Growth of Brooklyn and Plans for Prospect Park
In the 18th century Brooklyn was one of six villages dotting the western end of Long Island. In 1814 Robert Fulton’s ferry service contributed to the expansion of East River commerce and linked the growing town with its neighbor and competitor, New York City. Chartered in 1834, Brooklyn became the new nation’s third largest city within thirty years. The resulting crowds and unsanitary conditions prompted the first American attempts at urban planning, with public green space seen as a health necessity more than an aesthetic one. At the same time, new concepts concerning the role of public parks in America were gaining popularity. In 1858, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux completed Central Park in Manhattan. Soon a movement grew in Brooklyn for a park of its own. James T. Stranahan, a business and civic leader, spearheaded the endeavor as head of the Brooklyn Parks Commissioners, overseeing the Park’s creation from inception to completion. 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…"
Photo Credit: View of site chosen for Prospect Park. First Annual Report of the Commissioners of Prospect Park, 1861.
The Vision of Olmsted and Vaux
In 1866, Stranahan and the park commissioners hired Olmsted, Vaux & Company to transform 585 acres of remnant forest and rocky farmland into a landscape whose beauty, though manufactured, would nurture the mind, the body and even the fabric of society. At the heart of their design were the 90-acre Long Meadow, the woodland Ravine, meandering paths with scenic lookouts, and a watercourse that featured waterfalls, springs and the 60-acre Lake. The Park was officially opened in 1867, even though construction continued for another seven years, and it was an unparalleled success. An 1868 report to the Brooklyn Park Commissioners noted that in July alone there had been more than 100,000 visitors to the incomplete park.
Photo Credit: Appleton’s Journal, June 4, 1870, courtesy Bob Levine Collection.
McKim, Mead and White: A Grander Prospect Park
In 1898 Brooklyn was consolidated, with some controversy, into New York City. Olmsted and Vaux’s original concept of Prospect Park as a pastoral retreat was challenged by planners who were influenced by the City Beautiful movement, which drew from the grand forms of the Greek and Roman eras. Over the next 30 years, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was commissioned to formalize the Park’s major entrances with columns and statuary. Other notable additions to the Park were the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza, designed by architect John Duncan in 1892, and the 1905 Beaux Arts Boathouse by designers Helmle, Huberty and Hudswell.
Photo Credit: Grand Army Plaza, Thirty-Sixth Annual Report of the Department of Parks, 1896.
Robert Moses: A Park for the People
Robert Moses, known as the “master builder” rose to prominence following the Great Depression. As the New York City Parks Commissioner, he leveraged funds available through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration to launch a huge number of development projects, including in Prospect Park. Moses envisioned parks as settings for active recreation, and projects under his lengthy tenure included the creation of the Prospect Park Zoo in 1935, new playgrounds around the Park’s perimeter, the extensive renovation of the Park drives in the 1950s, and the construction of the Bandshell. As his time as Parks Commissioner came to a close, he built the Kate Wollman Memorial Skating Rink in 1961, which is now the site of the LeFrak Center at Lakeside.
Photo Credit: Races at Kate Wollman Rink, 1963. Prospect Park Archives.
The Fiscal Crisis and Park’s Decline
During the 1970s, New York City was embroiled in a significant fiscal crisis, and the Park’s landscapes and structures had fallen into serious disrepair. The decline was so precipitous that by 1979 visitorship had dropped to 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 group of concerned local citizens began lobbying 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. In 1980, Tupper Thomas was appointed the first Prospect Park Administrator to oversee the restoration efforts.
Photo Credit: Oriental Pavilion, 1974, New York City Parks Photo Archive.
Founding of the Prospect Park Alliance
In 1987, a group of private citizens working with Parks Commissioner Henry Stern founded a new nonprofit organization to work with the City in leading Prospect Park’s transformation. With Parks Administrator Tupper Thomas as president, the Alliance offered a new way for the public and private sectors to join as partners in a common cause. The Alliance began its work 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. Through volunteer initiatives and community programs, Thomas was able to cultivate tremendous support.
Photo Credit: Mayor Edward Koch and Administrator Tupper Thomas, May 20, 1980. Prospect Park Archives.
Restoring the Heart of Prospect Park: The Ravine
In the mid-1990s, the Alliance embarked on an ambitious, $9 million woodlands restoration. Without surviving Park plans to follow, its Design and Construction team conducted primary research, studying archival photographs for clues. More than 3,500 cubic yards of topsoil were used to stabilize slopes, 160,000 plants were introduced, and 12,000 cubic yards of sediment was excavated from the pools and streams. To ensure a healthy ecosystem, plants were sourced within 60 miles of Prospect Park, and approximately 35,000 aquatic plants were added to provide food and nesting habitats. Nearly 2,500 boulders were identified and carefully replaced. Rustic bridges were renovated in the original Adirondack style using white oak timbers and steel frames. The success of this restoration marked the growth and evolution of the Alliance, which during this period steadily increased private funding for the Park, expanded Park visitorship and worked with the City to improve Park management.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Keegin Colley.
The Renaissance Continues: Lakeside
After more than a decade of intensive restoration efforts, in the late 2000s the Alliance set its sights on the most ambitious project since the Park’s creation: the restoration of the southeast corner. During the Robert Moses administration, the prevailing spirit was to demolish the old and build new, people-centered structures. As a result, the eastern shore of the lake was dramatically reshaped with a cement-slab skating rink and 250-space parking lot. After nearly 50 seasons of ice skating, the Kate Wollman Rink was in ready for refurbishment.
In 2009, the Alliance announced a radical redesign that would integrate the rustic aesthetic of Olmsted and Vaux, the recreational demands of the public, and the energy efficiency requirements of a modern public space. Unlike the Wollman Rink, which was only opened for the winter, the new LeFrak Center at Lakeside would offer programming year round. The Alliance hired the prestigious architectural firm of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to work in collaboration with the Alliance’s Chief Landscape Architect Christian Zimmerman on its design. In addition, the $74 million project restored the historic Baier Music Island and the White Levy Esplanade.
Photo Credit: Martin Seck.
Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece
Through the hard work of the Alliance and its community of public and private supporters, today Prospect Park is once again one of the nation’s premier public parks, and a treasured Brooklyn green space, with more than 10 million visits each year. Learn how to get involved, and stay connected to the Alliance to learn about news and events.
Do you want to learn more about the history of Prospect Park? Purchase Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece. Presenting a wealth of archival and newly commissioned photography and insightful text, David P. Colley and Elizabeth Keegin Colley trace the park's colorful history from its creation in the mid-nineteenth century to its decline in the 1970s and restoration over the past several decades. Also visit our news archives for more Park history.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Keegin Colley.