History in the Heat: A Sweaty Tour Through Central Park’s Past

Blazing through history in the blazing sun

On the first day of summer, soupy and sweltering as it was, New Yorkers were faced with a rather difficult decision.

Should they remain indoors—moving from one air-conditioned space to the next, as one might do on an August day of similarly hellish heat, attempting to collect as little perspiration as possible (a near impossibility) on our sweltering sidewalks and subway platforms? Or should they celebrate the equatorial temperatures and change of season, lunging into the swampy embrace of the city?

The Observer, having signed up for the annual Landmarks West! tour of Central Park with architectural historian Andrew Dolkart, had little choice in the matter. Showing up at the General Sherman statue in Grand Army Plaza around 6 p.m., we were pleasantly surprised to find that most, if not all of the event’s 25 attendees had showed up, well-heeled, straw-hatted and ready to brave the muggy conditions.

Mr. Dolkart, who directs the historic preservation program at Columbia University, appeared to be the only one unaffected by the heat. Bright and sprightly as a freshly-picked flower, Mr. Dolkart was almost bouncing in his New Balance sneakers as he waited to begin.

Despite the steamy weather, the tour’s beginning was much more auspicious than the Park’s 160 years ago, marked by an eminent domain battle, the eviction of squatters and an African American community of landholders, and the rather difficult task of placating the city’s real estate interests, who loathed the idea of losing such a big chunk of land, even if no one wanted to live Uptown back then.

Mr. Dolkart noted that the line fed to the real estate community—that the value of apartments next to the country’s greatest man-made natural attraction would more than make up for the loss of land—had, more or less, proved true.

The group nodded along as Mr. Dolkart described the Park’s early origins. This might have been a tour, but there was no mistaking the attendees for tourists. Indeed, it seemed likely that many of them lived on the park, or could, at least, afford to if they wanted. Their expertly-coiffed hair of platinum, silver and bleached-out bronze matched the muted metallics of their sandals almost perfectly. A smattering of architecture and preservation acolytes and history buffs rounded out the group.

Trying as the temperature may have been, participants were not sluggish when opportunities to flaunt their knowledge came along. They eagerly made clever asides about the new parks commissioner, nodded knowingly when Mr. Dolkart described the bandshell preservation controversy and posed questions that broadcast their familiarity with park history (“Was it Huntington-Hartford who wanted to put a hotel here? Or was that Trump?”).

History in the Heat: A Sweaty Tour Through Central Park’s Past