Prospect Park (Brooklyn)
Prospect Park is a 585-acre (237 hectare) public park in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. The park is situated between the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Ditmas Park and Windsor Terrace, as well as Flatbush Avenue, Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Prospect Park is run and operated by the Prospect Park Alliance and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. It is part of the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway.
Prospect Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after their completion of Manhattan's Central Park. Main attractions of the park include the 90-acre (36 ha) Long Meadow; the Picnic House; Litchfield Villa, the pre-existing home of Edwin Clark Litchfield, an early developer of the neighborhood and a former owner of a southern section of the Park; Prospect Park Zoo; a large nature conservancy managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society; The Boathouse, housing a visitors center and the first urban Audubon Center; Brooklyn's only lake, covering 60 acres (24 ha); the Prospect Park Bandshell that hosts free outdoor concerts in the summertime. The park also has sports facilities including seven baseball fields in the Long Meadow, and the Prospect Park Tennis Center, basketball courts, baseball fields, soccer fields, and the New York Pétanque Club in the Parade Ground. There is also a private Society of Friends cemetery on Quaker Hill near the ball fields, where actor Montgomery Clift is interred.
Approximately 17,000 years ago the terminal moraine of the receding Wisconsin Glacier that formed Long Island established a string of hills and kettles in the northern part of the park and a lower lying outwash plain in the southern part. Mount Prospect, or Prospect Hill, near the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway, rises 200 feet (61 m) above sea level and is the highest among a string of hills that extends into the park, including Sullivan, Breeze, and Lookout hills. The area was originally forested, but became open pasture after two centuries of European colonization. Significant stands of trees remained only in the peat bogs centered south of Ninth Street and Flatbush Avenues, and in a large bog north of Ninth Avenue and contained chestnut, white poplar, and oak. Some of these stands were preserved in the Park's Ravine and have been popularized as 'The Last Forest of Brooklyn.'
During the American Revolution the Park was a site of the Battle of Long Island. American forces attempted to hold Battle Pass, an opening in the terminal moraine where the old Flatbush Road passed from Brooklyn to Flatbush. It fell after some of the heaviest fighting in the engagement, and its loss contributed to George Washington's decision to retreat. Even though the Continental Army lost the battle, they were able to hold the British back long enough for Washington's army to escape to Manhattan. There are plaques north of the zoo that honor this event. The City of Brooklyn built a reservoir on Prospect Hill in 1856. Preserving the Battle Pass area and keeping the lots around the reservoir free of buildings were two reasons for establishing a large park in the area.
The original impetus to build Prospect Park stemmed from an April 18, 1859 act of the New York State Legislature, empowering a twelve-member commission to recommend sites for parks in the City of Brooklyn. This was due to Brooklyn becoming the world's first commuter suburb, which eventually became the third largest city in the country after New York and Philadelphia. During this time, concepts concerning public parks gained popularity. In 1858 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created Central Park in Manhattan. It became the first landscaped park in the United States. James Stranahan believed that a park in Brooklyn, "Would become a favorite resort for all classes of our community, enabling thousands to enjoy pure air, with healthful exercise, at all seasons of the year..." He also believed that a public park would attract wealthy residents.
Of the seven sites mentioned in their February, 1860 proposal, a 320-acre (1.3 km2) plot centered on Mount Prospect was the most ambitious. Under plans prepared by Egbert Viele in 1861, this "Mount Prospect Park" was to straddle Flatbush Avenue and include the eponymous Prospect Hill and territory now occupied by the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Brooklyn Museum. By the end of 1860, land had been purchased for Viele's plan, but the Civil War stopped further activity. According to Lancaster (1972), the delay prompted some reflection; James S. T. Stranahan, then President of the Brooklyn Board of Park Commissioners, invited Calvert Vaux to review Viele's plans early in 1865. Vaux found the division of the park by Flatbush Avenue problematic, thought that the park should have a lake, and urged for southward expansion beyond the city limits and into the then independent town of Flatbush.
Vaux's February 1865 proposal reflected the present day layout of the park: three distinctive regions, meadow in the north and west, a wooded ravine in the east, and a lake in the south, without the division by Flatbush Avenue. Vaux included an oval plaza at the northern end of the park: the prototype for Grand Army Plaza. The revised plan called for purchase of additional parcels to the south and west to accommodate Prospect Lake, but it left outside of park boundaries parcels already purchased east of Flatbush Avenue, including Prospect Hill itself. It would be incorporated as Mount Prospect Park in 1940.
The change in plans was not without consequences. Land speculation was under way, and the stretch along Ninth Avenue (now Prospect Park West) was held by real estate developer Edwin Clarke Litchfield who in 1857 had erected his home, Litchfield Manor, on the east side of the avenue. The 1868 purchase of his holdings, the lots between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and from 3rd to 15th streets, including his manor, cost the Parks Commission $1.7 million, forty-two percent of the overall expenditure for land. The lots, however, constitute just over five percent of the park's acreage. Much of this very expensive acreage houses the maintenance yards and is rarely seen by the public. By contrast, the Quaker cemetery was accommodated by an agreement under which the Society of Friends deeded their unused acreage on very favorable terms so as to retain the 10-acre remainder as their private cemetery in perpetuity; it is still active today, with the public occasionally invited to visit.
Despite the repercussions of Vaux's revisions, Stranahan championed the plan. Vaux recruited Olmsted and formally presented their proposal in January 1866 and it was accepted in May, with work commencing in June. The park commissioners opened the park to the public on October 19, 1867, while it was still under construction. Work continued for another six years until it was substantially complete in 1873, though certain facets of the original design were never undertaken. With the financial panic of 1873, Olmsted and Vaux ceased significant operations in the park and dissolved their partnership. Overall, the cost of acquiring the Park land by the City of Brooklyn was upwards of $4 million. The actual cost of construction of the Park amounted to more than $5 million.
Although designers Olmsted and Vaux enjoy twenty-first century fame, Stranahan was regarded by his 19th-century peers as the true "Father of Prospect Park", a reputation established through his 22-year reign as Park Commission president (1860–1882), engagement of Olmsted and Vaux, overseeing complex, politically charged land acquisitions, securing funding to build the park, and, after its completion, defending its design against unwanted changes, leaving Brooklyn perhaps its greatest legacy. His statue appears just inside the Grand Army Plaza entrance, sculpted by Frederick MacMonnies and presented to Stranahan in June, 1891.
In 1882, Brooklyn mayor Seth Low did not reappoint Stranahan or the other commissioners, a change that neither Stranahan nor the other commissioners actively opposed. Stranahan, for his part, was becoming more engaged in other Brooklyn concerns. The action, however, did signal a change in the style of park management, which grew to embrace neoclassicism. With construction of the Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza, the park commissioners engaged McKim, Mead, and White to redesign the Plaza in a complementary, neo-classical way. By 1896, Grand Army Plaza sported four towering granite columns adorned with carved fasces and eagles at the base. Granite fencing with decorative bronze urns replaced simple wooden fencing, and polygonal granite pavilions on the east and west corners of the park supplanted earlier rustic shelters. All the major entrances of the park gained similar neoclassical treatments. By the turn of the twentieth century, sculptures by Frederick MacMonnies graced the Arch and works by MacMonnies and Alexander Proctor graced many of the entrances.
Neoclassical structures appeared within the park as well. In 1893 and 1894, the Children's Playground and Pools in the northeast quadrant of the park were transformed by McKim, Mead and White into the Rose Garden and the Vale of Cashmere, each a formally arranged space. Stanford White's 1895 Maryland Monument, near the Terrace Bridge, was dedicated to the Maryland 400 on the slopes of Lookout Hill. The 1904 Peristyle, 1905 Boathouse, 1910 Tennis House, and 1912 Willink Comfort Station, all designed by Helmle, Hudswell and Huberty, alumni and proteges of McKim, Mead, and White, spread neo-classical examples throughout the park.
The city of Brooklyn's merger with New York City in 1898 aligned the fortunes of Prospect Park with a larger park system. From World War I to the administration of Fiorello La Guardia, investment in park infrastructure declined. New structures were limited to the Picnic House, (1927) which replaced an earlier rustic structure that had burned down in 1926, and a small comfort station at the Ocean Avenue entrance (1930), both designed by J. Sarsfield Kennedy.
New memorials were limited to the 9th Street memorial to Marquis de la Fayette (1917) and the Honor Roll Memorial (1920), near the present day skating rink. Prospect Park was in stasis, and it was run, year after year, with declining budgets, a malaise affecting all city parks. "By the 1930s," the New York Times observed, "generations of Parks Department officials had lived well and got rich by diverting maintenance funds, and the park showed the result of a half century of abuse and neglect."
In 1932, a faux Mount Vernon was built in the park to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington's birthday. A reconstruction of Federal Hall, at one point on Wall Street was built in Bryant Park also as part of the celebrations.
In January 1934, newly elected Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Robert Moses commissioner of a unified parks department, a new organization that eliminated borough park commissioners. Moses would remain Park Commissioner for the next twenty-six years, leaving distinctive and controversial marks on all the city parks. Moses readily tapped federal monies made available to relieve Depression era unemployment. He assembled 1,800 designers and engineers centered at the Arsenal in Central Park. In addition, 3,900 construction supervisors in the field oversaw the work of 70,000 relief workers. In the years up to World War II, Moses built the half-million dollar (8,629,854 in today's dollars) Prospect Park Zoo in 1935, the Prospect Park Bandshell (1939) and children's playgrounds throughout the park.
World War II brought a hiatus in this frenetic activity. During the war, Prospect Park hosted a portion of the city's antiaircraft defense. Three hundred soldiers manned batteries, underground ammunition dumps, observation towers, repair shops and barracks around Swan Lake in the Long Meadow. Disbanded in 1944, traces of slit trenches and sandbagged gun emplacements could still be found years after the end of hostilities.
Peacetime improvements resumed at a slower pace after World War II. In 1959, the southern third of the Long Meadow was graded and fenced off for ballfields, while in the following year the Kate Wollman Skating Rink was built in a land-filled portion of Prospect Lake. For the first time, the Wollman rink furnished a consistently reliable setting for ice skating, replacing the customary Lullwater venue which had always been subject to seasonal fluctuations in ice thickness. The playgrounds, ballfields, and the skating rink reflected Moses' commitment to modernity and athletic recreation, coupled with only a limited appreciation of the park as a work of landscape architecture. In furnishing a reliable skating venue, the Wollman Rink caused the removal of Music Island and the panoramic view of the lake which had once been visible from Concert Grove. Clay Lancaster, curator of Prospect Park in the 1960s, found such trade-offs wanting. An early critic of Moses, he termed many of his park contributions "centripetal". The zoo, bandshell, ballfields, and skating rink drew people out of the park and into specialized structures, "...which are not the park at all but extraneous attractions, and those surrounded by knit-wire fences exclude all but participants." Many Moses era projects entailed the destruction of Olmsted and Vaux or neoclassical works. The Dairy Farmhouse, Concert Grove House, Music Island, the Old Fashioned Flower Garden, many of the original rustic structures, the Thatched Shelter, the Model Yacht Club and the Greenhouse Conservatories had all been lost to either accident or deliberate demolition by the time Moses left his Park Commission post in May, 1960.
No park commissioner since Moses has been able to exercise the same degree of power. Nor did the Park Commission remain as stable a position in the aftermath of his departure, with eight commissioners holding the office in the twenty years following. This instability, coupled with the 1970s city fiscal crisis, devastated the Parks department. Staffed by 6,000 personnel in 1960, the Parks department consisted of just 2,800 permanent and 1,500 temporary workers by 1980. Much of Prospect Park suffered soil erosion and lack of maintenance caused the landscaping to deteriorate. By 1979, park attendance dropped to two million, the lowest recorded level in the history of the park.
In September 1964 the Parks Department was within forty-eight hours of demolishing the Boathouse on the Lullwater. At the time the structure was underutilized; the boat concession only operated on weekends and the Boathouse was visited by fewer than ten people an hour, even on the busiest summer weekends.
It was not unusual in the Moses years and the decade after his departure, to quietly remove underutilized or redundant structures; to do so was regarded as economical and prudent management. In the previous decade, the greenhouses on the western edge of the park were considered redundant, given the nearby Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and were demolished without much protest. Much the same had been the case in previous decades. With the opening of the new zoo in 1935, The Dairy Farmhouse had been demolished along with the rest of the Menagerie, though it had predated the original zoo. The Concert Grove House had been demolished in 1949. Once the park's restaurant, it was replaced with a snack bar under the Oriental Pavilion. But the late 1963 demolition of Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan had spawned a nascent historic preservation movement, and the 1905 Boathouse shared many features with the famous station. A preservation group, The Friends of Prospect Park, including in its membership, poet Marianne Moore, built public awareness over disappearing historical structures and threatened flora within the park. Public pressure induced Park Commissioner Newbold Morris to rescind the decision to demolish the Boathouse in December, 1964.
The Koch administration formed plans in 1980 to turn over the administration of the troubled Prospect Park Zoo to the Wildlife Conservation Society. In the 1980s the Parks Department began entering into restoration projects with the Prospect Park Alliance, a local non-profit organization. In 1987, this organization secured funding for and oversaw the restoration of the 1952 Carousel. Through the 1990s, the Alliance oversaw the restoration of the Ravine, the 150-acre (0.61 km2) region which contains the headwaters of the park water system.
The Alliance remains active in restoration projects and takes a balanced approach between historical preservation and patterns of modern use. Though disliked by some preservationists, Moses era playgrounds and the Bandshell are being retained because their venues are popular. Original rustic summer houses have been restored or recreated on the shores of Prospect Park Lake, along the Lullwater and in the Ravine. The Kate Wollman skating rink, unpopular with park preservationists but enjoyed by the public at large, will be replaced by two rinks in the proposed Lakeside Center, slated for construction in the nearby Concourse beginning in 2008. These plans include restoring Music Island and the original shoreline, both obliterated by the construction of the original rink in 1960. The Alliance managed a $9.8 million budget in 2007, with financial support largely coming from foundations, sales, rentals and fees, corporate and individual donations. Over 80% of the Alliance's expenditures were in support of park development projects.
Large sections of the park remain in disrepair, but the downward decline has been checked. From a 1979 nadir, when only an estimated two million people visited the park, now over seven million visits occur annually. Yet additional funding, and time, will be needed before the park again fulfills the design set forth by Olmsted and Vaux.
As a work of engineering and landscaping, Prospect Park was so revolutionary in its time that many considered the Park a work of art in itself. Others were critical of the idea of building a single, large park in the wealthiest section of Brooklyn rather than several smaller parks at different locations to serve a wider public. The idea of a single, large park won out, and its backers overcame their opponents in Brooklyn politics by having the park built by a state-appointed commission.
Olmsted and Vaux engineered the Park to recreate in real space the pastoral, picturesque, and aesthetic ideals expressed in hundreds of paintings. Breaking ground in June, 1866, they created the large Long Meadow out of hilly upland pasture interspersed with peat bogs, they moved and planted trees, hauled topsoil and created a vast unfolding turf with trees placed singly and in groups to approximate the English pastoral style of landscape which had emerged in England in the previous century. Prospect Park's designers had recent precedents in the pastoral style in this country, notably Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston and Green-Wood Cemetery a few blocks away in Brooklyn. By the 1850s and '60s, pastoralism was very popular in landscape design in eastern North America. Both Central and Prospect Parks are considered by some landscape historians to be among the best examples of the type. The designers themselves felt they had greater success in Brooklyn than in New York because the Prospect Park site presented fewer obstacles than the Central Park site, where they had to contend with two reservoirs, a relatively narrow, rectangular site, and a requirement that four city streets cross over the site. The design formula at Prospect Park included elements of both the picturesque and the sublime ideals, the picturesque being represented by the Ravine and its series of pools, waterfalls, and defiles.
Although the sublime ideal would be difficult to realize in the gentle Long Island topography, the designers wanted Lookout Hill to be a place of broad views out over Prospect Lake, the farmland beyond, and the bay and ocean in the distance. Trees have been allowed to obscure the view, however. The design also created a visual screen consisting of earth forms and trees around the perimeter to heighten the effect of seemingly limitless rural scenery by screening out views of buildings, traffic, and other aspects of the growing city around the park, but the designers did not foresee the high-rise buildings built in the twentieth century.
In designing the watercourse Olmsted and Vaux also took advantage of the pre-existing glacier-formed kettle ponds and lowland outwash plains. A winding naturalistic stream channel with several ponds feeds a sixty-acre (24 ha) lake. They crafted the watercourse to include a steep, forested Ravine – perhaps their greatest masterpiece of landscape architecture – all with significant river edge flora and fauna habitats. This was all done to give the urban dweller a "sub-conscious" experience of nature within the city as Olmsted believed it was possible and necessary to provide such nourishment for the general public in the overwhelming urban environments of his time.
One of the most noteworthy features of Olmsted and Vaux's creations is the Prospect Park watercourse. All the waterways and lakes in Prospect Park are man-made. Originally engineered by Olmsted and Vaux to be a series of picturesque tableaux as an oasis for urban residents, by the mid-twentieth century nature had taken its course and these artificial waterways and the steep slopes around them had lost their original design character. In 1994 the Prospect Park Alliance launched a 25-year $43-million restoration project for the watercourse.
If one follows the water from its source, the water in Prospect Park takes us on a course starting at the top of Fallkill Falls into Fallkill Pool past the Fallkill Bridge through the recently restored Upper Pool and Lower Pool, where migratory birds rest and marsh and other water plants can be found. Past the Esdale Bridge through Ambergill Pond one enters into a tree-covered area, then on to the smaller Ambergill Falls through Rock Arch Bridge, past the gorge area called The Ravine. The design called for the trickle of water to be heard throughout the forest and this effect lasts on to the through the where a variety of waterlilies can be found. The watercourse then moves on to the where performances of music were often given.
The waters then cascade beneath the Binnen Bridge to the Lullwater, upon the east bank of which stands the Boathouse, the current Audubon Center & Visitor Center. It then flows under the Lullwater and Terrace bridges to the Peninsula – an area managed both as bird sanctuary and recreational field. It flows past the Wollman Rink and enters the sixty-acre (24 ha) artificially built Prospect Lake that includes several islands. Prospect Lake is home to over 20 species of fish and hosts an annual fishing contest; visitors may explore the lake in pedal boats, available at the Wollman rink, or the Independence, a replica of the original electric launch which took day-trippers around the lake a century ago.
Ice skating, popularized in Central Park, was a key reason for including Prospect Lake in the design of the park's watercourse. Prospect Lake was much larger than any lake in its New York City predecessor, but very shallow, so as to develop an ideal skating surface. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, red balls raised high on trollies signified that the ice was at least four inches thick in the Lullwater. Unfortunately, safety concerns have ended skating on the lake, perhaps forever. The venue moved to the Kate Wollman rink in 1960, and moved again to the Lakeside Center around 2010.
This trip along the watercourse demonstrates the revolutionary approach of Olmsted and Vaux in their re-creation of various types of natural water formations; not only did they plant a variety of trees, bushes and other plants, but they moved rocks, boulders and earth to simulate a variety of natural environments for the pleasure and stimulation of Brooklyn’s nineteenth century urban dwellers.
With the watercourse moving through it, a 146-acre (59 ha) section of the Park's interior at the center of Brooklyn's only forest is known as the Ravine District. Olmsted and Vaux saw the Ravine as the heart of Prospect Park and the centerpiece of mountainous tableaux similar to the Adirondack Mountains. The perimeter of the area is a steep, narrow 100 feet (30 m) gorge. The watercourse goes through the Ravine en route to the Boathouse. Still recovering from decades of overuse that caused soil compaction and erosion, the Ravine and surrounding woodlands have been undergoing restoration since 1996; in 1998 the Ravine District was opened for tours. In 2002 the Ravine had been partially restored with the restored section opened to the public. In March 2012, the Ravine was the site of a fire, which was quickly extinguished.
Seven baseball fields span 9th–15th Streets in the park. Two are major league-sized fields serving older age groups. The other five are slightly smaller, for younger children; typically 8–12 years old. The youngest children do not have a dedicated field, and play on the grass.
The Prospect Park Track Club, formed in the early 1970s, organizes regular training runs and races in and around the park. (The park has a 3.35 miles (5 km)-long loop.) The Prospect Park Women's Softball League has been playing softball games on summer evenings in Prospect Park for over 23 years. Circle rules football has been played every weekend from spring through fall at the tip of the Long Meadow nearest Grand Army Plaza since 2007. Horseback riders from Kensington Stables are often seen on paths in the park. Pedalboating is open to the public on the lake. In the winter, ice skating, cross-country skiing and sledding are popular pastimes. A popular sledding hill is just inside the 10th Avenue entrance, off Prospect Park Southwest. The Bandshell hosts frequent concerts, most notably the "Celebrate Brooklyn!" Performing Arts Festival, a series of summer concerts founded in 1979 that draws performing artists from around the world. The festival is produced by BRIC | Arts | Media | Bklyn.
Olmsted and Vaux set aside a 40 acres (16 ha) rectangular area just south of Parkside Avenue to be used for sports and military drills. It was set apart from the main section of the park in fear that the high level of activity would damage the grass and plants and disrupt the park's pastoral feel. The militia no longer uses the Parade Ground, but it is still one of the most active athletic fields in the city, encompassing the Prospect Park Tennis Center, four baseball diamonds, two softball fields, a football field, a soccer field, basketball and volleyball courts, the Paul Ricard Pétanque Court and three giant multi-use fields. Many Major League Baseball stars got their start at the Parade Ground, including Joe Torre and Sandy Koufax. In 2004 the Parade Ground underwent a 12.4 million dollar restoration.
In May 1987, an 11-year-old boy climbed into the polar bear enclosure after hours at the Prospect Park Zoo and was subsequently mauled by two of the bears. Police officers shot and killed both bears. The incident contributed to the Wildlife Conservation Society's decision to redesign the zoo to emphasize species more appropriate to its small size and to visitor interactions. In July 2010, federal authorities captured 400 Canada geese in the park and gassed them to death due to air safety concerns following the US Airways Flight 1549 incident in January 2009.
Additionally, a few murders have occurred over the past several decades. In June 1993, a 42-year-old man was shot to death while resisting a group of teenagers trying to steal his bicycle; the shooter received a maximum 25-year prison term. In April 2006, a 61-year-old man was found stabbed to death in a thickly wooded area of the park known as the Vale of Cashmere. In July 2008, a 41-year-old homeless man was found beaten to death in a wooded area near a jogging path. In March 2011, a 23-year-old man, Julio Locarno, was shot and killed at the Parade Ground. He had recently been jailed on charges of being an accomplice in another man's murder.
A perennial debate concerns the role of automobile traffic in the park. One side argues that if the ability of cars to use Prospect Park as a thoroughfare were reduced, traffic on either side of the park would be increased. The other side argues that the park is designed to be a haven from the type of city stress that automobiles represent, and that having them use the park sacrifices the safety of those using the park for recreation. Current (2011) regulations state that automobile traffic is allowed to use the park only: northbound (Park Circle to Grand Army Plaza) from 7–9 a.m. While these are an increase of car-free hours from the past, they leave automobiles in the park at rush hour, the precise time when cyclists, runners, walkers and other park users would otherwise be most likely to use the park. A similar debate concerns Central Park. The debates and issues involve questions of how to develop livable cities.