When we visit New York City, we like to stay near Bryant Park. It’s one of my favourite places in the city, changing its look and feel depending on the time of year. It’s a small oasis hidden in the hustle and bustle of the city, a haven for wildlife and humans alike.
In Summer, it hosts the Bryant Park Film Festival – a giant screen is erected at the fountain end. The screen is made from long slats that can be angled when not in use – you can see straight through to the buildings on the other side.
In Winter, it hosts ‘Citi Pond’ and ‘The Holiday Shops’ – a large free admission ice rink that’s installed over the lawn area, surrounded by over 100 small ‘jewel box’ cabins hosting Christmas shops full of present ideas from around the world, and the large Christmas tree takes pride of place.
Here’s a few facts about Bryant Park’s location & history taken from their website www.bryantpark.org :
- In 1686, the area now known as Bryant Park was designated public property by New York Colonial Governor Thomas Dongon
- General Washington’s troops raced across the site after being routed by the British in the Battle of Long Island
- In 1823, the land was turned into a Potter’s Field, but was decommissioned in 1840 in preparation for the construction of the Croton Reservoir on the adjacent plot of land (now the Central branch of the New York Public Library with its two famous lions, Patience and Fortitude. The statues were given the nicknames during the 1930s by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.) Built in between 1839 and 1842, the Croton Distributing Reservoir was a man-made four acre lake, surrounded by massive, fifty-foot-high, twenty-five-foot-thick granite walls.
- In 1846, the New York City Common Council ordered construction of a public park on the land next to the Reservoir. Reservoir Park was formed in 1870, and one year later, underwent a $72,000 renovation. The reservoir itself was eventually torn down in 1900.
- Inspired by the success of The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the famed Crystal Palace exhibition hall in Hyde Park, London, New York City began preparations for a similar exhibit on U.S. soil. The New York Crystal Palace was built on Reservoir Square, the park just west of the Croton Reservoir. Designed by Georg Cartensen and Charles Gildemeister, the glass and metal structure was built in the shape of a Greek cross and boasted a domed roof 100 feet in diameter.
- The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, also commonly referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, featured four thousand exhibitors and displayed the industrial wares, consumer goods, and artworks of the nation. The first of its kind in New York City, the Crystal Palace Exhibition set off one of the first major tourism booms in New York with over one million visitors. The exhibit closed on November 1, 1854, and was leased for a variety of purposes over the next four years. It remained standing until October 5, 1858, when it burned down.
- During the Civil War, Reservoir Square was used as an encampment for Union Army troops. Throughout the late nineteenth century, many uses were suggested for the reservoir site and also the square, including a rejected petition to use the space for an armory.
- In 1884, Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park, to honor recently deceased Romantic poet, longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and civic reformer, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). Around this time, the city approved designs for the New York Public Library, submitted by architects John Merven Carrére and Thomas Hastings. The Beaux-Arts building was completed in 1911, with a raised terrace at the rear of the library and two comfort stations at the east end of Bryant Park.
- Throughout the 1920s, the north half of Bryant Park was closed to the public due to construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway tunnel along 42nd Street. IRT contractors began work in early 1922, using park space to store equipment and debris until 1927. Reflecting on this decade, the author of a 1936 The New Yorker article remarked that in the past fourteen years “Bryant Park has been closed to the public for half of that time on account they were digging in it . . .” also calling it one of the most “badgered and turned-up lots in the world.”
- Five years later, in April 1932, the Washington Bicentennial Commission erected a replica of Federal Hall on the east side of the park, just behind the New York Public Library. After the celebration, the hall remained standing and boarded up for several months until it was torn down in April 1933.
- Shortly after the demolition of the Federal Hall replica, the Architects’ Emergency Committee sponsored a contest to redesign the park. The winning submission came from Queens-based architect Lusby Simpson, and was a classical scheme of a large central lawn, formal pathways, stone balustrades, allées of London Plane trees, and at the west end, an oval plaza containing the Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain. When Robert Moses became Parks Commissioner in 1934, the plan was executed with the aid of consulting architect Aymar Embury II and landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke.
- The park opened to the public on September 14, 1934
- By 1979, New York seemed to have given up Bryant Park for lost as an urban amenity, as well as an historic site. In 1974, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Bryant Park as a Scenic Landmark, calling it “a prime example of a park designed in the French Classical tradition… an urban amenity worthy of our civic pride.” Five years later, however, William H. Whyte wrote in a report solicited by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund: “If you went out and hired the dope dealers, you couldn’t get a more villainous crew to show the urgency of the [present Bryant Park] situation.”
- By the late 1990s, actual lunchtime head counts on a sunny day would reach the 4,000 range – and the drug traffickers had been gone for a decade. The Rockefeller Brothers created the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC). In 1980, a master plan was created for turning around the park experimenting with a series of efforts to bring people back to the park, while also exploring how to generate revenue.
- A seven-year push combined supplementary park maintenance, temporary kiosks, and public events ranging from historical park tours to concerts, which reduced crime by 92 percent and doubled the number of annual park visitors.
- The Bryant Park Corporation (BPC) was founded in 1980 with a charge to reclaim Bryant Park for the people of New York City, with the park reopening in April 1992.
- The BPC is privately funded. Working as agent for the City of New York, the BPC provides sanitation, security services, award-winning restrooms, colorful gardens, and seasonal horticultural installations for the park, and maintains a lawn that’s open to the public. The BPC also works with civic-minded corporations and park patrons to offer interesting amenities, free educational programs and free high-level entertainment for people of all ages.