History of Bryant Park
If you take a look at Bryant Park today, bustling with life, trade and entertainment, you’d never think that it was once a desolate, neglected, crime-riddled park filled with potholes, much less a cemetery for the poor. To say that Bryant Park’s history is colorful is an understatement – there are so many amazing facts about its history that are so incredulous that you’d think it was pure fiction.
Then again, all those ups and downs throughout the years has made Bryant park the way it is today – full of life, rich in history. Let’s take a look down memory lane and revisit some of the more notable moments in Bryant Park’s history.
In the year 1686, the area we now know as Bryant Park was nothing but back country. Then colonial governor Thomas Dongan set aside a few hectares of land and designated it for public use. Nothing particularly notable happened to this land until the beginning of the Revolutionary War, when General Washington and his men crossed the site as they retreated from British troops during the Battle of Long Island.
In 1807, the citizens of New York started to make use of this public space, constructing roads around what is now known as midtown. In 1822, the area was officially handed over to the citizens of New York. A year later, the land was converted into a potter’s field. It served as a burial site for citizens who couldn’t afford a proper grave. In 1840, plans to build the Croton Reservoir on this piece of land was finalized and so the potter’s field was decommissioned. All bodies buried in the field were transferred to Wards Island.
The Croton Distributing Reservoir was composed of an artificial lake spanning four acres surrounded by thick, towering granite walls. The walls were more than utilitarian; they had promenades that were accessible to the public, offering a nice, clear view of the slowly growing and developing New York city. The reservoir offered a steady fresh water supply to the citizens of New York, and was considered a notable engineering achievement in the 19th century.
The city council of New York ordered the construction of a park adjacent to the reservoir in 1846. It wasn’t until a few years laters when the plan came to fruition. In 1870, Reservoir Park was officially opened. The park underwent a huge renovation project a year later, one that cost a total of $72,000.
The park was used as a camp for the Union Army soldiers. Troops would conduct their drills across the Reservoir square. The Union Government started to issue the first drafts in March 1863, inciting riots throughout New York. there were plans to convert the square for several different purposes, most of which were military in nature. In the 1900s, after the Reservoir building was finally torn down, the army petitioned to turn it into an armory. The petition was later rejected.
The Birth of Bryant Park
After several years of being known as Reservoir square, the area was finally renamed in 1884 to Bryant Park in honor of William Cullen Bryant. Bryant was a New York Evening Post editor who was also an outspoken advocate for the abolition of the slave trade.it was also during this area that, after several failed petitions, the old Reservoir building would be used for another purpose.
Planning for the New York Public Library started and designs were submitted for it by architects Thomas Hastings and John Merven Carrere. Aside from the library, several additions were built around Bryant Park. In 1911, the Beaux-Arts building, the fountain terrace and other amenities were added to the park.
In the 1920s, the northern part of the park was inaccessible to the public while the Interborough Rapid Transit subway tunnel was being built under 42nd street. The park was used by contractors, who stored debris and construction equipment in park grounds. The ground was turned up and disturbed for over 5 years.
Not all buildings erected at the park were received well. In April 1932, the Washington Bicentennial Commission began construction of a hall that replicated the design of the Federal Hall. Sadly, the hall was boarded up just a few months after it opened due to neglect and was finally demolished in 1933.
In an effort to spark community interest in the park, and at the same time prove the park’s amenities, the Architects’ Emergency Committee spearheaded a contest where people submitted potential designs for the park. Lusby Simpson, an architect from Queens, won the contest. His design focused on the central lawn, bordering it with grand balustrades and filling it with nice formal pathways and London Plane trees. The design also included an oval plaza with Josephine Shaw Lowell’s Memorial Fountain.
The design remained a design until 1934, when Robert Moses was elected park commissioner and ordered the start of the project. The renovations were headed by architects Filmore Clarke and Aymar Embury II. The renovations were completed and the park was officially opened on September 14, 1934.
Modern Day Bryant Park
Even after several renovation projects, Bryant Park still didn’t flourish. Park visitation count did rise in the 1970s, but these visits were from drug dealers, prostitutes and homeless people. The park became the location of drug deals and a makeshift red light district. Law abiding citizens started to avoid the park, fearing for their safety.
By 1979, the community was on its last leg, ready to give up on the park as a recreational, cultural and historic site. As a last hurrah, the Parks Council, a parks advocacy group, initiated a project that involves the whole community in an attempt to clean up Bryant Park. The project resulted in the construction of cafes, book drives, flower markets, terrain improvement and better lighting.
In 1980, the Rockefeller Brothers created the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation together with some of New York’s elite. The group continued what the Parks Council started, looking for projects that would help the park generate revenue. The project focused on better park maintenance, and turning the park’s historical sights to tourist attractions. The goal was to get the community interested in the park once more.
Slowly, the drug addicts and prostitutes slowly vacated the park and visitor count started to rise again. Crime rates decreased, which encouraged businessmen to open stores in the park grounds. The entrance was made more visible, and several buildings were erected for businesses. Companies and groups started to put on shows and offer activities in the park.
The new and improved Bryant Park was officially opened in April 1922. This time, the reception from the public was astounding. To this day, visitor count remains high, and the park is considered a melting pot of various interests.