New York City

The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, a conversation with author Cynthia Brenwall

The Department of Records & Information Services is pleased to announce The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, will be in bookstores beginning Tuesday, April 16. We asked author Cynthia Brenwall, conservator at the Municipal Archives, to share her favorite stories about the park and to highlight some of the beautiful drawings from the collection that are featured in the book.

Kenneth Cobb: One of the most striking drawings in the collection, the gilded bird cage, is on the cover of the book. Is it true that the cages contained live birds in the early years of the park?

Ornamental birdcage on a blue stone pedestal, 1864.

Attributed to Jacob Wrey Mould, architect.

Black ink and watercolor with pencil on paper, 18 ½ x 13 ¼ inches

Cynthia Brenwall: Yes, they put live birds in the cages for the enjoyment of visitors promenading on the mall near the Terrace. We do not know when they removed the cages, but their bases are still in the park today, used to hold large floral planters.

KC: It must have been difficult to choose from the more than 1,500 drawings of the park in the collection. Can you describe how you came up with the overall organization of the book?

CB: With so many amazing drawings in our collection, my hardest task was selecting items that best represented different areas of the park. The creators of the park, Olmsted and Vaux, felt that the view and the scenic landscape that they devised were the most important aspect of the park. I wanted to find a way to convey how they made sure a visitor would experience a “respite for the eye and the soul,” as I put it, from any point in the park. In the southern end of the park they installed a formal landscape with linear views and features such as distinctive bridges, natural looking bodies of water and pathways for pedestrians, horses and carriages. Moving northward in the park, the view becomes more rugged featuring the natural landscape of rock outcroppings, rolling hills and long vistas. Finally, there is the ceremonial and architecturally detailed Bethesda Terrace and Mall—the heart of the park.

Map of Central Park, c. 1875. Black ink on linen, 24 x 74 inches.

This map shows work both planned and completed as of the mid-1870s. It includes Drives, Rides, Walks, bridges, named gates, and major structures as well as several building that were being planned at the time but were never completed.

In the early stages of shaping how I would display the drawings in the book, I found a very detailed map of the park from 1872. As I began identifying all the places on the map that corresponded to the drawings I realized I could organize the book as though the visitor were strolling through the park, enjoying these ever-changing, but always pastoral, views.

Huddlestone Arch, plan showing the southern elevation and a schematic sketch of the north side, 1864.

Black ink with pencil on graph paper, 13 ¼ x 16 ½ inches

KC: We often say that along with the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park was one of the greatest public works achievements of the 19th century. What were some innovative features of the park that you found illustrated in the drawings?

CB: Probably the best known feature is the transverse roads. Again, it was all about the views. The designers knew they had to accommodate vehicular traffic across the park but did not want to spoil the views, or the visitors’ sense of being in a natural landscape. The below-grade transverse roads brilliantly solved the problem. This design feature contributed to Vaux and Olmsted’s submission, “The Greensward” being selected as the winning entry in the contest to design the Park

Another of my favorite innovative designs is the Huddlestone Arch in the northern section of the park. It is constructed completely out of stones excavated during park construction. It uses only gravity (no mortar or other binding materials) to hold it together and it is still today a load-bearing (cars and trucks instead of horse drawn carriages) roadway carrying the East Drive over the Loch. The largest stone is estimated to weigh two tons.

Plan of Terrace drainage, showing drains and basin, 1863. Black and red ink colored washes and pencil on graph paper, 16 x 13 inches

Some of the most fascinating drawings are those pertaining to the unseen, but very necessary drainage system devised for the swampy areas of what became the park. George E. Waring, Jr., age 23, was the original drainage engineer. He developed a spider web of clay drains that carried water in and out of the park lands, and the collection contains stunning drawings of the wells and how the system worked.

Another new technology illustrated by the drawings were tree grates—probably not something that park visitors give much thought to. They were first developed in Paris as a way to allow trees to root deeper in the earth along walkways, and to prevent people from trampling on new plantings. The first use of tree grates in America was our Central Park.

Ornamental tree gratings, ironmonger’s details, c. 1872. Ink and watercolor on paper, 18 x 20 inches

KC: What are some of the other hidden secrets of the park that you discovered during your research for the book?

Drinking fountain on the Esplanade, elevation, stonecutter’s and ironmonger’s contract, 1865. Jacob Wrey Mould, architect.

Black and colored inks with colored washes on paper, 14 x 10 inches

CB: Drinking fountains! The park planners knew how important water would be for park visitors, both human and animal. And speaking of water for animals, the design for the drinking trough for horses is a lovely example of their attention to the smallest detail. We have two drawing that show drinking fountains for horses, one of which is still in the park today at Cherry Hill near the Lake. It features Minton Tiles and bird baths above the drinking trough.

The drinking fountains for people are placed throughout the park. Several near the Terrace included a hidden luxury—water would pass over blocks of ice providing chilled water on hot summer days. During the early years of the park, the drinking fountains featured a shared common cup attached with a chain to the fountain. Fears of communicable diseases, such as cholera and yellow fever, led to the end of the common cup practice after 1910.

KC: I expect that many readers will enjoy the drawings of the Paleozoic Museum and the rendering of what they thought a dinosaur would look like.

CB: There was to be a Paleozoic Museum on the west side of the park. They built the foundation for the museum, and plaster models of the dinosaurs, but the City’s political leaders at that time, ca. 1871, preferred lighthearted entertainment rather than educational or cultural institutions within the park.

Paleozoic Museum, transverse view with specimens, 1870. Ink and watercolor on paper, 19 x 26 inches.

This side view shows an example of an interior scene proposed for the museum, which was to include aquariums, geological specimens as well as reconstruction of dinosaurs in the main exhibition hall.

KC: Have you thought of a name for your dinosaur?

CB: No, not yet. Maybe we should make that into a contest… name the dinosaur??!!

KC: Are all the features of the park that we enjoy today included in the original design?

Swedish Schoolhouse (Svenska Skolhauset), perspective view and ground plan. Magnus Isaeus, architect, 1876. Black ink and pencil on paper, 21 x 14 inches.

The Swedish Schoolhouse is the only structure in park that was originally designed for something other than Central Park

CB: The Swedish Schoolhouse (now the marionette theater and called the Swedish Cottage) is the only building that was not designed specifically for the park. It had been built as the Swedish entry into the Philadelphia World Exhibition of 1876 and was later transplanted to Central Park. Over the years it has served as a bike shelter, an entomological laboratory, a library and even a Civil Defense headquarters during WWII.

And of course legendary Park Commissioner Robert Moses made numerous changes to the park. The original park plan did not include playgrounds as we know them, but rather large open areas for “healthful recreation.” Moses installed nearly forty “pocket playgrounds” throughout the park in the 1930s and early 40s.

KC: I know that you conducted a great deal of research to provide context for the illustrations in the book. What were some of the most useful resources?

CB: I made extensive use of Parks Commission and Department annual reports here in our Municipal Library, as well as the minutes and reports of the City’s legislative bodies—the Common Council, Board of Aldermen, etc. in the Municipal Archives. These government records helped me follow how changes in the city’s political landscape translated into changes in our park landscape. They also provided good factual data about payments, work timelines and specific projects that were completed during a given time period.

KC: What is your favorite place in the Park?

Drinking fountain for horses, bronze details, 1871. Black and red ink with colored washes on paper, 17 x 25 inches

CB: I love the more wild and untamed landscapes of the north end of the park. There are many hidden features to discover near the Loch and it feels like you are wandering through the country-side.

KC: Favorite drawing?

CB: There are so many amazing drawings in our collection. I love the tilework designs within the Bethesda Terrace Arcade. I spent a lot of time on the conservation treatment of that drawing and the tiles are stunning. But my absolute favorite drawing is the simple temporary enclosure post that I used at the end of the book. It is minimal and elegant and represented to me that no detail was too small to be overlooked in the design of the park. That, and the fact that it is one of the few drawings to include the names of the architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould as well as Frederick Law Olmsted who was serving as the president and treasurer of the Board of Commissioners.

Temporary enclosure posts for Central Park, 1872.

Ink and watercolor on paper, 19 x 12 inches

This preliminary study was prepared by Vaux and Mould and was approved by Olmsted, who was serving as the president and treasurer of the Board of Commissioners at the time.

Outtakes: Behind the Scenes with the Tax Photo Photographers

Defaced outtake negative from the 1940s Tax Photos. Despite appearing throughout the collection, the names of the men on the tax photo project remain a mystery.

The first job I had at the Municipal Archives was as a photographer, which basically meant I spent eight hours a day in the darkroom printing 1940s tax photos. Day after day looking at thousands of tax photos a year, I started to wonder about the photographers who took the pictures and the men who often appear in them. Just who were they? It is one of the research questions that has stymied us over the years. However, by the nature of their method, which involved a metal sign with interchangeable numbers and letters to designate the borough, block and lot (the BBL), the assistant often had to hold the sign to steady it and, therefore, appears as an incidental subject in the photographs. Were these men also photographers? We were never sure. They appeared to work in pairs, one shooting and the other changing the sign and recording the roll number for each BBL in a ledger book.

A recent review of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s records in the Municipal Archives reveals that he was sent monthly progress reports on the tax photos. These provide details on the timing and working methods of the project. We knew that the photographers used 35mm Leica cameras (one is clearly visible in a group portrait). They were a specialty item at the time, purchased with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In May 1939 the Assessor in Charge of the Department of Taxation Research Bureau complained [in a report in Mayor LaGuardia’s files] that “the materials are still being held up by Washington authorities and the W.P.A. has submitted to Washington further information to justify the purchase of certain cameras…” He also noted that Municipal Building alterations were being “made to Room 910, Manhattan, which will be used as our new photographic room.”

Unidentified clerk in Brooklyn with a BBL sign, 1940s Tax Photo outtake. The clerks of the Tax Photo project most frequently appear in the photographs, but sometimes the photographers do too.

A horse-drawn delivery wagon in the Bronx, ca. 1940.

By October 16th, 1939 the Assessor in Charge, John F. St. George, reported: “During this month [September] the photographic phase was begun with a small group of photographers and film processors. About 1200 buildings have been photographed and prints made.” So we know that the photography did not begin until September 1939, and that was only in Manhattan; work in the other boroughs would start “in the near future.” In November he was able to report that “10 photographers were working in the field and four in the laboratory. 6200 exposures have been made and 3100 enlargements are completed. These pictures are being placed on the property cards.” By December 5th, he reported that work was underway in Brooklyn as well as Manhattan and that there were 22 photographers in the field and 9 in the laboratory. By May they reported that photographic work was underway in the Bronx and Staten Island, and Manhattan was almost completed. By July 1940 Manhattan photography was completed except for reshoots.  The semi-annual progress report for July to December 1940 states that 108 people were working on the photographic phase as of December (most of these would have been working in the office) and that “Identifying and Photographing Buildings in the Field” was “performed by photographers assisted by clerks.” These clerks then are the ones most often appearing in the photographs holding the sign, or in the outtakes filling out ledgers or relaxing.

When loading a roll of 35mm film, it is customary to shoot 1 or 2 frames to advance the film exposed during the loading process. These junk frames might have fogging from the loading process and are often just random angles. However, the outtakes in the Tax collection have always intrigued us because they often showed bits of the tax photographers’ daily routine, the clerks and sometimes photographers themselves. In shots both deliberate and intentional there are photos of the teams at work (filling out the shot ledger books, carrying or changing the metal sign that showed the block and lot numbers) and taking breaks, smoking a cigarette, eating at a diner (or a bar). One clerk carries the numbers in a box strapped around his neck, one goofs around by placing a 0 over his eye, one man is fond of bow ties, and there is at least one African-American clerk. One young photographer was prone to taking selfies as he loaded the camera. He also seems to be the same photographer who took portraits of curious kids on the street. He may be responsible for the most artistic of the outtakes, but we have no idea who he was or if he went on to a longer career in photography.

The unidentified young photographer above frequently took “selfies” as he loaded the camera.

This photo in front of the 23rd Regiment Armory on Pacific Street and Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn must have been taken by the young photographer above. The frame just prior is a selfie that shows a corner of the armory.

Given the all-male working environment, some might expect the occasional shot of a pretty woman walking by in a summer dress, but no, the outtakes are surprisingly sweet: photos of curious children, kittens, and a clerk feeding a squirrel in Central Park. One photographer even finished off a roll of Staten Island film with photos of his family’s outing to the Bronx Zoo. Very rarely there is a shot of something else that caught their eye, a sign, a horse, a parade, a car accident. And just once that we have found, the photographic team standing on a street corner in Brooklyn and posing for a group portrait. Two frames showing 11 men on a sunny day, two of them holding their cameras, familiar faces.

A group portrait of the photographers and clerks in Brooklyn, ca. 1940.

An accident scene in the Bronx captured by an anonymous Tax Photo photographer, ca. 1940.

A day out at the Bronx Zoo with his family was recorded by one Tax Photo photographer.

Most of the photographic work seems to have been completed by the summer or fall of 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbor in December prevented them from producing a year-end report). Defense work now took precedence, and in March of 1942, the new President of the Tax Commission asked Mayor LaGuardia to declare the project vital to civilian defense in order to retain staff being diverted to defense projects. With the end of the WPA in 1943, the continual updating of the property cards became a function of the Research Bureau of the Tax Department. How much work was done during the war years is unknown, but the 1946 Annual Report of the Tax Department mentioned the work of the photographic division, then mostly busy documenting new development in Queens County. By 1951, an estimated 50,000 parcels of land were photographed by the Research Bureau staff. These 1946-1951 reshoot negatives held by the Municipal Archives are distinguishable from the original WPA project in that the photographers and clerks have abandoned the metal block and lot signs of the original series. Since they no longer needed to hold a sign, the clerks less frequently show up in the images. However, in some of the original film canisters from Queens we recently discovered paper slips with a name and a roll number. Presumably these are the names of the photographers then employed by the agency:

Munday; Hackman; Pat McCullagh; Evans; Chambers; Garnes; Dummett; Suffal; Gordan; Cenzar

Whether any of these photographers were part of the original project we do not know. Someone out there must know more about these men, a family story, a recognizable face, but as of yet, no one has come forward. We are waiting….

A Tax Department clerk feeding a squirrel in Central Park, ca. 1940.


All photographs from the 1940s Tax Department Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. Browse more outtakes and unidentified photos from the 1940s Tax Photo collection online.

Skating in Central Park

The sport of ice skating in Victorian-era New York was so popular that all submissions to the 1857 design competition for Central Park were required to include a winter skating area. As one of the few socially acceptable activities that could be enjoyed in mixed company (along with tennis and bicycling), the Department of Parks’ Board of Commissioners recognized that a public skating rink would be a great source of healthful recreation for city dwellers. Called the Skating Pond on Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s winning Greensward plan, the Lake was one of the first areas of the park to be open to the public for the 1858-59 skating season, well before construction of many other park areas had started.

Detail of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1857 Greensward plan submission drawing showing the skating pond. Black ink with colored pencil on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the early days of the park, ice skating on the Lake drew huge crowds—some thirty thousand people daily. Beginning in 1868, a three-story chalet-style “skate tent,” as it was called, was put up and taken down at the south end of the lake during the winter season. The 1870 report of the Board of Commissioners described the tent amenity: on the first floor it had concessions, changing areas, a place to warm up, a refreshment stand, and a cloak room. The second story provided windows for spectators to view the skating while enjoying a beverage, and the third level served as a “ladies look-out exclusively.” 

Design for a Skate House. Julius Munckwitz, architect, 1884. Ink and watercolor on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

To replace the original “skating tent,” actually a wooden structure, after it had fallen into disrepair, architect Julius Munckwitz prepared this drawing for a new Skate House in 1884, which provided a detailed elevation view and a floor plan with restaurants for men and women as well as a parlor and smoking room.

In addition to the main skating area, Vaux and Olmsted also provided a more secluded space reserved for women who preferred to skate away from the mixed-gender, social atmosphere on the Lake. Located on a small inlet just beyond Balcony Bridge, the Ladies Skating Pond provided a “ladies only” option for the more modest skaters of the day. As construction in the park continued, other bodies of water such as the Conservatory Water and the Pond also became popular skating venues.

In an effort to make the man-made Lake safe throughout the year, it was equipped with waste weirs (to lower water levels) and sluice gates (to raise water levels). During summer, sluice gates kept the water level at seven feet deep to accommodate boaters. In winter, the waste weirs lowered the level to just four feet to lessen the possibility of an accidental drowning if a skater fell through too-thin ice and each night, a series of eighteen hydrants, or valves, spread water to create a fresh sheet of ice.

Design of the sluice gate for the outlet of the Skating Pond, c. 1858. Black and red ink with pencil, blue crayon, and colored washes on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

With large crowds arriving daily, Olmsted instituted many park rules for wintertime users of the Lake. He stipulated, for example, that visitors should “not drop any tobacco, segar-stumps, paper, nutshells, or other articles on the ice” and that, “a ball will be hoisted to the top of the pole, near the bell tower whenever the ice is in full condition for skating.” However, Olmsted did relax one rule during the ice-skating season—park closing time—extending it from eight o’clock to midnight. Harper’s Monthy Magazine in 1861 described the nighttime spectacle: “The dramatic aspect of the jubilee [of skating] is greatly increased by the sparkle of the moonbeams and the glare of the Drummond lights, which flood the scene with startling brilliance.”

Summer and winter water levels at the site of the Rustic Bridge crossing an arm of the Ladies Skating Pond, c. 1860. Black and colored inks with pencil on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The levels of the water of the Lake ranged from seven feet deep in the summer to provide ample room for boaters and swimmers to only four feet in the winter as a safety measure should anyone fall through the ice.

While the popularity of ice skating waned in the later part of the century, it never completely fell out of fashion and remained a wintertime draw for the park, albeit one contingent on the fickle nature of New York weather. In 1949, philanthropist Kate Wollman donated $600,000 toward construction of a new kind of "artificial rink" to be built in Central Park. The Parks Department publicity materials stated that the rink guaranteed access to safe skating for New Yorkers "who have been deprived of the pleasure of regular, uninterrupted outdoor ice skating throughout the winter half year because of vagaries of our climate." Created as a memorial to her parents and four brothers, Wollman Rink opened at the south end of the park in 1950. More than 300,000 visitors arrived in the first year and by 1953 the rink had welcomed its one millionth skater. Noted for its vast size of approximately 31,000 square feet, the rink required over sixteen miles of 1 ¼ inch wrought-iron pipe for construction.

Wollman Memorial Skating Rink, Central Park, 1960. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In addition to Wollman Rink, Central Park is also home to the Lasker Rink and Pool located at the northern end of the park near the Harlem Meer. Named for its major benefactor Loula Davis Lasker, a philanthropist and social worker, who donated $600,000 to help build the rink in 1961, the skating rink opened in 1966 and is converted into a public swimming pool during the summer months.

This blog is adapted from the Municipal Archives’ forthcoming publication, The Central Park, Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure.

The book is now available for pre-order from the publisher, Abrams Books:

https://www.abramsbooks.com/product/central-park_9781419732324/

The 1940 Tax Photos—A Well-Traveled Collection

On November 1, 2018, the Municipal Archives announced that the long-awaited project to digitize the 1940 ‘tax’ photograph collection was complete and all of the 720,000 images now are online in the agency’s photo gallery.

It required more than thirty years, many thousands of dollars and hours of labor, plus two cross-country trips. But we think it’s fair to say that the tax photographs have now reached their full potential as one of the most important research resources in the Municipal Archives.

New Accession: Department of Sanitation Photographs

This week’s blog will show a few sample images from a recently acquired series of Department of Sanitation (DOS) photographs. The collection of approximately 32 cubic feet spanning 1900-2007, is comprised of glass plate and acetate negatives as well as prints. This series will is a great addition to the Municipal Archives’ comprehensive photographic documentation of New York City.

The Manhattan Building Plans Project, 1977-2018

On Monday, July 2, 2018, the Municipal Archives began working on a project first envisioned more than 40 years ago—inventorying and re-housing architectural plans for buildings in lower Manhattan. Digitizing selected plans, not envisioned 40 years ago, will be part of the new project. Saved from near destruction in the 1970s, and containing materials spanning more than one hundred years, City archivists are looking forward to discovering long-hidden treasures and preserving this significant historical and cultural collection.