Sep 07, 2022, 06:27AM

Secrets of Central Park

From pavilions to the Diana Ross playground.

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Central Park, Manhattan’s 843-acre oasis, is vast enough that much of it is rarely seen by the public. This lamp, seen at a Central Park entrance at Grand Army Plaza, was donated by Hamburg, West Germany in 1979 and is a replica of an ornate lamp found in Hamburg at the Lombard Bridge. The plaque reads “This Lombard Lamp is presented to the people of New York City and by the people of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg so that it may forever brighten a bridge of friendship in human relations, trade and commerce.” It can be found at the west side of Grand Army Plaza on 5th Ave. A second Lombard Lamp replica was donated to Chicago, which placed it in its Lincoln Square neighborhood in the same year.

The Lombards, or Langobards, were a Germanic tribe that began in southern Sweden and worked down into Italy in the early medieval period, becoming Italians in the process and giving their name to the northern Italian region of Lombardia. Their name, the Longobards, referred to their lengthy beards.

There’s really no excuse for getting lost in Central Park, if you know where to look. Cast iron lampposts designed by architect Henry Bacon (who also designed the Lincoln Memorial) in 1907 are standard issue throughout Central Park, as well as in parks citywide. They occasionally make appearances on side streets for atmosphere. For some years, the city has marked most of Central Park’s lampposts with embossed numbered metal plaques. The first two or three digits correspond to the cross street you’d be on if that street extended through the park. The post above is located where 61st St. would be.

The park’s 1960s-style octagonal poles and Donald Deskey posts have been given the same treatment, as well as a green coat of paint (unique in the city). In addition to the cross street, some of them also bear a W, C, or E, corresponding, respectively, to the western, central or eastern parts of the park.

The Ramble, near the park’s center, contains a number of wooden bridges, including this one that crosses the small stream called The Gill (it’s man-made and fed by a pipe connecting it to the Central Park Reservoir). The Ramble is one of the least-known parts of the park, since its very isolation renders visitors open to attacks by muggers. Among the Ramble’s attractions are The Cave, closed off in the 1920s but still visible along with a stone staircase leading to it; Tupelo Meadow; the Humming Tombstone, a rock that hides the control boxes for the park’s lampposts; Azalea Pond, a favorite of birdwatchers; and the massive Ramble Arch.

The Swedish Cottage, West Drive near the 79th St. Transverse, was built in Sweden, in 1876. It originally appeared in Philadelphia at its Centennial Exhibition and was disassembled and reassembled in Central Park the next year, after purchased for $1500. It has found use as a storage shed, a public restroom, an insect lab, a Civil Defense headquarters and, since 1947, as a marionette theater. It’s just east of the Natural History Museum on Central Park West.

There was once a time in the past when it was difficult to get clean, fresh milk, before the age of pasteurization. City children were sickened, some fatally, from tainted milk. In both Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, facilities were set up that allowed people to obtain milk from authorized producers back when every nutritionist in the world swore that whole milk was good for you.

Central Park’s Dairy was designed by Calvert Vaux and built in 1870, and is the hub of the park’s Children’s District: the Zoo is to its east and the Carousel is to its west. The Victorian Gothic building added coffee and sandwiches to its repertoire and was a lively gathering place until the early part of the 20th century. Then the rot set in, accelerated by the Depression; the decaying Dairy was used as a storage shed by the 1950s. The Central Park Conservancy succeeded in restoring the Dairy by 1980 and today it serves as the park’s Visitor Center, though you have to go elsewhere in the park for milk or other beverages.

To find another of the park’s many surprises, make a detour along the park path along the west side of the Lake. A short peninsula, known as “Hernshead”  juts into the lake, affording stellar photo opportunities. “Hernshead” is Anglo-Saxon for “heron head” but according to birdwatchers, the wading birds like herons and egrets stay away from Hernshead for the most part. A curving path takes you through a maze of flowering vegetation until you’re lakeside, which affords a good view of the massive San Remo Apartment towers, built in 1929.

The crown jewel of Hernshead is the Ladies’ Pavilion, which dates back to 1871 and was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould. It was originally a trolley car shelter at Columbus Circle, but after years of rust and neglect (a theme in Central Park) it was taken apart, repaired and reassembled in the early-1970s. The elements and vandals are always on the attack and the Pavilion has had to be renovated again at intervals in subsequent years.

The Ladies’ Pavilion is so named because it took the place of the old Ladies’ Shelter, which gave women skating at the old Ladies’ Pond site the opportunity to change from shoes to skates without losing their dignity. It was likely moved to Hernshead around 1913.

The Diana Ross playground at Central Park West and W. 81st St. was conceived under unusual circumstances. After Diana Ross’ scheduled free concert in 1983 was cut short by torrential rain and wind, she returned for a second show the following night; the crowd erupted into a near-riot, causing some damage. Ross subsequently funded this playground that bears her name.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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