The most visible of Central Park’s waterways is The Pond, a 3.8-acre manmade waterway at the southeast corner of the park. Overshadowed by the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, next to a subway station, and near the great shops of Fifth Avenue, its story is rich with nature, rejected design proposals, and various uses since its completion in 1857.
Appearing on the map as a backward L, this waterway shelters a nature sanctuary within a few yards of Central Park South, the hard border between the dense city center and its designated greensward.
Where it Flows
On the 1994 map by George Colbert and Guenther Vollarth, The Pond is tucked inside the park’s southeast corner, framing The Promontory, a rocky peninsula containing the Hallett Nature Sanctuary.
The former northern bay of The Pond was covered in 1950 in favor of Wollman Rink. To the south of The Pond (left on this map) is Plaza Hotel. Note the blue line flowing beneath this hotel. It indicates De Voor’s Mill Stream, a natural waterway that originated on the Upper West side and flowed in a southeast direction towards Turtle Bay on the East River. Its namesake is colonial settler David Duffore, who set up a farm at Turtle Bay in 1677. De Voor was the Dutch spelling of his name. Responding to the topography, Olmsted and Vaux shaped The Pond in a valley through which the stream flowed.
De Voor’s Mill Stream
The stream’s furthest source was at W. 69th Street and Columbus Avenue, and it entered the future park at W. 66th Street. On Egbert Viele’s map of the Manhattan’s natural terrain, we also the Receiving Reservoir predating the park. In the designated park is another stream, Saw Kill whose course was carved into The Lake and Conservatory Water.
Circled in red, from north to south, are The Arsenal, Plaza Hotel, and Empire State Building, which stand atop buried waterways. Stories of water flowing through basements may have their basis in these ghost streams. Outside of Central Park, no trace of these streams remains, aside from slight dips and rises in topography. But where valleys were once much steeper, the removal of hills made them less visible, and to an untrained pedestrian today’s Midtown is seemingly flat.
After it leaves Central Park, the stream flowed through the sites of the Plaza Hotel, GM Building, and Lipstick Building. The maps above are from the 1879 G. W. Bromley survey from the NYPL Digital Collections.
At E. 52nd Street and Second avenue, it was crossed by Eastern Post Road at Kissing Bridge, likely a romantic nickname. Ephemeral New York has the story. This colonial route continued north of Manhattan as Boston Post Road, linking these two cities. The stream then widened into Turtle Bay on the East River. It was filled in the 1860s and became the UN headquarters in the 1940s.
There were other “kissing bridges” on Manhattan’s East Side, but this was the only one documented in a drawing. When it appeared in the 1860 D. T. Valentine’s Manual, a popular city guidebook, it was titled “The Last of Kissing Bridge at the Old Boston Post Road,” suggesting that its days were numbered.
Alternative Pond Designs
Following the state’s designation of land for Central Park in 1853, Chief Engineer Egbert G. Viele’s plan was initially adopted by the Park’s Commissioners in 1856, showing the stream flowing from one side of the park to the other, with two ponds on its southeast corner. But then landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted persuaded the commissioners to hold a competition for the park’s design.
The 1858 design entry by Samuel Gustin retained Viele’s Cricket Ground as a giant oval lawn at 67th Street. The shape was later adopted farther north in 1930 on the site of Lower Reservoir. Gustin preserved the flow of Saw Kill, widening it into three lakes; and De Voor’s Mill Stream with a sizable lake on the west side where Hecksher Playground is today.
John Waring’s Plan envisioned a smaller Pond at the southeast corner, while John Rink’s radical plan turned the park into a giant garden without any ponds or creeks.
Gustin was the runner-up to Olmsted, the difference being that Olmsted’s plan had transverse road running through the park, separating traffic from park goers. In total, there were 33 plans submitted to the commissioners of Central Park, of which only a few remain today. The Gustin map comes from the collection of Central Park Conservancy.
The winning design by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux eliminated the stream’s flow through the park, raised the southern embankment of The Pond, and preserved the rocky outcropping framed by this pond. This 1873 map is mostly indicative of today’s park, the only landscape changes that would come later: Hecksher Playground, Central Park Zoo, and eliminating the bridle path that connected to Fifth Avenue. The Arsenal appears here in dotted lines as there was debate whether to retain this building. Today it serves at the headquarters of NYC Parks.
Ice skating at The Pond
That puts this pond across the street from Central Park and The Pond, but directly atop the old stream’s course. At the time there were many private skating ponds across the city, but as development marched on, it eventually became either an indoor sport, or one practiced atop city-operated park ponds. This pond was developed in 1868 into a row of townhouses by Mary Mason Jones, who had a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. She is an aunt of author Edith Wharton and the likely inspiration for the Manson Mingott character in Age of Innocence.
Boating on The Pond
Unlike The Lake, this waterway never had a boathouse but it offered boat rentals into the 1930s, as seen here in this photo from the NYPL collections. The hill in the background is Overlook Rock, a popular spot for taking in the views of Central Park and The Pond. It is one of many protruding bedrock formations preserved in Olmsted’s plan. The geology here is Manhattan schist, rocks dating back millions of years and later sculpted by the last ice age.
The 1930s was a decade of transformation for the city’s park ponds: Harlem Meer, Kissena Lake, Jackson Pond, Bowne Pond, and Linden Pond, were given concrete shorelines and bottoms that made for easier skating, eliminated erosion, but also made them less naturalistic and less hospitable to wildlife. In this 1936 photo from the NYPL collection, we see the Plaza Hotel, and to its right the two chimney roof of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel, which stood between 1927 and 1965. It was demolished in favor of the General Motors Building.
In this 1977 view of The Pond from the Central Park Conservancy, we see the shoreline comprised of arranged rocks. The lawn is worn out. It was a low point for Central Park as the city did not have enough funds to maintain its appearance. The Conservancy was formed in 1980 to provide private support for the park, resulting in the 2001 restoration of The Pond that brought back the naturalistic shoreline, improved the quality of the water, and opened the Hallett Nature Sanctuary to the public.
Subway at The Pond
At the southern tip of The Pond, where the stream used to continue south is the brownstone wall marking Central Park South. On this wall are grates providing air to the Fifth Avenue station on the N, R, W lines. One can hear the trains at this location. The station has an entrance on Fifth Avenue, and another one midblock on Central Park South. It features a lengthy staircase and mosaic artwork.
I would like to see the staircase wall have an opening with a path towards The Pond, or at least windows providing a view of it. It would be nice to leave the subway and walk directly into the park, but any alteration to Central Park’s architecture, including its border wall, is a lengthy process as the park is a designated scenic landmark.
The most recent subway intrusion in Central Park is the 63rd Street Tunnel, as seen in this environmental impact statement map. To minimize its disruption to The Pond, the tunnel’s connections to the Seventh Avenue and Sixth Avenue lines were bored deep underground and there’s only one ventilation shaft in the park, hidden among rocks and trees near Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street.
Unlike three other subway lines running through Midtown, this one does not have a station at Fifth Avenue. Between 1989 and 2016, the Seventh Avenue connection was an unused “ghost tunnel” used for train storage. Today it is part of the Second Avenue Line.
I’ve nicknamed it derisively as “selfie bridge” for its crush of tourists. Along with Bow Bridge at The Lake, Gapstow Bridge is the most photographed crossing in Central Park.
Looking north, one sees Wollman Rink and looking south one sees the skyscrapers of Midtown while surrounded y lush foliage. This bridge dates to 1896, built from locally sourced schist by Howard & Cauldwell. It is one of the most filmed locations in Central Park, so you may have seen this bridge in a movie or a show.
The original Gapstow Bridge was designed in 1873 by Jacob Wrey Mould, featuring wrought iron railings and a wooden arch. It was a better fit with the park’s rustic appearance, but apparently not strong enough to handle the crowds. No two bridges in this park are the same, and it would be nice to see the original Gapstow design replicated elsewhere in another park, to give the public an appreciation of Victorian design.
Driprock and Dipway
Looking back at the 1994 map of Central Park, we travel upstream on the ghost stream past Wollman Rink to Driprock Arch. This crossing takes Center Drive over the footpath leading to Hecksher Playground.
Prior to the 1930s, the bridle path to Fifth Avenue ran under this arch. It now dead-ends near Pine Bank Arch.
Further west is Dalehead Arch, which carries West Drive over the bridle path. Both of these Olmstedian arches span ravines where De Voor’s Mill Stream flowed. The top of this arch is 70 feet above sea level. That’s nearly 40 feet higher than the level of The Pond.
In his design for Central Park, Olmsted preserved most of the natural topography. Both of these arch photos are from Central Park Conservancy.
Grand Army Plaza
The plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park offers views of The Pond and serves at the most heavily used entrance to the park. In 1863 architect Richard Morris Hunt proposed an overlook with a column, grand staircase and fountains leading to The Pond.
The park’s commissioners approved Hunt’s design but Olmsted rejected it as the palatial overlook would detract from the pastoral scenery of the park. This was a familiar neighborhood for Hunt, who later designed the nearby William K. Vanderbilt mansion, Elbridge T. Gerry mansion, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Olmsted initially envisioned a modest clocktower at this plaza, which was never built. After the civil War, this park entrance was named Grand Army Plaza, in honor of the union army veterans organization. In 1913, Thomas Hastings’ design for the plaza was adopted and St. Gaudens’ monument to General Sherman was installed on its northern block.
The southern block of Grand Army Plaza extends Central Park to 58th Street, facing the Plaza Hotel and General Motors Building. In the photo above, we are standing atop the phantom creek, looking downstream. The water flowing here is the Pulitzer Fountain, dedicated in 1916.
Crowds at The Pond
In December 2018, an exotic bird took up residency at The Pond. The mandarin duck is native to China and likely escaped from its human captor. For nearly a month its colorful plumage brought birders, tourists, and ornithologists to The Pond. It served as one of the attractions in Central Park, a stop on tour routes with crowds and attention unparalleled since a red-tailed hawk named Pale Male established his Fifth Avenue nest across from Central Park in the 1990s. In 2006, the Hallel sanctuary briefly served as a haunt for Hal the Coyote, who made his way to Central Park in search of a natural habitat.
These examples confirm that The Pond serves not only as a waterway of visual beauty, but also vital for wildlife. It offers incredible naturalized scenery that abuts the most urbanized section of Manhattan.
Learn More: I have a separate photo essay on the northern bay of The Pond, which was filled in favor of Wollman Rink.
In the News:
New York Post reports on the lethal danger to pets posed by algae blooms in NYC park waterways.
KQAD reports on the draining of the ponds at West Lake Park in Davenport, Iowa, ahead of a major restoration project.
Los Angeles Times reports on the discovery of microplastic and Styrofoam pollution in Lake Tahoe. Don’t you just hate plastic trash?
SouthernMinn.com reports on an upcoming ecosystem restoration project on the St. Louis river in Duluth.