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?”).
Mr. Dolkart, experienced teacher and walking tour guide that he is, delivered the historical and architectural facts with large dollops of 19th century gossip. Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who believed that the gateways to his creation should be informal, would have hated the grand eastern entrance at 59th Street (built, mercifully, after his death). The entrance is marked at one end by the Sherman statue and at the other by the French-inspired Pulitzer Fountain (a design flaw makes the water fall inwards from the top tier of the fountain, rather than straight down in a sheet).
In fact, Olmsted was against including sculpture altogether, with the exception of the Bethesda fountain at the heart of the Park, which was part of the original design. If you accepted one sculpture, you would need to accept them all, Olmsted warned. “Which is exactly what happened,” Mr. Dolkart said. “It’s interesting that some of them are really bad works of sculpture and some of them are the greatest. The statue of Webster—it has to be the worst piece of sculpture in New York.”
(The problem of gifts, in Mr. Dolkart’s opinion, is the only real problem with the Central Park Conservancy’s oversight of the park. “They’ve done a lot of fantastic things and some not so fantastic things,” he remarked. “Sometimes the funder’s tail wags the dog; that’s kind of the case with the tennis house.”)
Among the other things Olmsted would have been disappointed in: that the buildings along the park had far exceeded five stories, and despite his carefully-laid bank of plantings around the edges were now visible; that Robert Moses had ignored his vision of the park as a place for passive recreation, loading it up with baseball diamonds and volleyball courts and other sports facilities; that the bridle path system, one of his four independent transportation systems he designed for the park, had deteriorated greatly.
As for the preferences of Calvert Vaux, the other architect of the park, we know very little. “It’s not always easy to know how much Vaux did,” Mr. Dolkart said. “Olmsted talked himself up all the time, so much of it was credited to him.” Olmsted, even when he was at his most idealistic and loveable, was always something of a braggart.
He famously said of the Park: “It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”
“A specimen of God’s handiwork,” noted Mr. Dolkart. As time went on, such boastfulness, and the fact that everyone talked about it as Olmsted’s park, eventually started to nettle Vaux.
The Park, for its part, played the role of people’s playground perfectly as the evening wore on. There were numerous exercise groups (doing sit-ups, squatting and jumping, running as a trainer chanted encouragement and admonishments), a few embarrassingly ardent couples canoodling in the grass and one marriage proposal (accepted) so obviously staged (a man serenaded the couple as they danced on a rock by the pond), that we felt bad for the woman as she struggled to muster the appropriate look of surprise—and pretended not to notice as four of their friends leaped from the bushes to film the event on their iPhones.
“My absolute favorite activity is the disco roller skaters,” opined Mr. Dolkart.
“Do you put on your hot pants and go out and join them?” one man asked.
“You have to be a really good roller skater,” Mr. Dolkart responded enigmatically.
As the tour went on, the number of participants dwindled, vanishing between stops to retreat, we assumed, to the cool splendor of their apartments. What was left in the end, was a decidedly younger and more ragtag remnant (the sort that probably didn’t have air conditioning in their apartments, anyway), as well as the hardcore history buffs who were delighted to hear about an upcoming tour of Morningside Heights. One woman whipped out a copy of one of Mr. Dolkart’s books and begged him to sign it.
The final stop, as 8 p.m. approached, was on the bank of the lake, looking out at the park’s last unrestored element—the Ramble. Mr. Dolkart described the Conservancy’s grand plans for Ramble restoration and the ensuing controversy, “The bird watching community got absolutely apoplectic.”
We stared at the Lake’s murky waters, watching a turtle swim through discarded water bottles—a fitting tribute for a masterpiece of nature and artifice.