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Historic Maps Reveal the Secrets of Four Iconic NYC Parks

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Did you know that Central Park's southeast entrance at 59th Street is dedicated to scholars? Or that the area by Prospect Park's new Lakeside complex was once a parking lot for horse-drawn carriages? Old maps are fun to look at—and they often hold forgotten secrets like these. Curbed's resident map expert, Keith Williams, dug through the archives to unearth the original plans for four of New York City's most prominent parks to better understand their stories.

Van Cortlandt Park

At 1,146 acres, Van Cortlandt Park is the third largest in the city—yet it still boasts a number of superlatives. It has the largest freshwater lake in the Bronx. It has the oldest municipal golf course in the country, dating from 1895, its vintage clubhouse recently renovated. Its parade ground is the largest in the five boroughs. It hosts some of the top cross-country races in the Northeast, if not the entire country.

To some, the toughest part of that 3.1-mile course is Cemetery Hill, formally known as Vault Hill. It's there you'll find the family plot of the Van Cortlandt family, who first bought this property in the 17th century. Descendants donated most of the land for the park in 1888.

This area saw a couple of notable events during the Revolutionary War. Augustus Van Cortlandt stashed the city's records in the family's burial vault for fear they'd be destroyed by the Redcoats. More notably, the British massacred and, in some cases, hacked to pieces, a contingent of Stockbridge Indians in 1778. These Mohicans were buried in a mass grave at Indian Field, which some believe to be haunted.

By that time, public works projects had entered the park site. Two railroads laid tracks in the 1880s, splitting off near the bottom of Van Cortlandt Lake, just above a station (the remnants of which still exist). The Old Croton Aqueduct, built in 1837, was in the process of being replaced by the New Croton Aqueduct, which still supplies water to the city. One rail route and the old aqueduct now have trails in their steads.

In 1912, the portions of the Van Cortlandt estate not donated to the city were auctioned off. The booklet hawked the area's accessibility, including the now-defunct railroad station: "The property does not need to wait for rapid transit."

The park's wetlands and woods have long been a haven for many types of animals and plants, but that didn't stop Robert Moses from installing three parkways starting in the 1930s. To protect this ecosystem, the city designated more than half of the park's area as Forever Wild. Included in this area is the city's largest forest.

Central Park

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Central Park is how little its layout has changed since 1870, when designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were fired by "Boss" Tweed in favor of his cronies. (They were rehired the following year, after Tweed's embezzlement activities came to light.) the Sheep Meadow, the Mall, the Onassis Reservoir, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all remain in place today. There are a few notable differences, however, two of which are particularly worth mentioning.

Receiving Reservoir

When the city set out to improve Central Park in 1856, there was only one thing of note inside its bounds: a giant fortress known as the Receiving Reservoir. Finished in 1842, its role was to collect water from the Old Croton Aqueduct (the one that ran through Van Cortlandt Park)—35 million gallons a day. It was bounded by Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and 79th and 86th Streets, part of the area then known as Yorktown.

The Receiving Reservoir pumped water down to the Distributing Reservoir, another humongous facility that consumed the site of today's New York Public Library main branch and Bryant Park. Each day, 35 million gallons of fresh Catskills water flowed into this enormous tank, which measured 1,826 by 836 feet and had a capacity of 180 million gallons.

In 1940, Robert Moses decided the space used by the Receiving Reservoir might be better employed by green things, so he had it filled. The Great Lawn was its replacement.

The 1870 Olmsted & Vaux plan (Wikipedia Commons) and the current map (Central Park Conservancy).

For more on the history of the reservoir system, check out the New-York Historical Society's page.

Named gates

The entrance at East 90th Street is still widely known as Engineer's Gate, but as early as 1862, every single entrance had a theme meant to represent the people who might use it. Maybe it's time to bring those back into popular use, as many of them are quite lovely.

Southeast Corner Scholar's Gate
East 72nd Children's Gate
East 79th Miner's Gate
East 90th Engineer's Gate
East 96th Woodman's Gate
East 102nd Girl's Gate
Northeast Corner Pioneer's Gate
6th Avenue North Farmer's Gate
7th Avenue North Warrior's Gate
Northwest Corner Stranger's Gate
West 100th Boy's Gate
West 96th Gate of All Saints
West 85th Mariner's Gate
West 79th* Hunter's Gate
West 72nd Woman's Gate
Southwest Corner Merchant's Gate
7th Avenue South Artizan's [sic] Gate
6th Avenue South Artist's Gate

*later moved to West 81st Street around the turn of the 20th century, when the American Museum of Natural History started to take shape.

Flushing Meadows–Corona Park

"The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour." —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925

You know part of the Valley of Ashes better today as Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, home to Citi Field and the U.S. Open. Before Robert Moses acquired much of the land for the 1939 World's Fair, the site was, quite literally, a dump—mainly for furnace ash from coal-fired plants around the city. The "small foul river" Fitzgerald describes is Flushing Creek.

Before being buried under garbage, the creek was a salt marsh, home to a vibrant array of wildlife, and a magnet to fans of the outdoors. "Gardening, fruit growing, and the nursery business constitute the leading pursuits of the people," wrote one source in 1860. The creek became the centerpiece of the park, although it was submerged under the Fountain of the Planets, and its source is now buried under a highway interchange.

Since its first revitalization in 1939, Shea Stadium has come and gone; the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center has risen and expanded; and Citi Field began hosting the hapless Mets. Several remnants of both World's Fairs remain, and the park is still the largest in Queens.

Prospect Park

The crown jewel of Olmsted & Vaux almost took a few different forms. This one, from Egbert Viele, who took the position of Engineer of Prospect Park in 1860, has Flatbush Avenue cutting right down the middle. (The Brooklyn Historical Society blog has a few other early proposals.)

By 1870, Olmsted & Vaux had ditched the northern half of the Viele plan and convinced the City of Brooklyn to buy some land from the Town of Flatbush to the south. They also made an agreement with the Quakers to keep their private burial ground off-limits to parkgoers. It's a unique enclave on Center Drive just southeast of the baseball fields.

Even at 585 acres, it's not the largest park in Brooklyn; that honor belongs to Marine Park along Jamaica Bay, which has 798 acres. Prospect Park does claim, however, to have the longest unbroken stretch of meadow in any park in the United States: the Long Meadow, which stretches for a mile south of Grand Army Plaza.

Surprisingly, many of the notable changes to Prospect Park came for a single reason: ice skating. For nearly a century, what was known as the Lullwater was the unofficial spot for the activity. One problem: it was subject to the weather.

Enter Robert Moses, who had already created the park's zoo, the Bandshell (where Celebrate Brooklyn! is held), and most of the park's playgrounds. For the park's 1966 centennial, Moses overrode local opinion and filled in part of Prospect Park Lake (including the popular Music Island) to create Wollman Rink.

Comparison of the 1870 map with the present Prospect Park map.

Not only did Wollman Rink take up a chunk of the waterfront, it also blocked views of Lookout Hill, the highest point in the park. In December 2013, Lakeside, home of the new Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center. Funny how a seemingly harmless activity can have such an effect on the geography of a shared space, but at least the latest iteration restored the shoreline to Olmsted & Vaux's original vision.
—Keith Williams
· Outdoors Week 2014 [Curbed]