The northernmost of Central Park’s lakes shares its name with the neighborhood to its immediate north. Harlem Meer occupies the former confluence of Montayne’s Rivulet and Harlem Creek, a point where these two freshwater streams widened into a brackish estuary on their way towards the East River.
In the initial allocation of land for Central Park, the site of Harlem Meer would have been excluded from the park, its untouched terrain would likely have been buried beneath urban development. In 1863, the park was expanded north to 110th Street, encompassing the North Woods, a set of abandoned fortifications from the War of 1812 and the marsh where the creeks met.
The portion of Montayne’s Rivulet inside the park was redesigned as The Loch, while Harlem Creek was covered entirely outside the park. Their former confluence was carved out and filled with aqueduct water. On the above 1875 Hinrichs’ map of Central Park, the lake fits into the northeast corner of the park, with the Fort Clinton hilltop at its midpoint. Its toponyms Meer originates from the Dutch word for lake. The neighborhood to the north of Central Park, Harlem also has Dutch origins, named in 1658 after a city of the same name in the old country. Prior to the development of Central Park, the area around Harlem Meer was known as McGowan’s Pass, a route through the hills on the Eastern Post Road.
On the above 1859 topographical survey of the yet-to-be-developed park, we see a dotted line running on its original northern limit, 106th Street. Looking at the cliffs, hilltops, and ravine above the dotted line, it makes sense that the park was extended by another four blocks, as this area wasn’t easy to develop anyway. Why wasn’t Central Park extended beyond 110th Street? Because in contrast to this four-block extension, much of Harlem lies on a plain, (with the exception of Mount Morris), making it easy to develop.
On the southern side of the Harlem Meer is a series of coves punctuated by rocky outcroppings. Between the hilltops crowned by Nutter’s Battery and Fort Clinton is McGowan’s Pass, a heavily trafficked route during the colonial period that has been reduced to a park trail. Its namesake is Daniel McGown, who purchased land around the pass in 1756. In the late 18th to early 19th centuries, this pass served as the northern gateway to New York City.
During the War of 1812, nearly every cape, island, peninsula, and hilltop around the city was fortified to prevent a British invasion. McGowan’s Pass received three garrisons linked by four-foot high earthwork walls. Fort Clinton, Fort Fish and Nutter’s Battery flanked the pass, staffed by troops who had a commanding view of the Harlem Plain and Hell Gate. They were useless, built In the 1816 image above, the decommissioned fort stands above a pastoral scene.
Original Mount Saint Vincent
A nearby hilltop at McGowan’s Pass later served as the first campus of the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent, which then became a Civil War hospital, and then a tavern which stood until 1917. Today the barren hilltop is used as a composting site. The images above and below are from an 1869 guide to Central Park, showing the Harlem Meer in relation to the former fort and convent.
Three Boathouses at This Site
On the north side of Harlem Meer, at the former merge of Harlem Lane and Eastern Post Road is the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, a nature education facility. Despite its historic appearance, it was completed in 1993 as a replacement for an earlier boathouse. Its designer was Samuel G. White of the now-disbanded firm Buttrick White & Burtis. It represents a family tradition, resembling the summer cottages and country homes of his great-grandfather, renowned architect Stanford White. This boathouse replaced a 1947 structure that had fallen into ruin by the 1970s when the city’s budget could not afford to maintain the facility.
While much of Central Park experienced neglect in the 1970s, its northern tip suffered the most. Harlem Meer was filled with trash and the boathouse was entirely abandoned.
Looking back at a Parks Archives photo shortly after its completion, the boathouse had the same design as the Kerbs Boathouse at Conservatory Water and the Loeb Boathouse at The Lake, forty blocks to the south. The most famous guest to visit the second Harlem Meer boathouse was Marilyn Monroe in 1957. The most beautiful dead celebrity in my opinion.
The second boathouse was part of Robert Moses’ 1934 master plan for Harlem Meer that transformed its naturalistic shoreline into a concrete bathtub. As Parks Commissioner he did the same to the shorelines of Bowne Pond, Crotona Lake, Kissena Lake, Linden Pond, and Jackson Pond. The plan also provided for two new playgrounds next to Harlem Meer.
Shortly before the master plan was drafted, prolific city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr visited Harlem Meer in 1933, documenting its first boathouse. A humble wooden structure with a flag, it lacked the fancy Victorian rustic designs of buildings further south in Central Park. On account of its location, Harlem Meer was the last section of Central Park to be developed.
A decade before Sperr’s visit, Ewing Galloway stood atop the former Mount Saint Vincent looking northwest towards the Harlem plain. One can see the boathouse on the right and the Nutter’s Battery hilltop on the left. Now imagine this landscape a century before Galloway. Everything beyond the hill is a nearly flat plain. No wonder New Yorkers of that time feared it would be an easy invasion route down from British-ruled Canada.
In my course of research on Harlem Meer, I kept finding it misspelled as “Mere,” as in the 1915 Parks annual report above. As an artificial lake, it must be constantly maintained to prevent erosion and algae blooms. Notice the rocks along the water’s edge to keep the earth from sliding into the lake. The Mere misspelling could be an unintentional pun. In old English, mere means water, relating to the latin mare for sea, or the Dutch meer for lake. For example, Windermere, the largest lake in England. The Queens neighborhood of Edgemere means exactly that, it’s on the shore of the ocean.
Lasker Rink and Pool
At the point where The Loch (Montayne’s Rivulet) flowed into Harlem Meer, there was a cove with an isle. That isle disappeared in the 1934 master plan. In his drive to attract the middle and working classes to the park, Commissioner Robert Moses built more active recreational facilities in Central Park. By the 1950s, winters were becoming too warm for skating on natural ice. Not wanting to disturb the landscape of the park, Moses had both of its ice skating rinks built atop portions of waterways- Wollman Rink on the northern bay of The Pond, and Lasker Rink at the head of Harlem Meer.
In December 1962, the city approved a combined ice skating and swimming facility at Harlem Meer. $600,000 of the project’s cost was funded by the estate of Loula D. Lasker, who was subsequently honored as the facility’s namesake. In the summer of 1964, the lake was drained temporarily as the rink was being built. It opened two years later, fitting into the bowl-shaped ravine and cove, with The Loch’s water entering Harlem Meet beneath the new structure.
A replacement bird sanctuary isle was then constructed nearby. NYC Parks loves these isles, and recently announced plans for two turtle refuge isles at Bowne Park’s pond in Queens.
The structure contains the only swimming pool in Central Park, located in a socially acceptable site, close to the low-income Harlem tenements and public housing projects. The construction of the Lasker Rink and Pool shrunk the size of Harlem Meer from 14 acres to 11. Among the buildings of Central Park, Lasker offers an unapologetically modernist appearance lacking the masonry, brickwork, and wood of the Park’s comfort stations, boathouses and pavilions. The AIA Guide to NYC describes the facility as the park’s most “disastrous” improvement. Being so far up north in the park, most tourists visiting the city have no idea that Central Park has a free outdoor pool. Both of Central Park’s skating rinks are managed by the Trump Organization. Officially led by Eric and Donald Junior, but you know the rest…
In the first century of Central Park’s history, efforts to “improve” the waterways often ended up causing damage to the ecosystem as fish, waterfowl and amphibians found the lakes and ponds unlivable. For Harlem Meer, the construction of a concrete bottom and shore gave the lake an unnatural appearance. In 1990, Harlem Meer was dredged, redesigned and restored with a soft shoreline comprised of rocks, plantings and a small beach. Since then, it has again returned to its image as a naturalistic lake that recalls Harlem’s rural past.