Central Park: A Musical Destination for all New Yorkers

The blog this week highlights the long tradition of music concerts in Central Park. It is adapted from our new book, “The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure.”

Alterations to Music Pavilion, mason’s and carpenter’s contract, 1886. Black and colored inks with colored washes on paper backed with linen, 23¾ x 34¾". Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The vividly colored Music Pavilion was originally constructed in 1862 and was moved to several different locations on the Mall during its lifetime. Jacob Wrey Mould prepared this drawing for alterations to the structure in 1886.

New Yorkers have enjoyed musical performances in Central Park from its earliest days. Park planners Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted believed that their urban oasis should provide not only “healthful recreation,” but also serve as a cultural destination for the appreciation of art and beauty. In 1859, an estimated five thousand people delighted in the first formal concert at a temporary bandstand built in the newly-opened Ramble.

Temporary winter covering for the Music Pavilion, carpenter’s and ironmonger’s contract, 1869. Black ink with colored washes on paper backed with linen, 19½ x 21". Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

As crowds grew larger, Vaux and Olmsted decided that the west side of the Mall, near the Bethesda Terrace, would be the ideal spot for a permanent structure. As they explained to the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park: “This site is recommended because it is conspicuous without being obtrusive, and is easy to access from the promenade [later known as the Mall] and from one of the leading avenue entrances; while, to the north, it commands from its terraces and verandas the finest views that are to be obtained in the lower part of the park.”

By 1862, the overwhelming popularity of free concerts in the park prompted the Board of Commissioners to approve building a permanent Music Pavilion to be located at the north end of the mall. Architect Jacob Wrey Mould’s Moorish-influenced cast-iron and wood bandstand, with six slender red columns that carried a bright blue cupola decorated with gilt stars, is still considered one of his park masterpieces.

Study for a floating music pavilion on the Lake, c. 1861. Black ink and pencil with colored washes on paper backed with linen, 17½ x 18½". Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

These detail maps show the pavilion’s positions on the Lake during a concert and when not in use; the central panel lifts up to reveal a second seating arrangement for a larger orchestra.

Before the Music Pavilion was built, Olmsted had toyed with a much different location. In 1861, he wrote to Central Park Board Commissioner Andrew Haswell Green suggesting that a bandstand floating on the Lake might be the best place to feature orchestras and bands during the concert season. Always fearful that large crowds of any size would trample and ruin the grass, Olmsted also believed that acoustics on the Lake would carry the music to listeners scattered around its shores, including on the Terrace, where chairs could be placed. The structure could be movable and would offer seating arrangements for both large and small groups of musicians. In the end, it was Mould’s Music Pavilion that was built, but occasionally a ten-man cornet band would give afternoon concerts from a boat on the water.

Here the Music Pavilion can be seen in its original location at the north end of the mall just behind a small decorative fountain that lead toward to the Terrace. The Pavilion would later be moved further the south and the fountain would be removed altogether. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Large crowds gather to enjoy a concert in the park, c. 1910. The bench seating was designed by Calvert Vaux especially for concert-goers around the Music Pavilion. Photo by A. Tennyson Beals, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Design for modification of the area in the vicinity of the Music Stand on the Mall, c. 1865. Black and colored inks with colored washes on paper backed with linen, 28 ½ x 21 1/4." Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In this drawing prepared by Calvert Vaux, we can see the Music Pavilion located along the western side of the mall. In 1884, a statue of Ludwig Van Beethoven was installed near this location of the Pavilion where it still stands today.

In 1921, Elkan Naumburg, a retired banker and music lover, offered the city $100,000 to replace the acoustically outdated Mould Pavilion. Naumburg’s nephew William Tachau designed the new venue in a neoclassical style. It was constructed with cream-colored Indiana limestone with side staircases and a coffered and gilded half-domed ceiling. Dedicated in 1923 and described as a “Temple of Music,” the Naumburg Bandshell is one of the few examples of the City Beautiful architectural style in the park. It is nestled into a hillside near the Mall and Pergola and has hosted everything from orchestral performances and big band era dances to a rousing speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

In addition to the Music Pavilion and the Bandstand, in more recent years the Great Lawn and the Sheep Meadow have served as open-air venues for concerts on a much grander scale. Ranging from Barbra Streisand in 1967 and Elton John in 1980 to the massive crowds that flood through the gates to see the annual concert given by the New York Philharmonic each year, the park has been filled with music to the delight of all New Yorkers for over 160 years.

Harvest dance contest at Naumburg Bandshell, September 1942. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Music remained a popular attraction in the park even after the removal of Mould’s Music Pavilion. The Naumburg Bandshell, designed by William Tachau, replaced it in 1923 and is still in use today.

These illustrations, and more than 250 others, such as the original winning competition entry submitted by Olmsted and Vaux, meticulously detailed plans and elevations of many of the architectural features of the park, as well as intricate engineering drawings are included in “The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure.” It is available at bookstores throughout the city and through on-line retailers.

Mayor Edward Koch walking through the crowds while waiting for the start of the annual concert given by the New York Philharmonic in Central Park, August 8, 1983. Mayor Edward I. Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Philharmonic’s concert in 1986 had an estimated attendance of 800,000 people, one of the largest gatherings for a musical event in the history of the park.