Reviews

CENTRAL PARK TOUR THE LAKE & THE RAMBLE
 
NEW YORK SPIRIT ARTICLE AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2003
 
A Day in the Park
We take a Walking Tour Through Central Park
by Kara Norman

Chilly rain greeted the walk I took through Central Park, arranged by the New York Open Center, but tour designer and guide, Paul Rush, was determined to close the clouds. The group had dwindled from eighteen to six by Saturday’s 10 a.m. check-in, but those of us who arrived at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel were assured a thorough walk and Paul’s uncanny good luck with weather.
Indeed, soon our umbrellas were soon tucked away. The fountain misted beneath a statue modeled on Audrey Munster, a woman considered the “American Venus” when the fountain was built in 1911. So celebrated was Munster that her figure appears all around New York. However, after minor attempts at a film career and two nervous breakdowns, Munster lived out her days anonymously in an upstate mental institution. As Paul told the familiar tale of beauty’s price tag, the ornamental floors of the Plaza rose like a last word on Munster’s fate.

We crossed 59th street to admire General Sherman’s sculpture by Augustus St. Gaudi. St. Gaudi was a
premier sculptor of the nineteenth century, and he also created the Memorial Arch at Prospect Park’s
Grand Army Plaza. In glowing bronze, re-gilded when the Trumps owned the Plaza, the goddess Nike led
Sherman while his horse trampled a Georgia Pine. The monument’s motion was captivating. As wind rustled the Callery Pear trees of Fifth Avenue, Nike’s tunic billowed ahead of Sherman’s ruffling garments.

On the way to the newly renovated pond, Paul pointed to the Lombard Lamp, a replica that I had never noticed before, from a bridge in Hamburg, Germany. The next four hours in the park opened up familiar scenes with these intimate details of history. Rather than stacking facts like weights, the tour inspired a quiet sleuthing in my wandering mind. A Park With a View As we descended the steps to the pond, the noise of the city disappeared and the park’s first vista opened before us. Designed in 1858 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park’s Greensward Plan invented modern landscaping. A masterpiece of design, the plan proposed a park with real views. Living photographs were framed by rambling walkways, variant arches, and carefully arranged trees. Everything in the park – all 26,000 trees, and every pond, lake, and field – was imported, constructed, or bent into shape on orders from Olmsted and Vaux. They impressively completed their mission with breathtaking, nearly perfect views throughout the park.

But I felt a little cheated walking along the paths. The great escape from Manhattan’s grid of polished
million-dollar buildings turned out to be as meticulously manicured as the fully waxed bodies of
glossy glamour mags. Nature was shaped once again by the human zeal to pluck, tuck, and stuff with a lust for presentable beauty.

Until 1853, when the state seized land to build New York City a park, the pond was a rank pig wallow that no one would approach, with slumping shanties and grass demolished by grazing goats. Paul described “a vast wasteland of swamps and rocky outcroppings” as we received the green gift that is now Central Park. The wildlife refuge island sat across from the carved bank where we walked next to yellow irises. Passing Gapstow Bridge, the green roof of the Hampshire Hotel rose next to the Essex on Central Park South. Paul pointed to a top apartment with three windows underneath the left chimneys. “In the Forties,” he said, “a German pilot stayed up there in his friend’s apartment to write a book he had carried in his mind for a long time, called ‘Le Petit Prince.’” Gazing over the tops of trees, watching the world from above, Antoine St-Exupery penned his famous line, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is most important is invisible to the eye.” Sometimes, however, what the eye can see matters as well. A sleeping figure lay on the pavement of the first stone arch as Paul talked about the street musicians who like to play in the park. I wondered if he would address homelessness in the park, but the slumped figure went without comment as we headed to the Central Park Zoo. Having just passed a man who slept on cement, I greeted the polar bear tank and penguin house with the chortle of irony. The Arsenal’s Tangled History Constructed before the park was plotted, the Arsenal rose in the middle of the zoo. The old ivied garrison, with stately turrets and enough austerity to impress any New England private school, was originally covered in stucco. Built in 1847 to store munitions in case of city riots, the Arsenal now houses the park’s administrative services and the Wildlife Conservation Center. The current tenants have little use for the long thin windows meant to protect rifle-bearers. Historic New York greeted us inside with a mural made possible by a 1935 WPA reconstruction that also added the outside staircase. Old rifle replicas cast in bronze supported the staircase balustrade, and cavalry drums jutted out from the building as lamps.

The history of the Arsenal includes many quirky New York tales. After the Civil War, General Sherman was working as a Wall Street banker while living on the Upper East Side. He frequently received gifts from other countries, and he stored the most ridiculous of these – a pair of water buffaloes – in the Arsenal basement. During park construction a menagerie was built around the Arsenal, but it was eventually moved, along with the buffalo, due to lack of space. The new location became the Bronx Zoo. And when storage room for the dinosaurs ran out, they founded the Museum of Natural History.

Old-Fashioned Touches Past the Arsenal, we stood under the Delacourte clock, with its monkeys striking a bell every half hour to cue bronzed animals to dance with musical instruments. Their dance is a rather slow mechanical circle. Imagination helped the kangaroo play a French horn while the bear smacked a tambourine. Having been raised on Disney, I recognized the fiddling hippo immediately. The sculptor of the clock, Heinrich Clay, was an inspiration to the illustrators of “Fantasia.”

We progressed under the Denesmouth arch, a grand sandstone work carved with gothic quatre-foils from 1859, just one of 35 different park bridges, ranging from brick to granite, marble, and rustic wood. Designed by seldom-credited Jacob Wrey Mould, these arches separated traffic into pedestrian paths, bridal trails, and carriage drives. Paul pointed out the silence when we were underneath, adding that the arches were planned without knowledge of the automobiles that would buzz overhead with
coffee-cranked horns. Through the arch, a sign advertising the Tisch Children’s Zoo challenged the
city’s modern pace with illustrated turtles sweetly suggesting, “Try life in our fast lane.”

As Paul pointed to a bench where an old-time banjo player usually played, we strolled up a hill of
Virginia bluebells and passed an outcropping of Manhattan shist, the gleaming rock that made the
island’s skyscrapers possible. Some patches of shist appeared stretched out because twenty-five thousand years ago the Great Wisconsin Glacier moved like a conveyer belt of ice smoothing everything it crossed on its way to the Arctic Circle. Fordham Nice, a rock located mostly in the Bronx, sometimes occured as white stripes in the silver shist. The only original aspects of the park, even the outcroppings were shaped by the Greensward Plan.

The plan was inspired by English gardens which revolted against the French style of order and
symmetry. Olmstead indulged popular Victorian sensibilities with the Mall, the park’s central formal
element. We entered this cobbled alley at the south end where the Olmsted Bed hosted a green island with a Japanese maple. A statue of Columbus introduced the otherwise literary section called Poet’s Walk, with statues of Shakespeare, Robert Brown, Sir Walter Scott, and Fitz-Greene Halleck, an all-but-forgotten nineteenth century poet. After publishing in William Cullen Bryan’s Saturday Evening Post, Halleck’s legacy has now dwindled to this single bronzed statue. But when it was unveiled soon after his death, 10,000 people came to mourn – so his fame lasted at least longer than that of abandoned muse Audrey Munster.

Perhaps Olmsted and Vaux knew the ironic jabs that history takes at its central figures when they shaped the park as a romantic landscape. Escaping graphic urban detail, I admired the flexed artistic muscles of the park. Olmsted designed a grand view down the Mall, over the lake, across the Ramble, to Vista Rock, where Belvedere Castle rose before the Great Lawn. The south end of the Mall was supposed to be the greatest vista of the park. “But if Olmsted returned today,” Paul said, “The first thing he would ask for would be a pair of shears.” The trees of the park grew so much that they obstructed his beloved view and the castle was not visible as intended. Instead, nature grew in
the way of design, as the largest surviving American elm forest in North America stole the show.
Wrought-iron rails lined fresh green grass and elms spouted black limbs to the sky. This, I thought, was
still the park’s most beautiful view.

The north end of the Mall was capped by Bethesda Terrace, which opened out to the lake. The terrace,designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, was a breathtaking union of ornamental carvings: gothic arches with ivy flowers, balustrades of buzzing bees, walls withberries and singing birds. When I stopped to sketch asingle detail I was overwhelmed by choice and the playfulness of each image. The square posts at the top of the staircase leading under the street were particular triumphs of mischief. The eastern post depicted a rising sun to the east, a rooster to the south, and a harvest field with a cottage to the west. We crossed the staircase, as the sun would, to the western post displaying a lantern above a book to the east, an owl to the south, and a witch on a broomstick to the west where night bloomed full. The designers obviously had more than a little fun drawing up their city playground.

Underneath the terrace was a wide space lined with ornate marble panels that reminded me of stained glass arches, decorated with geometric shapes and astrological signs instead of religious narratives.
The ceiling was being renovated but we peeked at a sample section of the Minton tiles, that were handmade by a process perfected by 12th century French monks. Avoiding the rain-slicked bricks, roller-bladers teetered along an instructed lesson that echoedthrough the cold space.

The terrace opened to a striking winged sculpture on a pedestal in a large round fountain. Her name, Angel of the Waters, was taken from the biblical story of Bethesda that celebrates the healing power of water. When the sculpture was designed in 1859, the city’s aqueduct was still fairly new, but it had already made remarkable improvements to urban health, saving thousands of people from cholera and other disease.

The lake was the first section of the park to be opened, in 1859. After buying the land to build the
park, city officials were anxious to show off progressing construction. They opened the lake for
ice-skating on a freezing December night. Papers reported 100,000 people skating by the shining light
of a calcium lamp. Papers also described a separate space to the northwest of the lake where women were supposed to skate, which was eliminated by thefollowing year.

A Natural Oasis We wound down the trail along the lake, past a double-petaled cherry tree and old London plain trees with trunks like gray and white camouflage. An egret with drooping white plumes stood erect on a rock across the lake, and Paul spoke of Great Blue Heron sightings in the summer months. Just past the boathouse, we entered the Ramble. This was designed to be the “natural” part of the park, meant to evoke wandering woodpaths thick with wildflowers and trees. Paul reminded us that every hill, tree and flower was put there by human hands, but enchantment was still possible. A woman on the tour exclaimed, “You can come every week and get a different view!” In early spring,
splendid forsythia had bloomed with pale daffodils, but in waning summer days, magnolias and willows bowed handsomely around the park.

Though the paths we walked were paved with concrete, the animals that crawled them were real. “Oh look!” Paul pointed to a sparrow. “An LBJ – Little Brown Job.” Other ornithologists have joined the Audubon Society to scout over 100 varieties of birds in the Ramble. A squirrel posting on the end of a stick balanced straight up as if were part of the wood, an impressive feat. “What a showoff,” someone said. I laughed, my Disney past creeping up again as I pictured Snow White communing with her creatures. In an illustrated land of carved stone and fake hills, where a tour guide’s wish on clear skies is immediately granted, maybe we were not wrong to imagine that the animals were also there for our
amusement.

Yet, however constructed Central Park’s beginnings, I noticed that preservation equaled virtue—even dead trees were not removed. On the way to Belvedere castle we passed a great chestnut tree roped off in an open field. Its limbs were muscularly fat, roped to protect against adventurous feet. Like the cosmetic ladies along Fifth Avenue, New York would have us believe that everything can be immortalized, from literary history in apartment attics to a hearty tree growing from the earth. The larger truth – that time devours health, youth, even fame eventually – is fended off with fences, or gilded in bronze.

Peace in the Park We climbed the steps carved out of shist as a runner sprinted past us to Vista Rock, where Belvedere Castle overlooked Turtle Pond. The castle was what Paul called, “architectural folly,” built for the sheer joy of it. In a Rapunzel fantasy where a sunny day might have invited turtle princes to warm on yawning rocks below, gothic romance reigned supreme. After the US Weather Center decided they didn’t need the castle, it became a center for children’s programs. The weather center was a barb-wired space with instruments tucked into gravel, with snowfall measured at the zoo.

We leaned on the castle’s stone walls as Paul pointed to “the front yard of New York City,” the Great Lawn. Thanks to the 15 million dollar grant of a benevolent trust fund and ever-meticulous lawnkeepers, the Great Lawn was a blinding swath of green grass thicker than carpet. It had come a long way from its state duringthe Great Depression, when Hooverville shacks saturated its field.

We deserted the pavilion to ramble the Shakespeare Garden, a quiet space recovered from ruin by
volunteers in the seventies. It was planted with medieval vegetation mentioned by the Bard, like pine
trees, pale pink roses, cottage tulips, bordered by an Elizabethan lattice wood fence. We passed the runner, who was now stretching. I thought of the turtles in the zoo suggesting a gentler speed. Stepping onto a slope of shist, I realized my good fortune. It is said that you can either have fun or you can take pictures, but Olmsted and Vaux had solved that conundrum. With the elegant scene already arranged, enjoyment was my full and blooming task.

NYS

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