In 1858, the City of New York held a design competition for Central Park. The winning plan, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was named the ‘Greensward Plan,’ and featured an English style landscape with meadows, lakes, hills, winding pedestrian paths, and many trees to block the view of city buildings.
Over the years, the park has evolved from the original plan due to changing administrations and in response to the changing needs of New Yorkers. In this post, we look at some quirky and surprising details in the park that were not a part of the original Greensward Plan, yet have become a part of its history and character. For more secrets of Central Park, make sure to also join us for our upcoming tour:
1. Sheep Meadow
Sheep grazing in Central Park in 1930 (From the Herbert Mitchell Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art)
At the insistence of the Park’s Commissioners (and despite considerable objections by Olmsted and Vaux), this area was marked as a parade ground for military drills on the original Greensward plan. However, by 1864, the designers had reclaimed the open space and transitioned it into a beautiful meadow and a grazing area for 200 sheep, called ‘The Green’. According to the NYC Parks and Recreation Department, the designers suggested that the sheep enhanced the Romantic English quality of the park, as well as maintained the lawn.
In 1934, the sheep were eventually moved to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, possibly to avoid being used for food by people during The Great Depression. The former Sheepfold, which had housed sheep and shepherd, was converted into the restaurant The Tavern on the Green.
Where to find it: Above is a photo of Sheep Meadow today, on the West Side from 66th to 69th Streets. See more vintage photos of sheep in Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park here.
2. The Survey Bolt
The bolt in this Central Park rock is believed to be one of the original survey bolts from when the city grid was first planned in 1811. Led by John Randel, surveyors had the task of marking each future street intersection aligned with the grid. They used marble monuments or iron bolts where there was exposed bedrock. The bolts bore a cross across the top.
Very few of these markers exist anymore. Most were removed as roads and intersections were built. However, Central Park was not a part of the original plan for the city, known as The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. so street intersection points may have been marked according to the grid, and left to remain since no intersection was actually built here.
This bolt is known to be in the park, but the exact location is kept a secret for fear that it will be stolen or destroyed. After some intense searching of both the internet and park, you might be able to find it like I did.
Where to find it: We aren’t telling! (…And we request that our readers refrain from doing so in the comments.)
3. The Revolutionary War-Era Cannon
This cannon, which is thought to be 230 years old, has a dramatic history. It was used on a British ship which sank, and was then submerged in the East River for decades. It was salvaged and anonymously donated to the park on October 10, 1865, around the time of the Civil War. After being moved to various places around the park, it was eventually installed at Fort Clinton in 1905. There, it remained on public display until 1996 when the Central Park Conservancy decided to bring it indoors to protect it from vandalism. In January 2013, workers were cleaning it when they found it was fully loaded with gunpowder and a cannonball. It was ready to fire this whole time.
The gun powder has since been removed, and the cannon is now reinstalled. Read more about the cannon’s history and conservation process here.
Where to find it: Fort Clinton is located at 107th Street, close to 5th Avenue.
These stone walls are the ruins of the 1842 Academy of Mount St. Vincent, known today as McGowan’s Pass. After St. Vincent’s moved out in the 1850s, the original buildings were used for a hotel, a restaurant, and a museum. During the Civil War, they may have been used as a hospital and rehab for wounded soldiers. Frederick Law Olmsted and his family lived here while Olmsted directed the landscaping of the Park. On the original Greensward Plan, it is marked “Mount St Vincent, House of Refreshment.”
The original Mount Saint Vincent buildings burned in 1881, but another tavern was built in its place. The last restaurant at the pass, McGown’s Pass Tavern, was closed and razed in 1915-1917. However, its driveways and foundations remain and the Central Park Conservancy uses it as a mulching and composting area.
Where to find it: Behind the Conservatory Gardens at 105th Street, at the top edge of the steep hill.
5. Bench Plaques
The park is, of course, still evolving and new design details are constantly being added. Since 1986, the Central Park Conservancy has run the Adopt-A-Bench program as a way to maintain its more than 9,000 benches. For $7,500, you can adopt a green bench and personalize the plaque. (The rustic handmade benches cost $25,000 to adopt.) In return, the conservancy will maintain the bench forever.
The benches tell stories of loss, declarations of love, and memories of loved ones. Featuring children, parents, pets, and the occasional celebrity, reading the plaques mirrors the experience of people watching in New York. Pictured are a few of our favorites.
Where to find it: Throughout the park.
No playgrounds or ball fields were included in the original Greensward Plan. Around the turn of the century, advocates and planners began to argue for the need for such spaces. However, even into the 1920s, only about 9 percent of the park was devoted to playfields or special programmed events. When the Heckscher Playground opened 1926, it was the first equipped playground within the park. Today, the park has 21 playgrounds, each one with its own unique features and history. The Diana Ross playground is among the youngest, and it has a great story.
Diana Ross dreamed of sponsoring a playground in the park with funds raised from televising her July 1983 free concert on the Great Lawn. Unfortunately, the concert was a legendary disaster. First, a thunderstorm drenched 350,000 spectators, ending the show early. The next night Diana offered another performance, during which the crowd became out of control and stampeded the stage. After leaving the Great Lawn, concert-goers were robbed and beaten by muggers on nearby streets. The concerts, which were intended to raise funds wound up costing the city over $2 million dollars, and Ross claimed she didn’t have the money either. A few years later, Ross donated $250,000, and the dream was realized.
The ordeal was referenced in by the Beastie Boys in their 2004 song, “An Open Letter to NYC”:
You didn’t rob me in the park at Diana Ross/
But everybody started looting when the light went off.
Where to find it: Central Park West at 81st Street.
7. Belvedere Castle
Pictured above is Belvedere Castle which was built to overlook the rectangular Croton Reservoir. In 1931, the reservoir was drained and the site developed into today’s Great Lawn.
The castle itself was built in 1869 out of Manhattan schist, and designed by Central Park architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. The National Weather Service measures the official temperature in Central Park off the tower, which is the highest point in the park. Today, Belvedere Castle serves as a visitor’s center and gift shop, and programs are occasionally hosted there.
Where to find it: Mid-Park from 79th to 85th Street.
See some of these features in person, and learn about their history on our Secrets of Central Park tour:
Secrets of Central Park Walking Tour
Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets of NYC’s Central Park and 10 Historic Ruins and Remnants Inside NYC’s Central Park. Get in touch with the author at Rachel Fawn Alban.