In a city as starved for land as New York, there is Central Park with its 843 acres of grid-defying naturalistic landscape. Last night, I attended a lecture given by Gerard Koeppel, author of the recently published “City on a Grid: How New York Became New York.” He spoke of Central as the antithesis of Manhattan’s rectilinear grid, with its winding paths that respect the topography, 40 uniquely designed bridges, and artificial bodies of water that appear timeless. The largest of them is the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, which takes up 106 acres in the midpoint of the park, ringed by a 1.58-mile running track.
“There’s a sense of space and solitude here unlike any other part of the park.” –Kevin Bacon.
How it began
When Central Park was legislated in 1853, it already had a reservoir in the space corresponding between 79th and 86th Streets. As utilitarian as the island’s street grid, it was regarded by park designer Frederick Law Olmsted as a “blank, uninteresting object that can in no way be made particularly attractive.”
In the 1836 map above, the uptown receiving reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct is placed atop York Hill. The rivulets to the north and south of the reservoir are the branches of Saw Kill, a stream originating on the Upper West Side.
He resolved the Lower Croton Reservoir’s presence in the park by concealing it behind thick vegetation and hills, with trails leading away from it.
The only place where the public could view the reservoir was from Belvedere Castle, the highest natural point in the park, appearing on this 1875 Hinrich map as a rocky outcropping at the reservoir’s southwest corner.
A New Reservoir
With the city’s population growing, a new receiving reservoir was sought and the vast swampland to the north of the original reservoir appeared ideal. The land was too undesirable for land speculators and developers.
Initially, another rectangular pool would have sufficed but with the creation of Central Park, engineer Egbert Ludovicus Viele took a look at the topography and noticed how the North Branch of Saw Kill formed a bowl-shaped depression. He drew dotted lines around the borders of the swamp, outlining the New Reservoir.
The curvilinear shape of The Reservoir’s shoreline complemented the winding roads and paths of the surrounding park. Ground was broken on April 14, 1858 in a ceremony where dignitaries spoke of the reservoir’s record-setting capacity to hold more than a billion gallons of water. At three in the afternoon on August 19, 1862, the spigot was turned at the north gatehouse, welcoming the rushing water into the basin. The New York Times described the new reservoir as having a “graceful irregular shape, conforming somewhat to the irregularities of the ground, and impairing to this artificial sheet of water the natural appearance of a lake.”
Speaking on behalf of contractors Egbert N. Fairchild, Stephen C. Walker, Isaac D. Coleman and Henry J. Brown, spiritualist Luther Rawson Marsh spoke of the reservoir in the context of the Civil War that was in its second year.
“Indeed, this is the country for large things. We do business on a grand scale- larger rivers, broader fields, taller trees, longer telegraphs and railroads, ampler parks and greater reservoirs, than elsewhere; and I am sorry to be obliged to admit that the rule applies as well to rebellions, and the most infamous traitors, and more of them than there ever were or ever can be festered into life in any other country on the globe.” –“Our New Reservoir” New York Times August 20, 1862
Marsh ended his speech on a positive note, again with the war in mind.
“A huge wassail-bowl has been prepared, which we will not proceed to fill, on purely temperance principles. We will emancipate the struggling waters from their dark imprisonment, and let them forth to light and liberty.”
As the city grew, new reservoirs were built further uptown and upstate to collect, hold and distribute the city’s water supply. In the 1920s, the old Receiving Reservoir was drained and plans were debated for what would replace it. A variety of ideas sprang forth, including a war monument, museum, exhibition hall on the pro-development spectrum; a reflecting pool and garden favoring naturalism; and in between, plans for a playground. In the end, it became the Great Lawn, an open field of baseball diamonds, with a small portion of the reservoir remaining as Turtle Pond.
As early as 1926, the Central Park Association, a precursor to the Central Park Conservancy, called for the New Reservoir to also be decommissioned and replaced with parkland. William Bradford Roulstone called the reservoir a “public menace,” citing the presence of dirt and refuse in the water and atop its icy surface in winter. At the time, the city’s Department of Water Supply was not ready to give up the reservoir, arguing that it could be useful in an emergency. Despite the installation of an ugly but tall and functioning chain-link fence, the reservoir’s perimeter became a popular running track for decades to come.
The reservoir was decommissioned in 1993 and renamed for local resident and former first day Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the following year.
In contrast to the Lower Reservoir that became the Great Lawn, the city opted to preserve The Reservoir as it was. More than a half century after the first calls to cover the pond failed, the public became used to The Reservoir’s cooling and calming effect. In the years that followed, the fountain in The Reservoir was restored, as was the wrought iron perimeter fence in 2003, with the running track repaved in 2014.
When one observes its massive size from above, you can’t help but imagine other uses for this inland sea such as a beach or boat rentals. Could a walkway be constructed atop the just-below-the-surface dike that bisects The Reservoir? What if even a few acres of this giant blob-like body of water were filled in? At this point in time, it would be tantamount to defacing a priceless artwork and an insult to the memory of Viele.
As New Yorkers strolled in the decades past, the scene from Marathon Man has been recreated by the famous and the commoner, taking in the views and the breeze of Central Park’s largest waterway.
When you’re done with that, here are a few more clips from other films featuring The Reservoir.
While you’re there, stop by the 91st Street entrance to the running track and pay your respects to John Purroy Mitchel, the dynamic mayor who tragically died at a young age.
In the news: Don’t miss the exhibit on the bridges of Harlem River by Duane Bailey-Castro, now on view at the ARTViews Gallery at Montefiore Medical Center, Moses Campus. 111 East 210th Street in The Bronx. Show runs until April 1.
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