prospect park history

Prospect Park history & things you never knew

Amazing facts about the history of Prospect Park that will blow your mind.

Prospect Park: Unveiling the Untold Stories Behind its Creation

In 1867, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux introduced Prospect Park to the eager residents of Brooklyn. While renowned for their work on Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux considered Prospect Park to be their magnum opus, showcasing their groundbreaking landscape designs across its sprawling 585 acres. However, the park’s inception was far from a straightforward process, as Olmsted and Vaux were not the original architects involved.

The Battle of Long Island, via the Old Stone House
The Battle of Long Island

It took extensive construction efforts, alongside significant investments and unwavering dedication from the city and local preservationists, to bring the park to life. Overcoming obstacles such as demolitions, neglect, and crime, the Parks Department has dedicated the past few decades to not only maintaining but also restoring as much of Olmsted and Vaux’s visionary masterpiece as possible.

Witness the Enduring Splendor: Intriguing Revelations about Prospect Park

As time has passed, Prospect Park continues to dazzle visitors, just as it did on its grand opening. Throughout its rich history, the park has been a treasure trove of captivating tales, hidden mysteries, and lesser-known tidbits. Prepare to be enlightened as reveals the ten fascinating facts that have remained elusive to many.

Unearthing the Past: The Land’s Rich History Preceding Park Construction

The verdant expanse of Prospect Park conceals a profound tale of time immemorial. Approximately 17,000 years ago, as the mighty Wisconsin Glacier receded, shaping the contours of Long Island, it bestowed upon the northern region of the park a series of hills and kettles. Among them, the park’s namesake, Mount Prospect, rose majestically. Long before the park’s creation, Native Americans traversed these very lands, leaving their indelible mark. Intriguingly, the park’s East Drive now traces the path of an ancient Native American trail. However, with the advent of European colonization, the once-thriving forest gave way to pastures, altering the landscape over two centuries.

Rich History Preceding Park Construction

In a pivotal moment during the American Revolution, Prospect Park’s grounds became the stage for the historic Battle of Long Island. Despite the eventual loss suffered by George Washington’s Continental Army, their resolute defense succeeded in holding back the British forces long enough for Washington’s army to make a daring escape to Manhattan. The City of Brooklyn, recognizing the significance of the land, erected a reservoir on Prospect Hill in 1856. The growing sentiment to safeguard the Battle Pass area served as a catalyst for the ambitious undertaking of establishing a vast park, ultimately giving rise to the remarkable Prospect Park we know today.

A Beloved Haven for Wildlife: The Enduring Affinity of Animals for Prospect Park

The Enduring Affinity of Animals for Prospect Park

Before the park was built, nearby farmers would let their animals roam freely on the land. It became so populous with animals, in fact, they had to be constantly rounded up and returned to their owners. This issue continued after the park opened. According to the David P. Colley book Prospect Park, 44 pigs, 35 goats, 18 cows, and 23 horses were impounded in 1872 alone.

The Evolution of a Vision: Predecessors to Olmsted and Vaux in Park Design

In the annals of Prospect Park’s history, credit must be attributed to Egbert Viele as the original architect who conceived the park’s initial plan. As revealed by the Bowery Boys, Viele’s vision involved preserving Mount Prospect while introducing a prominent thoroughfare that would traverse through the lush greenery. However, with a significantly smaller land area of 228 acres compared to Olmsted and Vaux’s expansive design, Viele’s proposal would have lacked key features such as a lake, ravine, and waterfalls.

Litchfield Manor, which still stands and holds the park headquarters
Litchfield Manor, which still stands and holds the park headquarters

The onset of the Civil War interrupted the construction process, providing the Parks Commission ample time to evaluate alternative designs. Ultimately, Olmsted and Vaux’s creative genius prevailed, leading to the substantial revision and ultimate dismissal of Viele’s plan. This paved the way for the expansion of their own vision, extending southward and westward with the acquisition of additional land, solidifying their enduring legacy in shaping Prospect Park as we know it today.

Land Speculation: Draining the Park Budget’s Resources

In 1865, as Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux advanced with their visionary park proposal, the astute gaze of real estate developers fell upon the project. Recognizing the immense potential and allure of the park, these developers sought to secure additional space to shape the present-day layout that still captivates visitors. The result was the formation of three distinct regions within Prospect Park: a sprawling meadow in the north and west, a picturesque wooded ravine in the east, and a serene lake in the south. Discover the intriguing interplay between Olmsted and Vaux’s design ambitions and the influence exerted by real estate developers, which ultimately contributed to the park’s iconic and timeless arrangement.

Land Speculation Draining the Park Budget's Resources

In the quest to secure sufficient land for the ambitious park plan, the Parks Commission found themselves entangled in negotiations with real estate developer Edwin Clarke Litchfield. Litchfield held exclusive ownership of the entire expanse of Ninth Avenue, now known as Prospect Park West. In 1857, he erected his grand residence, Litchfield Manor, on the eastern side of the avenue. Recognizing the strategic importance of Litchfield’s holdings, the commission initiated discussions and eventually acquired his vast property in 1868. The purchase included Litchfield Manor and the surrounding lots between Ninth and Tenth avenues, stretching from 3rd to 15th streets. The cost of this transaction amounted to a substantial $1.7 million, representing a staggering 42 percent of the overall expenditure for land acquisition. Intriguingly, these lots comprised a mere five percent of the park’s total acreage. This clash of interests between the Parks Commission and Edwin Clarke Litchfield sheds light on the complex dynamics involved in securing the necessary land for Prospect Park’s realization.

Iconic Structures Born from Vaux’s Vision

While Frederick Law Olmsted often takes center stage in discussions about the design of Prospect Park, it is essential to acknowledge the pivotal role of his partner, Calvert Vaux, in crafting the park’s iconic architectural elements. Vaux’s extraordinary talent lay in seamlessly integrating buildings and structures into the natural landscape, creating a harmonious fusion of human-made and natural beauty. His meticulous touch can be seen in the Concert Grove, an exquisite formal garden adorned with small lawns and raised flower beds. The Queen Anne-style Oriental Pavilion stands as a testament to Vaux’s architectural prowess, capturing the imagination with its majestic allure. Furthermore, Vaux’s genius shines through the rustic shelters nestled organically within the park’s landscape, as well as the numerous arches and bridges that grace its pathways. Let us duly recognize Calvert Vaux’s significant contributions, as his visionary designs continue to enchant visitors and enhance the enduring splendor of Prospect Park.

Vaux’s unbuilt design for the Carriage Concourse
Vaux’s unbuilt design for the Carriage Concourse

A Dynamic Evolution: Unfulfilled and Vanished Buildings in Prospect Park

The economic panic of 1873 cast a shadow over the realization of several grand architectural visions within Prospect Park. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, proposals for magnificent structures were abandoned, consigning them to the realm of unfulfilled dreams. Among these unrealized marvels were a restaurant boasting cascading terraces near the Concert Grove, an observation tower crowning Lookout Hill, and a carriage concourse adorned with a sprawling canopy, spanning approximately 100 feet to provide shade for carriages and horses. These ambitious plans, once filled with promise, succumbed to the harsh realities of economic turmoil, leaving only whispers of what could have been. As the park transformed over time, these lost architectural aspirations serve as poignant reminders of the park’s ever-changing landscape and the unwavering resilience required to shape its enduring beauty.

Unfulfilled and Vanished Buildings in Prospect Park

During the period from 1930 to 1960, Robert Moses, a prominent figure in urban development, orchestrated a series of changes in Prospect Park that involved the demolition of original Calvert Vaux structures. In his pursuit of modernization and the enhancement of recreational facilities, Moses oversaw the removal of cherished architectural landmarks, making way for new playgrounds, sports fields, a zoo, a bandshell, and a skating rink. Regrettably, structures like The Dairy, which once served as a milk shop for the park’s roaming cows and sheep, were razed, along with the original Concert Grove House, the Model Yacht Club, and the Greenhouse Conservatories. This period of transformation left an indelible mark on the park’s architectural landscape, reflecting the changing needs and priorities of the times. While some cherished structures were lost, others emerged to shape Prospect Park’s modern identity, a testament to the ever-evolving nature of this beloved urban oasis.

Preservation Initiatives Take Root: The Iconic Boathouse and Prospect Park’s Conservation Efforts

The Prospect Park Boathouse

Under Robert Moses’ leadership, the removal of underutilized or redundant structures, despite their historical significance, was a common practice in New York City. Prospect Park was not exempt from this trend, as various structures met a quiet fate. However, the tide began to turn following the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, which sparked a citywide preservation movement. The preservation wave reached Prospect Park when the Parks Department proposed the demolition of the beloved Boathouse in 1964. Local preservationists, recognizing its architectural value, stepped forward to advocate for its protection.

Designed in 1905 by protégés of McKim, Mead and White, the Boathouse shared striking similarities with the demolished train station. News of its impending demolition galvanized the community, leading to the formation of the local preservation group known as Friends of Prospect Park. This group worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about the vanishing historical structures within the park. By 1964, the groundswell of public pressure was strong enough to prompt the park commissioner to halt the plans for demolition. This pivotal moment marked a significant shift in the park’s preservation ethos, fostering a renewed commitment to protecting and honoring its rich historical fabric.

A Cyclical Journey: The Fluctuations of Prosperity and Renewal in Prospect Park

Towards the end of the 19th century, Prospect Park faced a pressing need for substantial tender loving care. The park had suffered from extensive visitor overuse and misuse, resulting in unsightly piles of trash and broken trees. The dire condition of the park was brought to light in an 1887 report, which highlighted the worn-out grass, compacted soil, and lack of nourishment and moisture due to incessant use without respite.

Recognizing the urgency to address these issues, the City Beautiful Movement, which gained traction in the 1890s, played a pivotal role in initiating a restoration project for Prospect Park. The movement emphasized the importance of enhancing urban aesthetics and promoting public spaces as vital components of a city’s identity and well-being. In response, the city allocated approximately $100,000 towards the restoration of Prospect Park, undertaking extensive efforts to revitalize the park’s landscapes and rectify the damage caused by years of neglect.

Prospect Park

Through these restoration endeavors, Prospect Park was revitalized, rejuvenating its natural beauty and ensuring the survival of its beloved trees. The intervention of the City Beautiful Movement served as a turning point, emphasizing the significance of investing in park restoration and the importance of preserving these public spaces for future generations to enjoy.

During the challenging years of the 1960s, Prospect Park, like much of New York City, faced a period of disrepair and decline. The city was grappling with disinvestment and rising crime rates, which took a toll on the condition and reputation of the park. In 1974, a poll revealed that a significant 44 percent of New Yorkers cautioned against visiting Prospect Park, reflecting the prevalent perception of its safety and upkeep. By 1979, the park’s visitor count had dwindled to an estimated two million per year, further highlighting the challenges it faced.

However, the tides began to turn in the 1980s with the arrival of visionary leader Tupper Thomas. Under her guidance, Prospect Park witnessed a remarkable revival. Thomas’s dedication and strategic initiatives breathed new life into the park, attracting visitors and transforming it into a vibrant and welcoming space. Through her leadership, the park regained its allure, with attendance skyrocketing to nearly 10 million visitors per year by the time of her retirement in 2011.

Nurturing Nature’s Sanctuary: Prospect Park’s Exquisite Forest

Nestled within the sprawling embrace of Prospect Park lies a captivating 146-acre section known as the Ravine, proudly standing as Brooklyn’s sole forest. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned the Ravine as the very heart of the park, drawing inspiration from the picturesque landscapes of the Adirondack Mountains. Within this secluded haven, nature unfolds its enchanting beauty, shielding visitors from the bustling city beyond its boundaries.

Prospect Park's Exquisite Forest

The Ravine mesmerizes with its meandering stream and steep gorge, meticulously designed to recreate the rugged charm of its mountainous counterparts. As one wanders through this hidden gem, it becomes apparent that the city is left far behind, offering a transformative escape into nature’s embrace. Visitors are invited to meander among the trees, exploring the oldest and thickest parts of Brooklyn’s forest. From majestic black oak and hickory trees to the towering elegance of tulip trees, the Ravine’s diverse canopy creates a sense of awe and tranquility.

As revealed by Slow Nature Fast City, the landscape of Prospect Park underwent a remarkable transformation over time. The sandy clay left by Brooklyn’s terminal glacier moraine suffered significant erosion, leading to the burial of the park’s original waterways beneath layers of silt. However, the park’s restoration journey commenced in the 1990s and remains an ongoing endeavor.

Through dedicated efforts, Prospect Park’s landscape has been revived and revitalized, reclaiming its natural beauty and ecological integrity. Restoration projects have aimed to recreate and rejuvenate the park’s waterways, breathing life back into buried streams and revitalizing their flow. The restoration initiative has embraced the vision of restoring the park’s original landscape, weaving together elements of both natural and man-made interventions.

Prospect Park's Exquisite Forest

The ongoing commitment to restoration exemplifies the park’s dedication to preserving its ecological heritage and ensuring the park’s long-term sustainability. By undertaking these efforts, Prospect Park has become a testament to the power of restoration in reclaiming and preserving the natural beauty that was once buried beneath the sands of time.

Today, visitors can immerse themselves in a landscape that reflects the park’s storied past while embracing the hope and vision of a restored and rejuvenated future. Prospect Park’s ongoing restoration endeavors continue to shape and enhance its landscape, inviting visitors to witness the harmonious coexistence of nature and the urban environment.

Park restoration is still moving ahead

The ongoing efforts to restore Prospect Park to its grand vision conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux remain in full swing. A significant milestone in this restoration journey occurred in 2013 with the opening of the LeFrak Center—a year-round skating and recreational facility. This marked the culmination of a transformative $74 million restoration and redesign project encompassing the underutilized Lakeside section, spanning 26 acres.

A rendering of “The Connective Project,” designed by Reddymade Design
A rendering of “The Connective Project,” designed by Reddymade Design

Regarded as the largest and most ambitious capital project in Prospect Park since the nineteenth century, the Lakeside restoration and redesign added eight acres of vibrant and usable space to the meticulously revived Olmsted-Vaux vision. This milestone serves as a testament to the unwavering commitment to returning the park to its former glory while meeting the needs and aspirations of contemporary park-goers.

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Through this ambitious restoration project, the park’s underutilized Lakeside section has been transformed into a thriving hub of recreational activity, offering a range of amenities for visitors to enjoy throughout the year. The restored space not only pays homage to Olmsted and Vaux’s original vision but also enhances the park’s overall appeal and functionality for present-day visitors.

Park restoration is still moving ahead

As the restoration efforts continue, Prospect Park evolves, embracing its historical legacy while adapting to the demands of a modern era. The ongoing commitment to returning the park to its Olmsted-Vaux-inspired splendor reinforces its status as a cherished urban oasis and a testament to the enduring value of preserving and enhancing our natural and cultural heritage.

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