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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.