Updated: Dec 1, 2019
Before Central Park was created, a community of predominantly African-Americans, many of whom owned property, lived in this area called Seneca Village at the time. In 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted a law that set aside 775 acres of land in Manhattan — from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues — to create the country’s first major landscaped public park.
The City acquired the land through eminent domain, the law that allows the government to take private land for public use with compensation paid to the landowner. This was a common practice in the 19th century, and had been used to build Manhattan’s grid of streets decades earlier.
The design, one of the great masterpieces of American art, was the result of the 1858 competition won by Connecticut-born journalist and agriculturalist Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and British-born and trained architect Calvert Vaux (1824-1895). They named their plan “Greensward” for their preferred landscapes of sweeping meadows and vast water bodies designed to appear limitless, while brilliantly belying the Park’s long and narrow rectangle within New York City’s rigid grid.
These pastoral scenes were carefully juxtaposed with the intimacy of picturesque woodlands featuring dense plantings, meandering streams, and dramatic rock work arranged to include naturalistic caves, grottos, follies and cascades. Moving though these orchestrated views would be the antidote to unforgiving crowded conditions in which much of the soaring population lived.
And because the designers recognized a need for civic socialization in their plan, they created a formal Mall, the grand elm-lined promenade and the main architectural feature, Bethesda Terrace, a two-tiered esplanade featuring elaborate carvings and a central sculptural fountain that eventually became Angel of the Waters when American artist Emma Stebbins was awarded the commission.
Since 1863, twenty-nine sculptures have been erected within Central Park. Most have been donated by individuals or organizations, few by the city itself. While many early statues are of authors and poets along "Literary Walk" and American figures like Daniel Webster and "the Pilgrim", other early works were simply picturesque, like The Hunter and The Falconer; other notable statues include sled dog Balto, an Egyptian obelisk called the "Cleopatra's Needle", Alice of Wonderland, and most recently Duke Ellington.
Located near Central Park West between 71st and 74th Street lies Strawberry Fields a 2.5 acre area of Central Park that pays tribute to the late Beatle, John Lennon, singer, songwriter, musician and peace activist. John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono lived in the Dakota Apartments adjacently located to this area of the park. It was here, walking into his home, on December 8, 1980, that John Lennon was murdered and shot dead.
A designated Quiet Zone in the Park, Strawberry Fields has also been endorsed as a Garden of Peace by 121 countries, whose names appear on a bronze plaque on the path leading to the memorial.
Spread over 843 acres of rolling terrain, beautiful lakes, and majestic trees, Central Park is full of attractions, and it is worth spending at least one day there getting lost and being surprised!