In a city that’s constantly in motion, each of Central Park's 10,000 benches offers an opportunity to sit in stillness. For over 160 years since the Park’s creation, its benches have served as meeting spots, lunch locales, landmarks, date venues, and ever-present places to stop and watch New York unfold around you.
“The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it,” wrote Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted in an 1865 report. “And thus, through the influences of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”
The Park’s benches embody Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original intent for this greenspace: an accessible way to rest amidst the natural world for any amount of time. With their iconic designs, they remain a symbol synonymous with Central Park to this day. Public outdoor seating, though it often blends into the background by design, plays an essential role in this vital third place for New Yorkers.
Varied in style and function, these objects mirror the evolution of both the Park and the City. Though they share many basic characteristics, there are four distinct bench types found throughout Central Park, each with their own story to tell about the enduring spirit of this urban oasis.
The Central Park Settee, Mid-19th Century
Close your eyes and picture a Central Park bench. What comes to mind? There’s a good chance it’s a Central Park settee. That’s because they’re among the most historic of these bench models, original to the Park’s creation in the mid-19th century. Made from cast iron and wood, their inconspicuous design minimizes visual noise and centers the Park’s landscapes, reinforcing the designers’ intent to ensure the natural environment always came first.
You can identify a typical settee by its curved H-shaped legs and seven-slat composure: five on the seat and two on the back rest. Because of its simple and unostentatious quality, it is often found in more informal and pastural landscapes.
"See how they're almost transparent, how they let the light through?" Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design employee Lucy Fellowes told the New York Times in 1994, referring to an 1870 image of Central Park settees near Bow Bridge. "They define the edge of the landscape without drawing attention to themselves."
The bench’s current manufacturer, Kenneth Lynch & Sons, also produces a model that includes armrests, which is the standard bench in another celebrated Olmsted greenspace, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
The Wooden Rustic Bench, Mid-19th Century
Though far less common and more elaborate than the settee, the Park’s wooden rustic benches are also original to Central Park’s design. Of its thousands of benches, only several dozen are rustic—each intended to transport you completely into nature and placed strategically to complement the Park’s more dramatic and picturesque natural vistas. Their one-of-a-kind designs are handcrafted by the Central Park Conservancy’s expert artisans, using unmilled wood and branches largely sourced from elsewhere within the Park.
“When there’s a storm or the Tree Care crew takes a tree down, we always ask them to save it for us so we can reuse them,” Rith Hun, the Conservancy’s Preservation Foreperson, explains. In addition to these benches, Rith’s team works on other rustic architecture projects found throughout the Park, like the Kinderberg structure surrounding Chess & Checkers House, the Ramble’s rustic structures, or the rustic fencing found in Shakespeare Garden. “We try to put pieces together to make it look just like a tree—natural like a tree branch. The benches are all different because, like the tree, they all grow differently.”
The Chrystie-Forsythe Bench (or the Wood-and-Concrete Bench), 1930s
As the name suggests, this style of bench is believed to have first been designed for Sara D. Roosevelt Park, which opened on the Lower East Side in 1934, between Chrystie and Forsythe Streets. Since then, this bench has become a common choice in parks and public spaces across all five boroughs.
With their heavier form, these designs are far less delicate than other models and, as their other name suggests, are easily identifiable by their materials. In Central Park, you can commonly spot these wood-and-concrete designs in playgrounds and against the stone walls of the perimeter. Their design variations include models both with and without backs, and they’re often placed in long, interconnected rows. This bench is also unique in its installation, requiring site work to set its footing below grade.
The World's Fair Bench, 1938
While it is the most recent of Central Park’s common bench designs, it is no less iconic. Looking to put his stamp on NYC’s greenspaces, former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses teamed up with furniture designer Kenneth Lynch to craft a bench for the 1939 World’s Fair, held in NYC in 1938 and 1939. The duo created 8,000 benches for the occasion, many of which still reside in Central Park today.
The classic World’s Fair style is inspired by both Art Deco and Victorian design and, like the Central Park settee, is constructed of wood and cast iron. Though many variations of the bench now exist—including those with and without armrests and backs—particular iterations of this bench are known for their rounded armrests or more intricate floral-inspired iron work. One more recent model of the design from Kenneth Lynch & Sons is constructed from recycled plastic lumber slats.
Central Park’s Bench Warmers
With millions of visitors using thousands of benches each day, maintaining the Park’s seating is no small feat. In addition to regular repair and plaque installation from NYC Parks staff (most notably, dedicated longtime NYC Parks employee Louis Young), the Conservancy’s volunteers are key players in keeping the Park’s benches looking pristine with Central Park’s signature coat of deep evergreen.
In 2023, approximately 150 to 200 volunteers chipped in to paint benches. This group was made up of both regular Park volunteers, one-time volunteers, and special groups, like the Conservancy’s Women’s Committee and Greensward Circle. The team painted nearly 1,000 benches—948, to be exact—including all the benches on the east and west sides of the Park’s perimeter.
Each year, the Conservancy conducts a bench survey to strategically identify and target certain areas where the benches are in more need of attention. Chris McDuff, a Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator who leads many of the organization’s volunteer bench efforts, explains that some benches need more regular upkeep, depending on factors like weather and foot traffic. No matter the bench location, maintaining each one has an impact on the entire Park.
“Volunteering at Central Park is a very unique experience that allows you to quite literally affect the lives of millions of New Yorkers. Taking care of the benches is a prime example in that it's something that so many people interact with,” Chris explains. “Making them look inviting, making them look well taken care of—it pays dividends. It influences how people will not only treat the benches, but also how they treat the Park, because the benches set the stage as you enter.”
Sprucing up a single bench is a multi-step process. Before it’s ready for paint, each requires thorough cleaning. “Organic debris gets caught in the bench slats, and people also love to put trash inside of them. The most interesting thing we’ve found in the benches was an entire Chick-fil-A bag and box tightly folded like origami and placed inside a couple-inch slat. It was equally frustrating as it was impressive,” Chris jokes.
Volunteers paint together in a buddy system, and the time and method required to freshen up each bench is dependent on its design. A backless Chrystie-Forsythe Bench may demand a little less than a more intricate Word’s Fair Bench, but on average, it takes volunteer pairs around 30 to 40 minutes to paint one bench from start to finish.
The Volunteers team approaches their process thoughtfully, with the experience of present and future Park visitors outweighing the speed and volume in which the benches are completed.
“One day, I talked with a Park patron who has mobility issues. They thanked us for painting the benches and shared that sometimes they could only make it to that bench. Sometimes, it was as far as they could go, but that was their Park time. It influenced how we did bench projects, because we could easily paint 10 blocks of benches in a row. So, we scaled it back a little bit to make benches more readily accessible,” Chris explains. “We aim to paint only three or four blocks of benches at a time, so that if somebody comes up and sees a bench that's closed for painting, they can always find somewhere to sit close by.”
Peruse the Plaques
Regardless of design, many of Central Park’s benches have an inscribed metal plaque affixed to their backs. Stroll along any stretch of benches, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot commemorations of weddings, births, and deaths, memories, advice, declarations of love, and cryptic inside jokes intended only for an audience of one. Poring over these plaques has become an unofficial pastime for New Yorkers—there’s even a popular Instagram page dedicated to sharing the highlights.
“There are many places to find joy in Central Park, but my number one would be the plaques. As you peruse the Park, read them and enjoy their stories,” Conservancy staff member Stormy McNair encourages. Stormy oversees the Adopt-A-Bench program with the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy. Founded in 1986, the Adopt-A-Bench program ensures the continued upkeep of the Park’s public seating by funding their ongoing care. To date, over 7,000 benches have been adopted.
Whether it’s adorned with a plaque or not, each of the Park’s benches has a story to tell and is awaiting patiently for you to take a seat and be a part of it.
Amileah Sutliff is the Senior Marketing Writer & Editor at the Central Park Conservancy.
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