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25 Little-Known Facts About Olmsted & Vaux's Masterpiece

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Prospect Park, the 585-acre green heart of Brooklyn, is arguably the best park in New York City?even its famed designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert B. Vaux, considered it their masterpiece?and a new book reveals all the secrets and hidden histories of the man-made gem. Simply titled Prospect Park, the illustrated book traces the park's history from its creation in the mid-19th century to today. Written by David P. Colley, with photographs by Elizabeth Keegin Colley, the detailed account is the first ever monograph about Prospect Park, and it's sure to teach even the most frequent park visitors something new.

We chose 25 of the most interesting and little-known facts to highlight here, but we're also giving one reader the chance to learn them all by giving away a copy of the book. To enter, simply send your name and a photo of your favorite place in Prospect Park to Bonus points if you take the photo yourself. [UPDATE: This competition is now closed.]

1. East Drive follows an old Native American trail that branched off of a larger path that ran between what are now Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.

2. Even in the 19th century, Manhattanites had beef with Brooklyn. An 1818 guidebook of New York "urged visitors 'to flee the narrow, dirty and disagreeable place.'"

3. Prospect Park was developed largely without interference from politicians because state laws allowed the the Brooklyn Park Commission, with James Stranahan as commissioner, to do whatever it pleased. It didn't worry about cost overruns and spent a lot of public money on the park, making it extremely unpopular.

4. Speaking of money, the park cost $9,919,370 to build. The 1860 act authorizing the park said it was not supposed to exceed $300,000.

5. Before the park was built, nearby farmers would let their animals roam freely on the land, and they had to be constantly rounded up and returned to their owners. This was a problem even after the park opened in 1867. In 1872, 44 pigs, 35 goats, 18 cows, and 23 horses were impounded.

6. Olmsted may be given the most credit for Prospect Park, but it was Vaux who created most of the designs. He's responsible for the arches, the Concert Grove, bridges, and rustic shelters that blend into the landscape. He also created several other structures that have since been demolished.

7. Prospect Park's design was largely inspired by Birkenhead Park in England.

8. Egbert Viele created an original plan for the park, which would have been built had the Civil War not halted construction, giving the parks commission time to review other designs. Viele's plan was 228 acres smaller than Olmsted and Vaux's and included much less landscaping. It did not have a lake, ravine, waterfalls, or many of the structures.

9. The walkways, paths, and drives of the original park had no straight lines to create "the impression of unending space.

10. Park construction workers were paid $1.70 per day.

11. Olmsted was way ahead of his time in creating a drainage system for the park that fed runoff into the streams and lakes. Still in use today, the network of pipes branches out under the Long Meadow and through the Ravine and Nethermead.

12. The economic Panic of 1873 canceled the construction of several grand structures. A restaurant with cascading terraces near the Concert Grove, an observation tower planned for the top of Lookout Hill, and a carriage concourse that looked like a giant top were just a few of the Vaux designs that never came to be.

13. In the late 1800s, archery was one of the most popular activities on the Long Meadow.

14. During winters, the lake was jampacked with skaters and other ice sports, including the incredibly dangerous sounding game of ice baseball. "In 1883, crowds gathered in the bitter cold to watch a Baltimore ice-baseball club defeat a hometown squad 15 to 16."

15. Picnics were illegal in Central Park during the late 1800s, but they were wildly popular in Prospect Park. From an 1886 Brooklyn Eagle article: "The park authorities of Gotham would shudder at the thought of picnic parties in Central Park, where the grass is sacred to sheep but denied to children."

16. Near the end of the 19th century, the park was in desperate need of repairs. Overuse and disrespect left piles of picnic scraps, broken trees, and much more. An 1887 report detailed the damage: "The grass has been worn away, the ground has become hard enough to turn water. Until this season, the soil has had constant use for 15 years, have had no rest or nourishment and but little moisture...To allow this to continue would result in killing trees and disfiguring the Park." The City Beautiful movement in the 1890s spurred restoration, which was estimated at $100,000.

17. Grand Army Plaza held two different fountains before the current one. The second, installed in 1897, was an electric fountain with "prismatic water display" by T.W. Darlington. "A series of lamps, parabolic mirrors, and colored glass blended with two thousand jets, ball sprays, ring fans, and funnels" to create shows. Twenty thousand visitors watched the debut display.

18. In 1915, a large part of the park almost became a golf course. Instead, a smaller course was built on the Peninsula.

19. In the early 20th century, families would sleep in the park during the summer.

20. Robert Moses is responsible for destroying several original Vaux buildings, including the Concert Grove and the Dairy, which sold milk from the cows and sheep that originally roamed the grounds. Central Park's Dairy, similar in style to Prospect Park's, is now the visitor center and shop. In 1932, Moses also built a replica of Mount Vernon on the Peninsula. It lasted two years before it was torn down.

21. The park zoo accepted donated animals from other places, and it "became a dumping ground for unwanted" creatures. Not long after the Central Park Zoo opened in 1935, "Joe, an 'imperious' male sea lion, was transferred to Prospect Park because his nocturnal barking disturbed the sleep of the influential Fifth Avenue residents."

22. Crime in the park got so bad that by 1974, 44 percent of New Yorkers "warned everyone to stay away from Prospect Park."

23. Under Tupper Thomas' leadership, the park drastically began to improve in the 1980s. While crime continued to climb in the city, it declined in Prospect Park.

24. A five-year restoration of the Ravine began in 1996. During the '70s, it had been largely gutted to discourage muggers from hiding in the underbrush, and by the mid-90s, even the stream was practically non-existent. The $4.5 million project included retrieving and replacing boulders and digging deeper waterbeds that were suitable for wildlife. Olmsted and Vaux's original design was pretty, but not very functional; the waterways were not deep enough or engineered properly to last without constant maintenance.

25. Lakeside has restored the southern shoreline of the lake, and there are plans to bring back other Olmsted and Vaux features. Restoration of the Concert Grove, Oriental Pavilion, and the entire area north of the zoo through the little-known Vale of Cashmere are targeted for future projects.
· Prospect Park [Princeton Architectural Press]
· Prospect Park coverage [Curbed]