Prospect Park is one of the most beloved of New York City’s parks, rivaling Central Park in splendor. Indeed, Prospect Park is often seen as the park where designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux perfected their art, having learned from their mistakes in Central Park. The park officially opened in 1867, though construction continued for years after, spanning an entire three decades from 1865 to 1895. Within Prospect Park’s 526 acres you will find a zoo, the first urban-area Audubon Center in the nation, an ice rink, a band shell, a carousel, and athletic and recreational facilities scattered throughout Olmsted and Vaux’s naturalistic design of intricate manmade wetlands, indigenous forest, and rolling green meadows. You will also find an abundance of secrets waiting to be revealed. Here we explore the top twelve secrets of Prospect Park, from hidden cemeteries and never-built structures to remnants of the Revolutionary War.

1. There’s a Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park

Off of Center Drive, there are 2,000 gravestones and buried bodies, many older than the park itself. This property, the only private property in the park, is a cemetery owned by the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers. Established in 1849, though it is believed there are graves that date to the 1820s, the 10-acre Quaker cemetery remains active to this day.   In the original plan for the park by civil engineer Egbert Viele, which would have made the park about 55% smaller, the cemetery wasn’t even within the bounds. It is easy to miss as it is in a fenced off area of woods and the stones are small and simple. Buried inside are a few famous Quakers such as Raymond Ingersoll, a former Brooklyn Borough President, and actor Montgomery Clift.

2. Secret Tunnels Underground

Olmsted was one of those quintessential creative, explorer types. Turning down Yale, he wandered around the countryside, traveling like a modern-day backpacker. He signed up as a seaman aboard a ship going to China, and lived as a farmer for seven years in Connecticut. It was this combination of experiences, particularly the latter, which gave him a keen understanding of the importance of the drainage systems in parks. The system Olmsted designed for Prospect Park was ahead of its time. It used runoff to refill the bodies of water throughout the park rather than adding that water into the municipal sewer system, which was frequently overrun as isProspect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece deems the system “an invisible web” of clay drainpipes that run the length of Long Meadow, connected by smaller pipes and a series of “vaulted retention basins.” Separately, it is said that a tunnel once ran from below the Park Slope Armory into Prospect Park. If you join us on our upcoming Insiders tour of the Park Slope Armory and its abandoned tunnels, you will see the bricked off entrance to this tunnel. You can feel a breeze from the removed bricks on top of the entranceway. It is believed that large portions of the the tunnel collapsed due to the construction of the subway and from residential expansion in Park Slope.

3. Remnants of the Revolutionary War

Though the Battle of Brooklyn (or the Battle of Long Island) was a deadly battle for the Americans, and included a panicked retreat across Long Meadow, the Maryland Regiment, only 400 strong, led by Major Mordecai Gist held out against 2,000 Scottish and Hessians in what is now Park Slope around the Old Stone House, allowing Washington’s Army to cross the East River into Manhattan.When Prospect Park was built, the remains of many soldiers left behind as well as fortifications and pits were discovered. At the base of Lookout Hill, a Stanford White-designed monument was erected to commemorate the heroic stand of “The Maryland 400” and dedicated on the 119th anniversary of the battle in 1895. The Maryland Monument is made up of a 12-foot tall polished granite column topped with a marble orb. It is similar in form to White’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park. The wrought iron fence was added later.

In addition to the Maryland Monument, there are more spots in the park where traces of the Revolution can be found from the Donogan Oak Monument (a monument to a felled tree used to block a path into the park) to the Battle Pass Rock which marks one of the former points of entry along the American defense line. Battle Pass was also near the site of the now lost Valley Grove Tavern run by Hicks Post who affectionately called it his “little snuggery.” It was a popular stop for those en route to Coney Island. Even the centuries old trees may hold within them remnants of the Revolution. There has been talk of x-raying the trees in Nethermead to see if there are Revolutionary War bullets embedded inside. Another route with deep history which runs through the park is the path of East Drive which partially follows an old Native American trail which according to Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece, “branched off a larger path that ran between what is now Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.”

4. There Once Was a Mount Vernon Replica in Prospect Park

Replica of Mt Vernon-Prospect Park-Brooklyn-1932-Bicentennial George Washington Birthday-Robert Moses-NYCThe Replica of Mount Vernon in Prospect Park. Image from Brooklyn Historical Society via Prospect Park Alliance
In 1932, Robert Moses had a replica of Mount Vernon built in Prospect Park to mark the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The building was constructed by Sears, Roebuck & Company (who also delivered another replica to the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris in 1931, which still stands as a private home) and designed by architect Charles K. Bryant.
The structure only stood for a mere two years before being torn down. It was one of the shortest lived buildings in New York City. The house was located at the base of Lookout Hill on the Peninsula of the Lake.

5. Never Built Parts of Prospect Park

Image courtesy Prospect Park Alliance

The panic of 1873, a financial crisis which lasted for a few years, caused a scaling down of plans for Prospect Park. Only ongoing projects were allowed to be completed. This meant that structures designed by Calvert Vaux, like a restaurant to be called the Refectory, an observation tower modeled after Venice’s Piazza St. Marco bell tower, and a carriage concourse were never completed. The Carriage Concourse was intended to have a 100 foot canopy that would offer shade for horses and carriages. A shelter next to the concourse also remained unbuilt. Though a handful of structures were left on the drawing board, there were also buildings constructed that are now gone from the park, such as a dairy and a menagerie. You can see 10 of these never-built structures in a previous article produced in partnership with Prospect Park Alliance.

6. The First Composting Bathrooms in an NYC Park

Inside the Wellhouse Comfort Station, the last remaining building in Prospect Park constructed by park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, you will find the first composting bathroom in a public park in New York City. Similar composting systems are in place the Bronx Zoo and Queens Botanical Garden, but this was the first one in a New York City public park. The toilets in the innovative composting system designed by Swedish company Clivis Multrum use 97% less water than a traditional toilet, saving 250,000 gallons of water per year. Water from the sinks, floor drains and janitor sinks in the comfort station will go into the greywater garden. The Wellhouse Comfort Station dates back to 1869 when it originally contained the coal-powered steam engine mechanical pumping system that fed the streams and manmade features of Prospect Park. It was rendered obsolete when Prospect Park was connected to the city’s water system and the building fell into disrepair. Along with the addition of the composting system, the building underwent a major restoration. The portico was recreated, a historic paint scheme was applied, a new roof was installed and a significant below ground excavation was carried out to make room for the new composting bins.

7. One of the Oldest Buildings in Brooklyn is Inside the Park

There are many historic homes in the borough of Brooklyn and one of the oldest can be found right inside the park. The Lefferts Homestead, located at 452 Flatbush Ave, was originally built in the farming village of Flatbush. Today, the quaint Dutch style home sits in Prospect Park, six blocks from its original location. Built in 1783 after a previous structure was burnt down by American soldiers in the Revolution, the building was home to the Lefferts family, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Brooklyn at the time. In order to save the home from threats of new development, the John Leffert’s estate offered it to the city of New York in 1917 with the promise it be moved onto city owned property. The relocation ensured the home would be preserved for generations to come. The home now operates at the Lefferts Historic House museum where visitors can try their hand at 18th-century activities like candle making and butter churning while exploring the beautiful gardens and historic artifacts inside the house.

8. The Floating Goat that Cleans the Lake

Prospect Park Lake’s new aquatic weed harvester. Photo courtesy Prospect Park Alliance

In the summer of 2018, Prospect Park added a new member to its Natural Resources Crew, a giant orange boat dubbed originally the Lake “Mess” Monster. The aquatic weed harvester travels along the lake getting rid of excessive weeds that are later disposed of as mulch. Getting rid of these weeds helps keep the lake from being overrun with aquatic pests such as floating water primrose and duckweed. The bright new piece of equipment replaced an older model which was used in the park for twenty years. A public vote was held on what to name the new contraption, as Lake “Mess” Monster was just temporary.  More than 300 entries were submitted and then narrowed down and voted on by the park community. Out of the final nine options, the winner by a margin of 30 votes was “The Floating Goat.”

9. You Can Take a Foraging Tour of Prospect Park

“Wildman” Steve Brill leads foraging tours of New York area parks, including Prospect Park. Technically foraging is illegal in the city parks, and in the 1980s, Brill was arrested by a NY Parks Rangers for eating a dandelion. The arrest only served to enliven Brill’s foraging career and he eventually became an official Parks Department naturalist. For many years now, he has runs tours independently, though sometimes with his daughter. Brill’s tours are part of his mission to promote urban agriculture and sustainable eating. He has published three books on wild eating, consulted for the Parks department and advised several New York chefs on sustainable ingredient choices. You can learn more about Brill and his tours in Secret Brooklyn.

10. A New Monument to Shirley Chisholm Will Be Built in the Park

Rendering Courtesy of Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous

Prospect Park will soon be the site of the first female monument erected as part of the She Built NYC program. The program is working towards closing the “monument gap” between the number of male statues and female statues in New York City. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties, is the first to be honored. The design for the Shirley Chisholm monument, called Our Destiny, Our Democracy, was created by Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous and selected through the City’s Percent for Art program. The design will go through additional community input and public review and will be installed in Prospect Park, at Parkside Plaza by the end of 2020.

11. Real Goats Helped Cleared Invasive Species

Prospect Park Goats-Superstorm Sandy-Woodlands Restoration-Vale of Cashmere-Green Goats-Brooklyn-NYC_11 In 2016 and 2017, eights hungry goats were brought into Prospect Park to help restore the woodlands of the Vale of Cashmere, an area formed 17,000 years ago by the Wisconsin Glacier. Prospect Park is home to Brooklyn’s last remaining indigenous forests and recent storms, including Superstorm Sandy, had led to the loss of 500 trees. The goats were brought in as part of a 1.2 million dollar restoration effort. The goats eat weeds and invasive species down to the roots so they can’t grow again. The goats travelled down to the city from Green Goats farm in Rhinebeck and will returned there when their job was complete. They had performed similar services at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, the Gateway National Recreation Area, and most recently Riverside Park. Prospect Park is no stranger to animals. Long Meadow was once filled with a flock of sheep who grazed there for decades. According to Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece, in 1872 forty-four pigs, thirty-five goats, eighteen cows, and twenty-three horses were caught in the park.

12. There Used to be a Camera Obscura on top of Breeze Hill

The views from and within Prospect Park were key design elements, particularly during a time when the hills of the land provided panoramic views towards Manhattan, New Jersey and Staten Island. As a reflection of the importance of these hilltops, a camera obscura — an enclosed theater where landscape scenes were projected onto a table from a lens above — was built in 1874. A spot to still catch great views is Lookout Hill, where you can see the Coney Island Parachute Jump and Verrazano Bridge. While the camera obscura at Breeze Hill is no longer there, the primitive technology remains an entertaining way to capture images of New York City. In 2016 and 2018 a loft in Brooklyn was turned into a camera obscura and in 2019 an entire floor of the skyscraper at 101 Park Avenue was turned into one as well, with its own dark room for developing photos. Want to explore the park for yourself? Join Untapped Cities for a guided walking tour of the Secrets of Prospect Park! Secrets of Prospect Park Next, explore the top 10 secrets of Central Park and the top 10 secrets of Grand Central Terminal This article was written by Michelle Young and Nicole Saraniero