In the heart of Midtown the New York Public Library’s main branch is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Prior to its construction in 1900 the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir stood on the site of the library. For 19th century New Yorkers the Egyptian Revival walls of the reservoir also appeared in contemporary guidebooks, attracting tourist crowds.
Between 1842 and 1900, the four-acre reservoir held 20 million gallons of water for the growing island metropolis. Its previous sources at Collect Pond and various springs across town were running dry and becoming polluted from urbanization. Water contained at Murray Hill originated from Croton Reservoir in Westchester County.
The hilltop site selected in 1840 was on the northern edge of the developed city, on Fifth avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. In 1823 the city designated the site as a potter’s field for unclaimed bodies after the older one at Washington Square Park had reached its capacity. In 1840 the graveyard was decommissioned in preparation for the reservoir. The bodies were relocated to Wards Island and later to the present-day potter’s field on Hart Island, the city’s most isolated property. All of the historic photos and illustrations here come from the NYPL Digital Collections.
The designer of the reservoir, James Renwick was the celebrity architect of his day with a portfolio that includes St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grace Church, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
His choice of Egyptian Revival gave the relatively young city a historical look. At the time the style was a popular pick and included the original Tombs Prison near the city’s downtown.
Most guidebooks of the time described this manmade waterway as the Croton Distributing Reservoir, or simply as Croton Reservoir, sharing the name with the actual 400-acre Croton Reservoir to the north of the city. Along with its imposing walls and main gate, the public was given access to its rim, where people could take a stroll and see the city’s skyline. For a time, one could see as far as the Palisades of New Jersey and the steeple of Trinity Church at Wall Street. But as urbanization continued to creep northward, the views we no longer as impressive. In 1853 the Latting Observatory tower was built nearby with better views of the city.
1853 World’s Fair
The first World’s Fair to take place in New York was not in 1939, although that one was the biggest. The 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations gave the reservoir a neighbor, the New York Crystal Palace, inspired by the Crystal Palace that was the centerpiece of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The inventions of the day shared space in the glass-and-steel pavilion with items that highlighted the unique aspects of this country. The fair resulted in a tourist boom for New York. But with the textiles and plants inside, the building was not fireproof, going down in flames within a half hour on October 5, 1858.
The western half of the superblock where the Crystal Palace stood was designated as a park in 1871 after a campaign by New York Post editor William Cullen Bryant. The design of Reservoir Square was an Olmstedian layout of winding paths on a flat plain, akin to Madison Square Park. At the time, this was the only public park in Manhattan between Madison Square on 23-27th Streets and Central Park on 59th Street. In 1884 the park was renamed after Bryant, who was an advocate for the creation of parks across the city.
The park retained its 1871 look into the 1930s when Percy Loomis Sperr took an aerial photo of Bryant Park. On its western side the Sixth Avenue El traveled past the park. In contrast to Madison Square Park, this park appeared quite barren of vegetation. In 1934 Parks Commissioner Robert Moses ordered a redesign for the park with a central lawn, alleys of trees around the lawn, and a fountain facing Sixth Avenue and 41st Street.
That plan hasn’t changed since then, as seen in 1995 rendering for the park’s renovation. Subway tunnels and an underground book storage vault brought temporary closures to the park, followed by restorations that kept up the park’s intended appearance. The greatest change to this superblock was the demolition the reservoir in favor of the great library.
Removing the Reservoir
With the northward expansion of the city, a second Distributing Reservoir was built in Central Park in 1877. In 1881, the state passed a bill authorizing the reservoir’s demolition but periodic droughts necessitated its survival for another two decades. Vines grew on its walls, giving it an even more ancient appearance.
Reporting on its changing reputation, the New York Times described the former “crown of Murray Hill” as a “colossal eyesore at what should be one of the most attractive spots in the city.” In 1896, the New York Public Library was proposed for the site, more colossal than the reservoir, designed to rival the libraries of the great Old World cities.
By 1900, supporters of the library cheered the demolition of the obsolete structure. In 1911 the Main Branch building was completed, holding than a million books on 75 miles of shelves.
The beaux arts-style structure was designed by architects Carrere and Hastings, with architectural elements reminiscent of ancient Rome. But as the marble library was rising, some of the older bricks of the reservoir remained in place, hidden from view for nearly a century. In the 1902 photo above, we see those old bricks on the side.
Reservoir Walls Exposed
In 1999, library director Paul LeClerk and architect Lewis Davis of the firm Davis Brody bond conceived of a postmodern-style facility inside the library’s South Court that would provide space for research classes and orientations. The four-story interior expansion avoids disturbing the Main Branch’s marble walls, enabling visitors to admire the marble walls with natural light filtering in from above and the reservoir foundation stones below.
Bryant Park isn’t the only city park built on the site of a reservoir, there’s also Mount Prospect Park and Highland Park in Brooklyn, Great Oval of Central Park and Highbridge Pool in Manhattan; and Williamsbridge Oval in the Bronx.