Manhattan’s Isle of Sanctuary

On an island defined by the city it hosts, there exists a garden paradise humbly named Central Park. Amid the “city that never sleeps” there resides a haven providing asylum from the bustling underground of the subway system and the hustle of Wall Street’s financial markets.

Conceived in the mid 1800s, Central Park encompasses 846 acres of natural beauty and some of the finest stonework architecture seen anywhere. It surpasses London’s Hyde Park in size and even rivals the much larger (2.5 times) Bois de Boulogne of Paris in its splendor. Though each of these offers much of the bucolic experience to its visitors, Central Park is the standout. She is the pride of an emerging America of the Industrial Age, the Prestige of the “Empire State.”

One of the best examples of the park’s famous stonework is the grand staircase at Bethesda Terrace. Originally it was simply called the Water Terrace by its architects. The name Bethesda being derived from the sculpture of an Angel that is the centerpiece of a grand fountain of the same name. Also known as Angel of the Waters, she refers to the Gospel of John, wherein is described an Angel who blesses the Pool of Bethesda granting it healing powers.

Apart from biblical reference, here it symbolizes spiritual blessing of the Croton Aqueduct. Opening in 1842 it provided the first reliable supply of pure water to Manhattan residents. The eight foot bronze art depicts an angel blessing the water with her right hand while holding a lily, a symbol of purity, in her left.

This beautiful sculpture was the design of Emma Stebbins, who is notable as the first woman to be commissioned to create a major work of art for the city. Her masterpiece was unveiled in 1873, afterward the name of the terrace was changed to Bethesda Terrace.

The bi-level staircase of the Bethesda Terrace is carved from an olive colored New Brunswick sandstone. The granite steps provide passage to foot traffic southward to the Elkan Naumberg band-shell and the Mall. Spacious landings add dramatic detail with a herringbone patterned run of Roman brick laid on edge. Extensive restoration included removal of the Minton encaustic tiles, designed by Mould, from the arcades ceiling. The 20 year renovation of the lower passage, including additional tile work, was completed in 2007. The renewed warmth and beauty of fine artisans is breathtaking even in photographs.

The park had a period during the 70s when it succumbed to drug trafficking, graffiti and other adversities of urban blight. It was not until 1980 that the fountain, which had been dry for decades, was reborn as an initial part of the Central Park Conservancy’s campaign to restore the park to its previous glory. The civic and philanthropic leaders who founded the Conservancy had the foresight and energy to undertake this monumental task.

The Central Park Conservancy manages the park under agreement with the city and handles both maintenance and day-to-day operations. The annual cost of operating the park is nearly $38 million, a major portion of which is provided through the fund-raising and investment revenue of the Conservancy.

The Genesis of Central Park began in the early part of the Nineteenth Century when people would visit cemeteries in order to experience the beauty of nature. In a span of about thirty years, during the early 1800s, the population of New York City had almost quadrupled. And the public outcry for a grand park, equal to those of the great cities of Europe, was taken up by notable citizens such as Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant. Along with other influential New Yorkers, Cullen convinced the state legislature to set aside 700 acres of city owned property at a cost of $5 million dollars.

When a competition was organized to design the park, it was the genius of Fredrick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux that won approval of the city. The winning design was named ‘the Greensward Plan.’ Their goal was to create an atmosphere of relaxation and contemplation in a natural environment. A somewhat progressive thought for the era, the park would provide a social setting for upper and lower classes to interact.

The park boasts many activities from jogging, bicycling and rock climbing to boating, birding and concerts. A world-class zoo and a classic carousel make their home in the park. The current carousel was built in 1951 and is the fourth of its kind to be installed on the grounds. The zoo houses an indoor rain forest and chilled penguin house, along with a Polar Bear pool.

Among attractions which have recently passed into glory is the famed Tavern on the Green restaurant at Central Park West and West 67th Street. The Tavern had its last seating in December of 2009. There are still fine restaurants to be found, including one housed in the Loeb Boathouse overlooking the lake. The Boathouse restaurant provides dining options that include an outside grill, lakeside dining, an express cafe and a lavish banquet room. Hanger Steak, Grilled Shrimp, Pork Loin and Chicken Breast are among a selection of very reasonably priced entree’s served with pride and flair. And you’ll have a hard time finding a more picturesque view of the lake.

The boathouse itself is among park landmarks which have become familiar to movie fans. It was used in a scene from the action-thriller F/X in the 1980s, and since has appeared on T.V.’s Law and Order. This and other locations in Central Park have become a backdrop for literary works of fiction and non-fiction as well. It is a place that tries to be all things to all people, and nearly succeeds in doing so.

Other important landmarks include Belvedere Castle which houses nature exhibits and an observation deck. This Gothic castle towers above Vista Rock, one of the park’s prominent elevations; with the castle’s turret being the highest point in the park. The castle’s exterior gray granite stands above and apart from the natural looking woodland area known as The Ramble.

These are just a few of the splendorous sites that the park owes to the heritage of New York City. This period in New York City’s history was one of grandeur and opulence. New titan’s of industry and capitalism made their homes along 5th Avenue, hence its nickname “Millionaire’s Row.” By the middle of the gilded age the street had transformed from a rutted dirt road lined with vacant lots and shantytowns into a thoroughfare flanked by palaces of the nouveau riche. Their money also purchased them a prime view of newly opened park.

The trees, that number in the tens of thousands, provide a habitat for birds and animals that would otherwise be foreign to the predominantly concrete jungle of the metropolis that surrounds and embraces them. It is a cornucopia of nature’s bounty that nurtures the many squirrels, raccoons, and chipmunks that dwell among the lush flora. That nocturnal marsupial, the Opossum, can even be found foraging when nightfall arrives.

Central Park offers so much to so many. By attracting more than 35 million annual visitors, with many coming from foreign lands, it has become a truly global park. The Conservancy also offers access to the park through a number of worthwhile volunteer programs. They include the Saturday Green Team, Greeters Program, Summer Internship and Pitch in, Pick up. The internships provide summer jobs for up to 25 high school students; while the Pitch in, Pick up program recruits volunteers to assist in efforts to keep the park clean.

Cleanliness and safety are reemphasized by the Saturday Green Team in keeping the plants and trees healthy and thriving. Keeping areas from becoming overgrown and removing undergrowth and debris not only eliminates potential hazards; it can also help lessen possible criminal behaviors that jeopardize the safety and security of park patrons.

Actual law enforcement is handled by the Central Park Precinct of New York’s Finest. Statistics gathered in 2005 showed that crime was reduced by 90% since a peak occurred decades earlier. Changes in police policy and tactics in dealing with criminal activity are credited with lowering crime rates.

Being the setting of numerous movies and television programs over the years has made film crews a common sight to visitors. Strollers along the parks many winding paths also enjoy the talents of jugglers, musicians and other impromptu performers. Activities are as abundant as the wildlife. Or if you prefer, you may enjoy a quiet game of chess, the solitude of a good book, or doing nothing at all.

But what would a trip to Central Park be without riding in a horse-drawn carriage? The romance of an open cab, listening to the gentle stride of the horse’s hooves and holding hands with someone special; there is no better place for it on the planet. A 20 minute ride will set you back $50, plus tip.

Without a doubt, Central Park’s magnificence puts a shine on the Big Apple.