Central Park is a lot to try to take in. Its huge size and hilly, wooded landscape means that it’s almost impossible to see the whole thing. Even locals who visit all the time are always finding new places to explore. So, when you visit Central Park, it’s a good idea to try to get some elevation and get a sense of how big Central Park really is. And right in the middle of the park is Vista Rock, topped by one of Central Park’s defining buildings: Belvedere Castle.
Belvedere Castle Central Park
“Belvedere” is Italian for “lookout” and at Belvedere Castle, Central Park opens up and the trees part to create a beautiful lookout indeed. When Central Park was being designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the land was full of low swampy marsh and craggy rock outcroppings. These granite promontories are formed of Manhattan Island’s bedrock. The granite is five hundred million years old and was exposed by the receding glaciers of the last ice age.
Rather than leveling the hills, Vaux and Olmsted decided to keep many of the largest outcroppings intact and make them a part of the park. Vista Rock, where Belvedere Castle Central Park stands today, is the second highest point in the park.
Vaux and Olmsted hoped to create a lovely lookout on the prominent spot. But there was a problem. Down at the base of the granite was a massive rectangular reservoir for the city’s drinking water. Vaux and Olmsted loved the idea of rugged, natural beauty. And the reservoir was ruining it. There was nothing to be done about it, however; the city needed its drinking water. So they turned to a trick that landscape designers had been using for a century: they created a folly.
A folly is a building created just for aesthetics that serves no functional purpose. They were often used on the grounds of fine country homes in England to create the illusion of ancient ruins. By placing a small castle on the top of Vista Rock, it gave the reservoir the air of antiquity. Plus it made for a great attraction for the middle of the park where people could gather and enjoy the view, hence Belvedere Castle.
The area around the castle has changed a lot since the 1850s, though. The trees have all grown a lot bigger since they were planted more than a century ago, and the southern side of the castle is now thick woodlands. The castle has also served as New York City’s official meteorological observatory since 1919 – today there are automated weather instruments and wind gauges all around the castle.
But the most noticeable difference is at the base of Vista Rock: the reservoir is gone! New water systems were created in the 1920s that made the reservoir redundant, and so the city drained the water and replaced it with a new lawn. But just after the project started, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. The funds for the project dried up and New Yorkers were left with a dry lakebed.
Over the next few years, homeless workers began building a few small shacks and shanties in the lakebed. These camps were known as “hoovervilles,” which didn’t make for a great re-election slogan for President Hoover. The Central Park camp was never very large – at its biggest it was home to no more than a few dozen residents. But its location in the heart of the park and next to the luxurious homes of 5th Avenue made it a symbol for the Depression.
As funding for government operations returned in the mid-30s, work began again on the Great Lawn. Today the Great Lawn is the park’s largest open space – the Turtle Pond at the base of Vista Rock makes for a great focal point when viewing the castle from the lawn.
The other new addition below Belvedere Castle is the open air Delacorte Theater. The Delacorte was built in 1962 to house the Public Theater’s new “Shakespeare in the Park” program. Today “Shakespeare in the Park” continues to call the Delacorte home and delights New Yorkers every summer with free, world-class performances.
Make a trip to Vista Rock to see one of the standout attractions of Central Park. Visit between 10 AM and 5 PM and you’ll be able to go inside to the small visitor center and climb the spiraling stairs to the third floor parapet. There you can enjoy a dramatic view of the Great Lawn and the skyline of the park’s east and west sides. From the top of Belvedere Castle Central Park seems a like a painting – head on up and enjoy the view.