Great Lawn and Turtle Pond
The lawn and pond occupy the almost flat site of the rectangular, thirty-five-acre Lower Reservoir constructed in 1842, which was an unalterable fixture of the location of Central Park as it was first designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Within its schist walling, the reservoir filled the space between the 79th Street and 86th Street Transverse Roads. The Belvedere Castle, built in 1869, overlooked it from its southwest corner.
As the Croton-Catskill Reservoir system was completed, to satisfy New York City's need for water, the Lower Reservoir came to be redundant. In spite of years of prodding, the commissioners of the Catskill Aqueduct were loath to make over their real estate to the city; a number of projects in the City Beautiful manner were suggested for the site, epitomized by the Catskill Aqueduct Celebration Committee's commission of a design from the prominent Beaux-Arts "society" architect Thomas Hastings, who would have provided a grand formal space like a partly flooded version of the Paris Trocadéro, featuring a bronze casting of Frederick MacMonnies' Columbia in the Ship of State, the familiar fountain centerpiece of the lagoon at the World's Columbian Exposition of Chicago, 1893. Henry Fairfield Osborn lobbied instead for a formal carriage drive that would link his American Museum of Natural History with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the war Hastings recast his plan as a memorial to the soldiers of World War I.
These plans were decried as intrusions by park preservationists protecting the Olmstedian rustic plan on the one hand, and as elitist by populist champions of organized recreation facilities, who envisaged playing fields and bath houses for the city's urban poor. During the 1920s all projects were stymied as the issue became politicized during the land boom that filled Fifth Avenue and Central Park West with luxury apartment towers for the rich. The reservoir began to be drained 23 January 1930. In June 1930 the city adopted a plan presented by the American Society of Landscape Architects for a great oval of turf, its edges softened by trees planted in clumps within and outside the encircling pedestrian walkway. Two fenced playgrounds at the northern end were to be screened by shrubs and trees. The drainage was collected in a small pond at the south end, the predecessor of the present Turtle Pond, which revealed its essentially rectangular shape, in spite of mild waggles in its concrete curbing. Along its southern shore, the steep gradient that had impounded the reservoir was regraded and planted with trees and shrubs to mask its regularity.
In the meantime, however, the city teetered on the edge of insolvency as the Great Depression put an end to grand plans. A "Hooverville" of improvised shacks developed in the dry bed of the reservoir, as the city began dumping fill. Robert Moses, who would see the ASLA Great Lawn to completion, took office with mayor Fiorello La Guardia in January 1934, and two years later the Great Lawn was essentially completed and planted with pin oaks and European lindens, in the reduced range of trees in the current repertory.
Degradation and restoration
With heavy use over the years, the Great Lawn, which received eight baseball diamonds constructed in the 1950s, had been irretrievably compacted and threatened to turn to a dustbowl; its degradation was aggravated by its use for outdoor concerts once the Sheep Meadow had been restored in 1979. Eroded topsoil that washed into Turtle Pond resulted in eutrophication that turned it to algal soup each summer. In October 1995 the Central Park Conservancy took up the joint project of rehabilitating fifty-five acres of the lawn and its surroundings, with improved tilefield drainage and sprinkler systems, and completely draining, re-excavating and reconfiguring Turtle Pond, which had received its official name change in 1987. The reconfigured Turtle Pond, completed in 1997, was designed so that at no position can a viewer take in all its perimeter. Shoreline plants such as lizard's tail, bulrushes, turtlehead (Chelone glabra), and blueflag iris were planted in submerged concrete shelving designed to offer each group of wetland plants their ideal water coverage. A small island provides sunning spots and secure egg-laying sites for the turtles. Sightings of numerous species of dragon fly not previously noted in Central Park have been made.
- The Upper Reservoir, now commemorating Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, remains a designed feature of Central Park, in a flowing shape ringed with a jogging track. Its schist-and-granite pump houses were designed by George S. Greene.
- In Egbert Viele's rejected plan for Central Park, of which the inadequacies prompted the design competition of 1857-58, the civil engineer "considered the reservoir worthy of attention as a major engineering feat, and his plan emphasized it by adding a terrace to the walls, from which spectators could observe military drills," Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar observe (The Park and the People: A History of Central Park [New York: Holt] 1992:102); proponents of the naturalistic plans in the competition "repeatedly recommended 'planting out' the park boundaries and the 'ugly', 'artificial', 'uncouth', 'horrid', and 'discordant' distraction of the reservoirs in order to reinforce the sense of natural expanse." (ibid., p. 114)
- United States Geological Survey (1900). Harlem, NY-NJ Quadrangle (Map). 1:62,500. 15 Minute Series (Topographic). Section SW. http://docs.unh.edu/nhtopos/Harlem.htm. Retrieved 2010-02-22.
- Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar devote a chapter, "Will they ever drain the Reservoir? Modernizing the Park" to the development of the Great Lawn project in their history of Central Park.
- Hastings, whose partner John Carrère had died just before the opening of their masterwork, the New York Public Library, had just recently designed the setting for the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, the grand formal carriage entrance to Central Park.
- Rosenzweig and Blackmar 1992:439.
- The northwestern playground was replanned as the Arthur Ross Pinetum in 1971; the northeastern playground is reconfigured for handball and basketball.
- Annual concerts by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic had become cultural fixtures; the Elton John concert, 1980, drew 300,000, the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert, 1981, more than 500,000, and nearly 750,000 attended the Anti-Nuclear Rally in 1982. (Elizabeth Barlow Rogers et al., Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan 1987, p 114). More recent concerts have featured Plácido Domingo (1988), Garth Brooks (1997), the Dave Matthews Band (2003) and "Live Broadway" (2006).
- The Great Lawn: Central Park Conservancy pdf document
- McFadden, Robert D. (October 8, 1995). "125,000 Join Pope at Mass In Central Park 'Basilica'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-31.
- Lee, Felicia R. (June 11, 1995). "Thousands Jam Disney's Newest Park to See 'Pocahontas'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-31.
- (New York Times) Timothy Williams, "Keeping Great Crowds Off Central Park's Great Lawn" 27 April 2005.