Not every metropolis in the world offers as much for free as New York City. Besides the pleasure of just walking around admiring the great city’s beauty, visitors can take advantage of no-cost excursions to learn about its history, art, and architecture. Central Park Conservancy (or CPC), for example, provides daily walking tours of various sections of the immense park. Last Thursday, I enjoyed their one-hour walk through “The Castle and Its Kingdom.” Our guide started out by telling us that the area now known as Central Park was originally a rocky, desolate swamp between 59th and 110th Streets. In the mid-nineteenth century Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a design competition to develop the 843-acre expanse into a public park. These two men, architects and landscape designers, wanted a space for citizens and visitors to experience the wonders of nature. Since its opening in 1857, however, the park had fallen onto hard times and by the nineteen-seventies had become a decrepit and dangerous place to be. In 1980, a group of civic-minded individuals formed the Conservancy and have been upgrading and maintaining the park’s buildings, lawns, and plants ever since.
None of the current amusement features, such as the Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre, skating on the ice rinks, or riding the Carousel, were included in the architectural plans. Olmsted and Vaux, working with another architect named Jacob Mould, did provide for a so-called “Victorian folly,” a decorative element popular at the time, here in the form of Belvedere Castle. Made of Manhattan schist, the rock which underlies most of the island, the Norman-style fortress was initially designed to have two towers, but its creators settled for one when the project ran low on funds. The castle, which now serves as the park’s Visitors’ Center, is located high up on Vista Rock and offers nice views of much of the mid-park area. To the north, one can see the man-made Turtle Pond, at one time part of the Croton Reservoir, the former supplier of water to the city. Beyond the pond is the Great Lawn which was created by filling in sections of the reservoir. The lawn contains several ball fields, which can be reserved by local teams, and is also used for cross-country skiing in the winter and annual summer concerts (from symphonies to opera to rock--some of them free as well). On the south side of the castle is the Ramble, a wild, wooded space on thirty plus acres. The weather from Central Park used to come directly from Belvedere Castle, but now has a sizeable, modernized facility inside the Ramble.
There were some interesting stone structures on our tour. Of over thirty bridges and arches in Central Park, we saw the lovely Greywacke Arch. Its strange name comes from one of the three stones Jacob Mould used to build it. According to our guide, Mould's interest in Moorish architecture led to the creation of this archway. Not only is it pretty from the exterior, but the underside is stunning in red brick with light-colored crosses. The oldest element in the park by far is the 3500-year-old Egyptian obelisk, called Cleopatra's Needle. Just transporting it to New York proved to be a big problem; William Vanderbilt came up with the idea of cutting a hole in the side of a ship and patching it back up once the 22-ton obelisk was inside. It then took another 4 months in 1881 to get it from the port on 96th street to its current location. The structure sits on a base supported by bronze crabs.
We really learned a lot on our free tour; I encourage you to see for yourself.