Always Improving: Restoring Central Park in 2019

Keeping Central Park at its most picturesque and inviting is an ongoing process. That’s why the Central Park Conservancy’s team of professionals work year-round to renovate, rebuild, and refresh every corner of the Park. This year, the Conservancy was playground happy — completing work on three favorites — and also reopened the spectacular, historic Belvedere Castle.

Safari Playground

The beloved Safari Playground has existed as a playground since 1936, but was transformed in 1997 into a wonderland of treehouses, water, and hippopotamus sculptures designed by artist Bob Cassilly.

Safari Playground’s beloved hippos are accompanied by new play canoes, slides, wood climbing elements, mounds that are evocative of mountains, and a user-activated water feature.

This year’s reconstruction maintained everything that made the playground popular, while introducing new and enhanced play features and improving accessibility. The fiberglass hippos were replicated and reinstalled on safety surfacing that transitions from blue (representing the river) to brown, and children fell in love with them all over again: “Kids are loving the playground,” says Groundskeeper Corey Schafer. “The hippos are a huge hit. People line up before 8:00 am to get inside.”

The hippos are accompanied by new play canoes, slides, wood climbing elements, mounds that evoke mountains, and a user-activated water feature. It’s friendlier for all, too, with a regraded entrance, wheelchair-accessible ramp, and accessible play features. Finally, there’s now a wider border and lower fence between the playground and the nearby path, which creates a smoother transition between Safari Playground and the Park’s landscape.

Billy Johnson Playground net climber

Inspired by the Park’s natural landscapes, Billy Johnson Playground was designed by pioneering landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg. Its organic layout uses plantings to create shade and the feeling of smaller play areas, and the generous use of timber posts tips a hat to the nearby Dene Summerhouse. “Almost everything in the playground is a natural material,” says Groundskeeper Chris Gendron, “whether it’s metal, wood, or plants. To have a playground that’s incorporated into the landscape is really cool.”

The Central Park Conservancy has introduced a one-of-a-kind rustic net climber to Billy Johnson Playground, the final element of a comprehensive reconstruction.

This year, the Conservancy finished its comprehensive reconstruction by adding a rustic net climber designed in collaboration with Friedberg. Designed for children ages 2 to 5, it has climbable cables and nets on sloped embankments, and features stairs, platforms, slides, and a rope bridge. It’s the perfect addition to a play area that beautifully mimics the rest of the Park with natural materials in its features, like the 45-foot granite slide, rustic trails, and miniature stone bridge that’s reminiscent of the famous Gapstow Bridge. “There’s only really a couple of pieces of play equipment here,” says Studio Director Bob Rumsey. “It’s really about kids playing in a miniature Central Park.”

Margaret L. Kempner Playground

The reconstruction of the newly renamed Margaret L. Kempner Playground (formerly known as the East 96th Street Playground) is one of the year’s most friendly transformations.

One of the Park’s largest and most popular playgrounds, it now has two play areas, designed for ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12, including net climbers, balancers and spinners, a sandbox, and an abundant variety of swings.

Margaret L. Kempner Playground (formerly known as the East 96th Street Playground) has net climbers, balancers and spinners, a sandbox, and an abundant variety of swings.

The updated look, with lower fences and plentiful plantings, helps the playground blend more seamlessly into the Park, too, and the addition of a picnic area undoubtedly means it will quickly become a family favorite. Margaret L. Kempner Playground is more accessible as well, so it’s now more inviting and comfortable for all who need a little play time.

“This playground has something for everyone: one-of-a-kind play structures that will excite younger children and challenge older ones, areas for active and contemplative play, and most importantly, all features in this inclusive space are designed for accessibility by users with a wide range of physical abilities,” says Project Manager and Landscape Architect Jennifer Wong. “It’s a wonderful example of what we strive for when rejuvenating a playground. We hope people enjoy the playground itself, and how we took care to integrate it with the surrounding landscape and the Park in general.”

The Belvedere

The Conservancy’s biggest project completion of the year restored the Belvedere to its original grandeur. Created in 1869 by the Park’s co-designers, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, its name is Italian for “beautiful view” — and, indeed, the area provides stunningly scenic views of the Park and surrounding cityscape. Over the years it has served a variety of purposes, including housing a station for the U.S. Weather Bureau; today it’s one of Central Park’s five visitor centers.

The Conservancy’s biggest project completion of the year restored the Belvedere to its original grandeur.

“Belvedere Castle distinguishes itself with its aura,” says Visitor Services Representative Diann DeFebbe. “Visitors young and old drop by in costumes, ask to see the princess, and bring toy dragons and swords.”

The renovation not only refreshed existing elements, like cleaning and repointing the Castle’s masonry, but also recreated aspects of the historic design that had been lost over the years, like the decorative wood tower that had been part of the pavilion on the northwest corner. The Conservancy also implemented green design to ensure long-term sustainability, such as an energy efficient, zero emissions geothermal cooling and heating system for the Castle.

“A lot of love has been put into this project — from the craftspeople to the electricians to the carpentry workers,” remarked Denise Keaveney, Studio Director, Architecture. “We really love this building, and the work we’ve done here will sustain it for future generations.”

Our work included recreating aspects of the historic design that had been lost over the years, like the decorative wood tower that had been part of the pavilion on the northwest corner.

Read more about all the improvements — including the wonderful new lighting design that adds a little nighttime drama to the view of the Castle from across the Turtle Pond. Explore for yourself, either on your own or on one of our official tours. The next phase of the project will create an accessible route so that more people can enjoy everything the Belvedere has to offer.

Looking to the future: Harlem Meer

As satisfying as completing this year’s projects has been, the Conservancy’s work is far from over. This summer, the Conservancy jointly announced with the City of New York another dramatic transformation, which will vastly improve the north end of the Park around the Harlem Meer.

The Central Park Conservancy will be rebuilding the Lasker Rink and Pool to better integrate into the landscape, offer new and enhanced outdoor activities, and increase access for neighboring communities.

Knowing the area is vital to the surrounding neighborhoods, outreach has been a key part of the redesign’s evolution. “Engaging the local community in the design development of this project has been incredibly important,” says John Reddick, Project Manager, Community Engagement. “We have labored to engage their voices, and designed to better connect surrounding neighborhoods to the Park’s nature and recreation.”

To that end, the expansive renovation will rebuild the area’s recreational facility (which includes the aging Lasker Rink and Pool) so it will be seamlessly integrated into the surrounding landscape, which will also be repaired. The overhaul will also improve the north end’s ecology and restore the area’s connections to the rest of the Park. The massive undertaking is set to break ground in 2021.