Historic Effort To Bring Rhododendrons Back To Central Park

rhodedendron mile historic l Historic Effort To Bring  Rhododendrons Back To Central Park

Rhododendron Mile, ca. 1910 (William Hale Kirk, Museum of the City of New York)

New York’s streets offer one straight line after another, but in Central Park such direct thoroughfares are vigorously frowned upon. After, all the park is meant to be a leafy oasis from the hustle and bustle of city streets, the consummate garden, which through careful use of design and artifice manages to look more natural than nature itself.

But the park does have two perfectly straight lines, and they have caused the Central Park Conservancy no small amount of worry over the years. In fact, the park’s original designers even feared that the half-mile stretch of East River drive between 85th and 96th Streets might become a favorite spot for horse carriage racing. Egads!

“On the east of the new reservoir, the park is diminished to a mere passage-way for connection, and it will be difficult to obtain an agreeable effect in this part of the design,” Frederick Law Olmsted despaired in 1858.

Fortunately, such debasement of the drive did not come to pass, quite possibly due to the precedent set by the stretch’s flower-dotted landscape, courtesy of a Mrs. Russell Sage, who donated thousands of rhododendrons in the early 20th Century.

Known as Rhododendron Mile, the stretch simulating a country road is finally being restored to its former self. This is the Central Park Conservancy’s first attempt to bring back the park’s early landscaping—the first batch of rhododendrons withered away after only a few years—but other turn-of-the-century landscaping projects are also in the works. Another neo-historical effort was a new fence around the reservoir, mimicking one from the original design.

The $2.5 million project will involve re-planting the section with pink, purple, white and red rhododendrons and azaleas in “undulating drifts,” (doesn’t that sound lovely?) as well as reconstructing the pedestrian path between the reservoir and the drive, replacing the paved margin with greenery and planting new canopy trees along the way.

“We’re excited to transform what, today, looks like a race track into a beautiful, blossoming landscape,” Central Park Conservancy president Doug Blonsky said.

The flowers, which have already started making their colorful debut, will be tended to with more care than the last time, the conservancy promises. (Its methods are also a superior to those at the turn of the century). Plus, their roadside location will likely protect the blossoms a little bit from the trampling toes of tourists.

kvelsey@observer.com