Photo of the Week

After a week of exclusive Queens coverage ahead of my King Manor Museum author talk, we return to Manhattan ahead of an important anniversary in Central Park.

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This week’s photo was taken between 1910 and 1915 by Bain News Service and retrieved from the Library of Congress photo collection. I am sharing it because on April 23, the Central Park Model Yacht Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Conservatory Water

In its pre-park state, the site of the model boat pond was a ravine through which Saw Kill flowed on its way east. With the development of Manhattan, its headwaters on the Upper West Side were buried as was its course on the Upper East Side. The dried up stream bed within Central Park was dammed and filled with water from the city’s aqueduct as The Lake.

To its east, the ravine was assigned an ornamental pool that would face a “large conservatory,” a glass building with tropical plants inside.

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Initially, this pool was intended to be filled with lilies floating on the surface. It was completed without a surrounding garden in 1873 and soon after attracted a following of model boat enthusiasts and when the weather permits, ice skaters. While some maps labeled this pool as “Ornamental Water,” its other name Conservatory Water found more acceptance by the public.

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The Conservatory Garden eventually was completed in 1934 at a location further uptown at Fifth Avenue and East 105th Street. Around that time, the Conservatory Water was redesigned with a granite shoreline loosely based on the reflecting pool of Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. A humble wooden boathouse stood on the pond’s eastern shore, a predecessor to a larger one that will be built in 1954.

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Trefoil Arch

At the eastern side of The Lake, Loeb Boathouse stands atop an earthen dam that holds back its water but the ravine where Saw Kill flowed is evident by Trefoil Arch, which spans the former course.

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A few feet from the arch is a manhole. Instead of foul odors, when looking into it, the air is cool and clean indicating a buried stream flowing from The Lake into Conservatory Water.

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Looking north from Pilgrim Hill, the valley between Trefoil Arch and Conservatory Water also indicates the former course of Saw Kill.

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Kerbs Boathouse

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On the eastern side Conservatory Water where the indoor tropical garden was planned is the Kerbs Boathouse, completed on June 2, 1954 with funding from park supporter Joanne E. Kerbs. It replaced an older and much smaller wooden boathouse. This is where the Central Park Model Yacht Club meets every Saturday at 10 in the morning. 

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Inside the boathouse, members work on their boats in view of portraits from its proud history. On April 23 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the club will be holding its centennial celebration.

Nearby on the shoreline

For children, Conservatory Water is best associated with the novel and film Stuart Little. The child-friendly setting of this pond extends to its western side, which has two popular sculpture, the 1959 work Alice in Wonderland by José de Creeft, and the 1955 sculpture of a sitting Hans Christian Andersen by Georg John Lober.

Although it is an island and it has plenty of wealthy residents, Manhattan does not have too many actual yacht clubs. Manhattan Yacht Club has been in operation since 1987 with an address in the Financial District, a dock in Jersey City and a floating clubhouse. Further inland in Midtown is the New York Yacht Club, on a property donated by its Commodore John Pierrepont Morgan. Its dock is further away in Newport, Rhode Island.

As with all yacht clubs, the one in Central Park has a Commodore, a burgee, clubhouse, and common passion for the sport of sailboat racing. It is the only “yacht” club in New York City located on an inland waterway. If you’re not a club member, you may rent your own model sailboat with Sail The Park.

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