|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
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 Saturdays
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 Pauls
uncanny good luck with weather.
59th street to admire General Shermans sculpture by Augustus St.
Gaudi. St. Gaudi was a
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 parks first vista opened before us. Designed in 1858 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Parks 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.
felt a little cheated walking along the paths. The great escape from Manhattans
grid of polished
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 friends 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 Arsenals 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 parks 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.
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
pointed to a bench where an old-time banjo player usually played, we strolled
up a hill of
was inspired by English gardens which revolted against the French style
of order and
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 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.
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 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 citys aqueduct was still fairly new, but it had already made remarkable improvements to urban health, saving thousands of people from cholera and other disease.
was the first section of the park to be opened, in 1859. After buying
the land to build the
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,
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 guides wish on clear skies is immediately
granted, maybe we were not wrong to imagine that the animals were also
there for our
Yet, however constructed Central Parks beginnings, I noticed that preservation equaled virtueeven 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 didnt need the castle, it became a center for childrens programs. The weather center was a barb-wired space with instruments tucked into gravel, with snowfall measured at the zoo.
We leaned on the castles 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.
the pavilion to ramble the Shakespeare Garden, a quiet space recovered
from ruin by