Summit Rock in 1997 recaptured the spirit of the site, offering updated opportunities for its enjoyment. The broken 1950s pavement crowning Summit Rock was removed and a new green lawn added. There is a rustic stone "amphitheater" with benches overlooking the wooded slopes to the south and east. Snaking up the southern slope is a serpentine path, recently recovered, with steps that were carved into the bedrock when the Park was built. Teachers can bring classes to the site for outdoor lessons on Park and City history, or even an impromptu dramatic performance.
Even before Central Park went into construction, however, the Summit Rock site, and others contiguous to it, was inhabited by some 1,200 New Yorkers, many of them new immigrants who could not afford the more expensive rents downtown. More than 1,000 buildings dotted the landscape, most of them small dwellings but also taverns, barns, factories, and churches. In the 1830s Seneca Village, one of the City's best-known African-American communities, was established in the West 80s on land occupied today by Summit Rock and the Arthur Ross Pinetum. By the 1850s Seneca Village — which had three churches, a school, and its own burial grounds — was an integrated community of almost 60 households. Most of the dwellings were inhabited by free black families, more than half of whom owned their own property, though Irish and German immigrants moved in later to make it one of the most stable integrated communities of the early 19th century.