Bryant Park is one of the city’s most illustrious public spaces, but it has come a long way from its more humble origins. As we’ll show in this guide, the history and architecture reveal the many secrets that lie beneath and around the park today.
10. Bryant Park Used to be a Cemetery for NYC’s Poor
A designated public space since 1686, Bryant Park became a potter’s field (a cemetery for the city’s poor) in 1823, one year after the land became part of New York City’s jurisdiction. It remained a burial ground until 1840 when the space was transformed into the Croton Distributing Reservoir. The bodies underneath were moved to Wards Island in the East River. Unlike Washington Square Park, there are likely no remnants of human remains here anymore since it was transformed first into a reservoir for the city’s drinking water.
Check out what other NYC parks used to be cemeteries!
9. There are 37 Miles of Library Stacks Underneath Bryant Park
Image: Bryant Park Photo Collection
The stacks of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park contain 125 miles of shelving, 88 miles in the seven stack floors of Humanities & Social Science Library and 37 miles in the two-level stack extension under Bryant Park. These self-supporting steel stacks also function as structural elements of the building, buttressing the floor of Rose Reading Room.
Read about the Top 10 Secrets of the New York Public Library.
8. Remnants of the Croton Distribution Reservoir Can be Seen Today at Bryant Park
The remnants of the reservoir today in the NYPL
On July 4, 1842 the Croton, or Murray Hill, Distributing Reservoir opened to a crowd of 20,000 people. The reservoir, which extended from 40th to 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, cost $500,000 to construct and was designed by John Jervis and James Renwick in the Egyptian Revival style. By 1877, the reservoir had become obsolete and there were immediate calls for its demolition. Its detractors, including The New York Times, called it “useless, a hideous object to the sight, and a blight upon the neighborhood.”
They ignored the ramparts, which provided splendid views of the Long Island Sound and New Jersey, and the beautiful masonry work of the reservoir itself. By 1900, they had succeeded and the reservoir was demolished. The main branch of the New York Public Library rose in its place but some of the reservoir’s foundation still remains and can be seen inside of the library.
7. One of NYC’s Shortest Lived Buildings and NYC’s First Skyscraper Was at Bryant Park
Image from New York Public Library
Taking up nearly an entire block on 6th Avenue between 41st and 42nd Street was once the Crystal Palace, an architectural feat of iron and glass with a massive dome built in 1853. Accompanying the structure was also “New York City’s first skyscraper,” an octagonal observation tower taller than Trinity Church. A million visitors later, the entire Crystal Place went up in flames due to arson in 1858.
Check out 8 more of the city’s shortest lived buildings (one only lasting 2 days!).
6. There’s a Lost Mosaic Hidden in 5 Bryant Park
Collaborative street art project comes to the lobby of 5 Bryant Park that is still under construction.
In March 2015, The New York Times reported that a large 1950s-era glass mosaic mural by Max Spivak had been uncovered behind metal panels, added during a previous modernization of the lobby. But within hours of the article publication, the mural was covered by a blue screen.
The author of The New York Times article posted on Facebook, “Hours after my article went online urging the public to see a beautiful, newly uncovered 1950s mosaic mural on West 40th Street, the building owners erected a screen, apparently to prevent anyone from doing so.” Equity Office, the owner and manager of 5 Bryant Park does not plan on destroying the mural, but has said it would be covered up.
5 Bryant Park also welcomed a street art battle during the construction (photo seen above).
5. Bryant Park’s Military History
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s troops crossed quickly over the public space at Bryant Park while retreating from the Battle of Long Island. After the Croton Reservoir was demolished, there was a failed petition to transform the site into an armory. During the Civil War, Bryant Park (known then as Reservoir Square) was used as an encampment and site for military drills for the Union troops, like many other of the city’s parks. The deadly Draft Riots of 1863 took place around Bryant Park, with the burning down of the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. Protesting conscription, white mobs roamed the streets, murdering and killing at will. By the time the police had retaken the city four days later, perhaps 2000 people had died.
Today a statue of William Earle Dodge, father of Civil War Brigadier General Charles Cleveland Dodge, stands in Bryant Park. The elder Dodge was a New York congressman, founding member of the YMCA in America, and a proponent of Native American rights.
4. There’s a Trap Door in Bryant Park
As reported by Nina Ruggiero of AM New York, there’s a trap door in Bryant Park that leads to an “enormous power vault,” used to power the Winter Village (and we suspect the HBO Summer Movie Festival as well).
3. There’s a Rather Fancy Public Bathroom in Bryant Park
Bryant Park Bathrooms: Voted Best Bathrooms in the Nation by Citysearch
There may no other public bathroom in the world with so many accolades as the one in Bryant Park, and 2017 the bathroom got yet another upgrade. The ornamented building is quite a temple to toilets both outside and inside–the ornamented, stone structure has flower urn, classical music and tiled floors inside.
See a guide to NYC’s public bathrooms.
2. Bryant Park Was Once Nicknamed Needle Park
The arrival of the elevated train on Sixth Avenue in 1878 spelled the beginning of a long decline for Bryant Park, as a shadow was cast on the park making it less desirable. Robert Moses attempted to revitalize the park in the 1930s via a redesign that included adding hedges and an iron fence, which had the inadvertent effect of making it a haven for illicit activity.
By the 1970s, drug dealing, prostitution and homelessness were the defining characteristics of Bryant Park, which was nicknamed “Needle Park.” As the Bryant Park Corporation writes today, “By 1979, New York seemed to have given up Bryant Park for lost as an urban amenity, as well as an historic site.” But new programming in the park began in the late 1970s, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was created in 1980, and a redesign of the park was completed by 1992.
1. Bryant Park Has the Longest Expanse of Grass South of Central Park
Open space is a luxury in New York City and thanks to the longevity of Bryant Park as a public space and the dedication of so many to restore it, its open space is considered the longest expanse of grass south of Central Park.
Next, read about the Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Terminal and the Top 10 Secrets of the Chrysler Building. Get in touch with the author @untappedmich. This article also written by Benjamin Waldman.