The development of Prospect Park is one element in a vast historical context that includes wars, the dawn of the industrial age, and the shift of the population from rural to urban settings. Prospect Park has played an integral role in the cycles of urban growth, decline, and renewal of Brooklyn since the 1860s.
Early Colonization and the Revolutionary War I The Battle of Brooklyn I The Growth of Brooklyn I Olmsted’s Vision of an Urban Respite I The Park Evolves I Prospect Park’s Renaissance I Prospect Park Alliance I A Park for All People
Early Colonization and the Revolutionary War
In 1646, the Town of Breuckelen was chartered by the Dutch as part of the New Netherland colony, which included New Amsterdam – later Manhattan – to the west. Early European settlers living near present day Prospect Park built homesteads and cultivated their land with the labor of African slaves and indentured servants. When the Dutch colonies fell into British hands in 1664 under the Duke of York, Brooklyn was established as an administrative entity of the province of New York, and a quiet agrarian life continued up until the American Revolutionary War.
The Battle of Brooklyn
Nearly a century before the Park was conceived, the location was the setting for the first major contest of the Revolutionary War. In late August 1776, the Continental Army under George Washington fortified passes along a section of Flatbush Avenue that now serves as the Park’s Drive. As British and Hessian soldiers approached from the south, the Americans fought in vain to hold them back at Battle Pass. Although the Continental Army lost the battle, they held the British back long enough for Washington’s forces to make a moonlit escape from Brooklyn Heights to New Jersey. Today, plaques just north of the zoo commemorate this event, as does the Maryland Monument at the foot of Lookout Hill.
The Growth of Brooklyn
In 1814, Robert Fulton’s steam ferry transformed Brooklyn into the world’s first commuter suburb, forever changing the docile farming existence of the early towns and foreshadowing the need for an urban respite. In 1834, the City of Brooklyn was chartered, and during the next 30 years, it became the third largest city in the country, following only New York (Manhattan) and Philadelphia. Successive waves of European immigrants settled in the growing city and sprawling farms gave way to row homes. Ferry lines quadrupled and street grids emerged, devouring more and more of the rural landscape.
At the same time, new concepts concerning the potential role of public parks in America were gaining popularity. Beginning in 1858, the design team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had transformed more than 800 acres of jagged rock into Central Park in Manhattan. It was the first landscaped public park in the United States and introduced the term "landscape architecture" into the English language.
Soon, a movement grew in Brooklyn for a park of its own. Leading the effort was James Stranahan, a business and civic leader with considerable real estate interests in Brooklyn. In the early 1860s, Stranahan argued that a park in Brooklyn "would become a favorite resort for all classes of our community, enabling thousands to enjoy pure air, with healthful exercise, at all seasons of the year…." He believed that Brooklyn could become a great metropolis, and envisioned a Park not only as a public nicety, but also as a way to lure wealthy residents to the town. Stranahan would later serve as the first president of the Prospect Park Commission, overseeing the Park project from inception to completion.
In 1861 civil engineer Egbert L. Viele proposed a layout for the proposed park, which took its name from Prospect Hill (which can still be seen behind the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza). Though Stranahan was impressed with Viele’s design and the views from Prospect Hill, his own vision differed. After the interruption caused by the Civil War, Calvert Vaux sketched Prospect Park’s present layout for Stranahan – and created a design unbroken by already busy Flatbush Avenue. The Brooklyn Park commissioners approved the new layout. Vaux convinced Olmsted to join the effort, and together in 1866 they submitted the comprehensive plan for the development of Brooklyn’s premier park.
Olmsted’s Vision of an Urban Respite
Frederick Law Olmsted, who grew up on a farm in Connecticut during the 1820s and 30s, had very strong beliefs about the function of public parks. To Olmsted, a great park should be a tranquil, rural landscape where people could recuperate from the incessant pace of city life. Olmsted believed these pleasures belonged to people of every social class, not just the wealthy who could afford to travel outside the city. Prospect Park would be for everyone, but especially Brooklyn’s poor, who could find a bit of the country right in their own backyards.
Olmsted and Vaux designed an elaborate infrastructure for Prospect Park, and construction began on July 1, 1866 under their supervision. The principal features of the design included the Long Meadow, a heavily wooded area they called the Ravine and a 60-acre Lake. Olmsted and Vaux’s plan included rolling green meadows, meandering carriage drives with high elevation scenic lookouts, woodland waterfalls and springs, a rich forest complete with maples, magnolia and cherry trees, among others, and exotic plant and tree species from the Far East and Europe. Original Park structures included rustic shelters, arbors, sandstone bridges and arches. A Concert Grove House and Pavilion were built adjacent to the Lake so Park visitors could enjoy music in a pastoral setting, and there was a Wellhouse near Lookout Hill and a Dairy with milking cows. The 1868 report to the Brooklyn Park Commissioners noted that in July alone there had been over 100,000 visitors to the incomplete park. And as Stranahan had predicted, property values adjacent to Prospect Park had already increased.
The Park Evolves
Olmsted and Vaux’s original conception of a rural retreat was soon challenged by turn-of-the-century planners who envisioned it more as a civic space—a place to erect busts of famous citizens and build imposing neoclassical structures. During the next 30 years, the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was hired to formalize the park’s major entrances with columns and statuary. The Boathouse and Tennis House were designed during this period by the design team of Helmle, Huberty, and Hudswell, and the Picnic House and a Model Yacht Club were constructed, as were several bridges and comfort stations.
As waves of new immigrants continued to make Brooklyn home throughout the first half of the 20th century, active organized sports gained popularity, and the Park continued to host parades and celebrations that drew huge crowds. During the first half of the 20th century, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses made his mark on the Park, counting among his contributions a zoo in 1935, a bandshell in 1939 and several playgrounds around the Park’s perimeter. During this period, however, the restoration of Park structures and landscape was largely superficial and maintenance was inadequate. Overuse soon became a problem, and by the 1950s a consistent lack of funding and responsible management led to the neglect of Prospect Park’s landscape and structures.
Prospect Park’s Renaissance
Mayor John Lindsay (right),
at Prospect Park's Centennial, 1966. Photo courtesy NYC Parks
The year 1966 marked the 100th anniversary of Prospect Park, but despite sporadic sprucing and a new ice skating rink in 1960, the Park’s landscape and structures had so seriously declined that usership in 1979 had dropped below 2 million visits a year - the lowest in the Park’s history. In a particularly dramatic moment, the bronze sculpture of Columbia at Grand Army Plaza fell over in her chariot - symbolizing the general neglect of Prospect Park and its immediate surroundings. A concerned group of local citizens began to lobby for responsible stewardship of the Park. Borough President Howard Golden took their concerns to Mayor Edward Koch, who, with the help of Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, developed a plan to restore the Park. The City soon committed $10 million for various restoration projects and Prospect Park’s renaissance officially began. In 1980, Tupper Thomas was appointed Administrator to oversee restoration efforts, which included the Picnic House, the Tennis House, the Oriental Pavilion, the Bandshell and the Long Meadow Ballfields.
Prospect Park Alliance
In 1987, a group of private citizens working with Parks Commissioner Henry Stern founded a new non-profit organization to work with the City in leading Prospect Park’s transformation. With Tupper Thomas as President and Henry Christensen III serving as Chairman, the Prospect Park Alliance offered a new way for the public and private sectors to join as partners in a common cause. The Alliance began its service to the Park with a special campaign to restore the Park’s 1912 Carousel, which had been closed due to disrepair. The resulting restoration became a symbol of the Park’s rebirth. This project was followed by a much more ambitious, $9 million Woodlands Campaign during 1996-2000. Along the way, the Alliance steadily increased private support for the Park, oversaw extensive restoration projects, expanded Park usership and worked with the City to upgrade Park management.
In 2011 with the retirement of Tupper Thomas, Emily Lloyd became the new President of the Prospect Park Alliance and Prospect Park Administrator.
A Park for All People
Thanks to the hard work of the Alliance, the local community, the Parks Department and private donors, Prospect Park has successfully overcome its 1970s reputation as an unsavory place. Today more than 8 million annual visitors enjoy a variety of activities and destinations, from in-line skating to nature walks, from baseball games to zoo visits, and from picnicking to volunteer projects.
Today, the Alliance continues to restore the Park to its original grandeur, while embracing the cultural diversity of its surrounding communities. Strategies to serve new users include community outreach, education and cultural programs. A Community Committee representing more than 80 local organizations advises the Alliance on Park improvements and a Youth Council was formed in 1998 to involve young people. Park improvements continue to develop the Park as a public resource: the nation’s first urban Audubon Center opened in 2002 in the newly restored Beaux Arts style Boathouse. In 2004 the sports fields of the Prospect Park Parade Ground reopened after a four-year, $12.5 million reconstruction project designed and managed by the Prospect Park Alliance. The Alliance also constructed a new Tennis Center at the Parade ground, with indoor and outdoor and night play.
The current and most ambitious project at the Park is Lakeside: the renovation of 26 acres of parkland and the creation of a new, year-round destination for recreation, relaxation, and events.
Although the Park’s original founders could have no idea what changes lay in store for the Prospect Park community, their commitment to their art, to the public, and to natural preservation created a legacy born of unbelievable foresight.