Magazine

Portals in Time: The Story of Central Park’s Named Gates

New York is a city of discovery, so it’s only fitting that you’re bound to come across something new and marvelous in Central Park. Even the Park entrances harbor historic treasure. An observant visitor might notice chiseled words near certain entryways that evoke the richness of the City’s human fabric: Scholars’ Gate, Mariners’ Gate, Engineers’ Gate

These gate names, mostly inscribed by the Central Park Conservancy in the 1990s, were carefully chosen more than a century ago by the Park’s commissioners after vigorous debate. They poetically capture a city long defined by its remarkably diverse and intricately mixed population. As portals in time, the named gates offer a fascinating window on the New York and world of that era—when “Inventors” referred to the creators of the printing press, steam engine, and electric telegraph. Even more, they reflect the intention of Central Park’s creators that the City’s premier greenspace should be a place that welcomes—and celebrates—all New Yorkers.

“TO NEW YORKERS IT BELONGS WHOLLY”

In deciding whom to commemorate (and how), the Park’s original commissioners rejected traditional European styles of urban-park grandeur. Instead, as they finalized Park plans in 1862, they embraced the ideals of democratic inclusion and the natural world championed by the Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The modest stone-wall openings that now define the Park perimeter could have been fancy gates or even an extravagant plaza, but Olmsted and Vaux’s humble designs ultimately won out. As for naming the gates, important cities, states of the Union, and prominent individuals were all considered before the commission settled upon the professions and groups of people that made up the mosaic of the City.

The entryways “should be named in accordance with some simple but comprehensive plan that will fully meet the every-day wants of the public,” the board stated in its 1862 annual report. “The construction of the Park has been easily achieved, because the industrious population of New York has been wise enough to require it... To New Yorkers it belongs wholly.”

Yet at the time, the idea of people from different walks of life intermingling in a public park wasn’t particularly welcomed. The few greenspaces that already existed in the City, such as Gramercy Park and St. John’s Park, were gated and accessible only to the owners of nearby homes. But the notion of the City’s new park as welcoming every citizen in an integrated space eventually prevailed.

“While political activists fought for equality through grass-roots legislation, social visionaries—Vaux and Olmsted among them—would see democracy’s greatest potential in the grass itself,” Sara Cedar Miller, the Conservancy’s historian emerita, writes in her book Central Park: An American Masterpiece.

Vaux and Olmsted were so committed to this principle, they resigned in protest in the spring of 1863 over the commissioners’ choice of a monumental gate design by Paris-trained architect Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt, for his part, disdained the pair’s naturalistic approach, calling their rural design for the Park “fit for shepherds and their flock.” But Olmsted and Vaux held firm, and with time, the commission came to agree.

A drawing for a Park gate. In the center is a platform at street level with a statue on a column and equestrian statues. Waterfalls on either side descend to a pool surrounded by a lawn and trees.

One proposed plan for the Park’s entryways included a massive plaza with waterfall-lined stairs and a grotto housing Neptune and his chariot, as depicted in this drawing by Richard Morris Hunt. The board of commissioners briefly considered working fountains and statues into the Park’s design for a more ornate welcome. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A NEW PARK FOR THE PEOPLE

The commissioners took on naming the gates after the southern end of the Park had “assumed its final shape,” with 59th Street being the primary border of access for the public. Manhattan was still mostly rural in the mid-19th century, with the well-to-do living around the 30s and most of the rest south and east of that, says Sara. The population of New York City was just approaching 700,000, with significant social changes taking place: Society was shifting from an agrarian lifestyle to an urban industrial one, and migrants from the South and overseas were flowing into the City.

Commemorating the occupations, pursuits, and attributes of all New Yorkers and visitors to the Park was a way to recognize the contributions of each group to the welfare of the City and society. As the Park’s main access points, the four principal entrances along 59th Street were given names covering broad classes of workers: Merchants (Central Park West), which included bankers, importers, traders, store keepers, and the like; Artisans (Seventh Avenue), whose labor produced “positive, tangible work”; and Artists (Sixth Avenue), including musicians, artists, architects, and anyone else whose work gave “animation and grace” to the world.

For the fourth primary entrance (Fifth Avenue at 60th Street), the commissioners contemplated a final “class of laborers” who didn’t fall into any of those categories. “This is the class that includes the Poet, the Divine, the Statesman, the Lawyer, the Author, the Editor, the Teacher, the Physician, the man of Science,” the commission reported in 1862. With the name of Scholars, this category encompassed professions whose contributions “are of a specially intellectual character.”

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Scholars’ Gate at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street

The Park commissioners also singled out Children, Boys, and Girls (for whom the Park, they said, would provide a space for physical development and the “intelligent” study of nature’s works); Women (the commission specifically acknowledged their domestic contributions, while recognizing that they also contributed to the fields named elsewhere); and All Saints (civic leaders or public servants who represented the moral compass of the City). A gate dedicated to Strangers (or “Foreigners”) was intended to welcome travelers from other countries—whose visits, the board noted, helped fight against “unworthy prejudices.”

Other gate names put forth by the 1862 commission included the Cultivator (farmer or naturalist), the Warrior (soldier), the Mariner (sailor), the Engineer, the Hunter, the Fisherman, the Woodman (logger or carpenter), the Miner, the Explorer, and the Inventor.

CARVING A PLACE IN HISTORY

Most, but not all, of the 20 original gate names appear in the Park today (Fisherman’s Gate never materialized, and Explorers’ Gate was later renamed Pioneers’ Gate). But it wasn’t until modern times that the words were actually etched into the stone of the Park entryways at the City’s request—one in 1954 and the rest in the 1990s. In a 1999 project funded and carried out by the Conservancy, the sculptor Shi-Jia Chen chiseled the remaining names by hand into the stone walls, with assistance from members of the Conservancy’s preservation team.

Scholars Gate 2 1993
Scholars Gate 1993
CPC Slide WR PR CO 200001

For nearly a century, the names of Central Park’s gates existed mostly on paper—on New York guide maps and Park plans. The commissioners left the Park’s entrances bare, intending for them to be developed by private investments that never materialized. At the City’s request, the Conservancy inscribed the final gate in 2000, approximately 140 years after they were named. The project was completed using historical techniques including manual tools such as a mallet and chisel.

The move by the City and Conservancy to implement this change might seem surprising, as updates to the appearance of Central Park are remarkably rare. Since the Park was made a National Historic Landmark in 1965, only one permanent monument (the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, installed in 2020) and two permanent artworks (the Imagine Mosaic at Strawberry Fields and the Group of Bears near the Metropolitan Museum of Art) have been added to the landscape, and no additional gates have been officially named.

Yet in carving the gates’ names, the Conservancy was in fact bringing the Park’s appearance more closely in line with Olmsted and Vaux’s original plan, to create a space that was “representative of the whole people.” And seeing the inscribed gate names gives visitors a chance to reflect on how times have changed since these monikers were first selected. Many of the 20 original names remain relevant, while taking on new meanings and leaving open the possibility of future evolution. (“Inventors,” for instance, would surely now include digital and aviation pioneers.)

“It would be really special if people, in learning about this history, could take time to reflect on what the names might have meant to past New Yorkers and what they might still mean today,” says Kaitlin Holt, the Conservancy’s Associate Director of Interpretation and Programs. New Yorkers will get a chance to do just that, with an exhibition the Conservancy is presenting on the history of the named gates, slated for December at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center in the north end of the Park.

So next time you enter the Park, stop and notice if the gate you’re walking through has a name. If it does, imagine the people who embodied it at the time Central Park was created some 160 years ago. And then ask yourself: Who might be represented today?

Luna Shyr is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in
National Geographic, Atlas Obscura, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal.