Hidden Histories: 6 Little-Known Designs for Central Park

Built as an urban oasis for a rapidly growing city, Central Park is filled with an eclectic mix of built landscapes, natural-looking water bodies, and some of the best Victorian architecture in New York City. The history of the Park is well-recorded. But research into the original drawings and plans created to build the Park—by the likes of architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould—offer hidden secrets from both the built and unbuilt aspects of the Park.

1. There was once a plan for music on the Lake—literally.

Since its first concert in 1859, music has been an important part of Central Park. Always fearful that large crowds of any size would trample and damage the grass, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote to Park Commissioner Andrew Haswell Green in 1861 suggesting a unique solution for a permanent music venue in the park: a bandstand floating on the Lake.

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Study for a Floating Music Pavilion, c. 1861. Black ink and pencil with colored washes on paper backed with linen, 17½” x 18½". Detail plans show the pavilion’s positions on the Lake during a concert and when not in use; the central panel lifts up to reveal a second seating arrangement for a larger orchestra. Image courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives

Olmsted believed that acoustics on the Lake would carry the music to listeners scattered around its shores, including on Bethesda Terrace, where chairs could be placed. The structure could be movable and would offer seating arrangements for both large and small groups of musicians. In the end, it was Jacob Wrey Mould’s Music Pavilion that was built on the Mall, but occasionally a 10-man cornet band would give afternoon concerts from a boat on the water.

2. Dining in the Bethesda Arcade? It’s true!

Including establishments for eating and drinking in the Park were important considerations to the original designers—though they probably didn’t think that the Bethesda Arcade would one day include a kitchen and slot machines under the brilliant Minton tiles and arched niches. One drawing included in the collection of the Municipal Archives, dated from 1908, confirms that at the turn of the century, the Arcade was being used as a refreshment stand that included indoor and outdoor seating, a kitchen, and a candy and cigar stand.

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Plan Showing Area Occupied by the Lessee of the Refreshment Privilege at Terrace Bridge, 1909. Black and red ink on coated drafting cloth, 28 ¼” x 36 1/2”. Image courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives

In the above floor plan for the Bethesda Arcade, dating from 1908, we can see the layout for the area to be used as a refreshment stand. There are areas denoting where candy, soda, and cigars were sold, as well as the location of tables and chairs. The plan also indicates that there was to be addition seating available in front of the Arcade as well.

3. The depth of the Lake could be raised and lowered depending on the season.

The man-made body of water was constructed with a series of waste weirs (to lower water levels) and sluice gates (to raise water levels) that could be opened and closed as needed. During the summer months, the depth was kept at seven feet to accommodate boaters, while in the winter it was lowered to four feet, “for greater security of persons frequenting [the Lake] for skating.”

In addition, the Lake was also fitted with a series of 18 hydrants, or valves, for the purpose of creating a fresh sheet of ice each night during the skating season. The valves were completely submerged when the water was at summer depth, but when lowered in the winter they were exposed and available to flood the ice after the skaters left the Park each night—creating a smooth surface for the next day of skating.

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Design of the sluice gate for the outlet of the Skating Pond, c. 1858. Black and red ink with pencil, blue crayon, and colored washes on paper, 23¾” x 30¼". Image courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives

4. The Ladies Pavilion was originally built as a carriage and trolley stop.

The south corners of the Park each featured an Ombra, or a shaded and covered shelter for people waiting for the Park’s carriage service, as well as horsecars and trolleys. An example of Mould’s designs at their Victorian best, each whimsical shelter was constructed of delicate cast–iron and topped with a slate roof with a row of fanciful ironwork along the crest. In the annual report to the Board of Commissioners in 1871, he described them as “light, ornamental structures of wood and iron. The roofs overhang considerably, to afford shade, are supported by iron columns, the capitals of which are each practicable flower–baskets, and will be always supplied with an ever– varying series of . . . ornamental plants.”

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Subway construction at Columbus Circle with the Ombra in the background. Irving Underhill, photographer, June 8, 1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

With the installation of the Maine Monument at Merchants’ Gate in 1913, the Ombra at that location was moved to its current home along the shore of the Lake and was renamed the Ladies Pavilion. In its new location, it served as a resting place for female skaters on what was then the Ladies Pond—an area reserved for women to skate in privacy away from the mixed-gender, social atmosphere on the Lake during the annual skating season.

5. A Victorian luxury was waiting for visitors to the Park: iced water streaming from a drinking fountain on the Mall.

By 1865, there were a total of 27 individually designed drinking fountains and many simple “drinking hydrants” (simple drinking taps or faucets, rather than decorative drinking fountains) throughout the Park. One fountain held a hidden secret: fresh Croton water flowing over blocks of ice located in a cistern below that provide chilled water to parched Park-goers throughout the summer.

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Drinking fountain on the Esplanade, elevation, stonecutter’s and ironmonger’s contract, 1865. Black and colored inks with colored washes on paper, 14” x 10". Image courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives

The Municipal Archives collection holds 10 drinking fountain designs prepared by Jacob Wrey Mould. Many featured a shared common cup attached with a chain to the fountain. Fears of communicable diseases, such as cholera and yellow fever, led to the end of the common cup practice after 1910. In addition to the free-standing drinking fountains that were constructed out of bronze and granite, there were also several that were built within the walls of the underpasses of bridges.

6. Gapstow Bridge looked very different before 1896.

Built to allow pedestrians to cross a narrow neck at the northern end of the Pond, the original bridge was designed by Mould in 1874. With clear references to railroad bridges of the day, the structure featured segmented wooden arches, decorative cast-iron railings comprised of repeating motifs of arches, and semi-circles and cinquefoils filling the space within the center of the rails. Weather and use took their toll, and the bridge was replaced in 1896 with a simple, unadorned stone structure, also named Gapstow Bridge, designed by the architectural firm of Howard & Caudwell.

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Gapstow Bridge, preliminary study, 1873. Black ink and watercolor on paper, 13⅞” x 20½". Approved by the Board, January 7, 1874. Image courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives

Cynthia Brenwall is a conservator at NYC Municipal Archives. Her book The Central Park: Original Designs for New York's Greatest Treasure is available now.