No natural landmark in New York City is as iconic as its beloved 843-acre park. As Columbia University professor Elizabeth Blackmar notes in her book The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, it’s made cameos in high and low culture alike, from the writings of Walt Whitman and J. D. Salinger to pop culture standbys like “Wall Street” and “When Harry Met Sally.”
These days, 42 million people visit Central Park every year, rambling about its sprawling Sheep Meadow, its lovely lake, and its epic gardens. Seth Kamil, whose company Big Onion has led tours of Central Park and other NYC landmarks for a quarter century—and who actually met his wife while leading one of his tours decades ago—told us a few little-known facts about this historic 19th-century landmark.
The park was probably founded to boost nearby residents’ property values.
In 1853, the New York State legislature passed the law to set aside 750 acres in Manhattan for America’s first major public landscaped park. Although it’s true that some rich New Yorkers simply wanted a beautiful park similar to those in London, thus making New York a world-class destination, “I’m a little more cynical,” says Kamil. “Much of the land in what is now the park was useless for much of the 19th century, so I’d argue that the park was chosen to bolster property values of the land surrounding the park.” Central Park’s rocky, craggy stretches were “impossible to dynamite,” he points out, so the land wasn’t used, and it wasn’t easy on the eyes for nearby residents. “It’s nice to say, ‘Oh, yes, it allowed us to compete with European cities,’ but as is true of many things in New York, it was actually done for profit.
A newspaper editor was the first one to clamor for Central Park.
There are conflicting accounts as to the park’s primary proponents, but according to Kamil and Blackmar, the first was William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Evening Post. In a fashion reminiscent of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorchampioning the Brooklyn Bridge, he called for “a new park” in 1844. “He said, ‘It’s good for your health, good for the city, good for all these things,'” paraphrases Kamil.
There was a very specific, open-to-the-public competition to design the park.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux beat out 32 competitors in 1858 for the right to design Central Park. The open contest was very specific: It had to have a parade ground, a principal fountain, a lookout tower, a skating arena, four cross streets, and a place for an exhibition or a concert hall. Olmsted and Vaux seamlessly designed a naturalistic landscape hitting all those notes: Sheep Meadow, Bethesda Fountain, Belvedere Tower, the lake, and the sunken traverse roads in the park’s center.
Sheep Meadow really did once have sheep.
The park’s iconic sheep meadow truly once was populated by sheep, at Olmsted’s insistence: “For aesthetic purposes, he wanted sheep,” said Kamil. “Gray and white to offset themselves against the green grass.” The sheep were stored at the Tavern on the Green, next to a dairy, and let out on to the meadow to graze twice daily.