Brooklyn Historical Society

Alliance + Brooklyn Historical Society Present 150th Exhibition

July 17, 2017

Related Programming: Urban Health, Urban Parks: The Salve of the City

In celebration of the Park’s 150th Anniversary, Brooklyn Historical Society and Prospect Park Alliance present The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, an exhibition that highlights the 150-year social history of Brooklyn’s Backyard. The collaboration between BHS and Prospect Park Alliance tells the story of the 585 acres of forest, field and swamp that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were charged with transforming into an urban oasis that would sustain generations of Brooklynites to come. The exhibition opened to the public on Thursday, July 13, 2017.

The Park has never been simply an escape from the city, but a fundamental part of it. Brooklyn and Prospect Park have grown and changed together. Turn-of-the-century swan boats, carriage rides, and lawn tennis are long gone, replaced by in-line skaters, birders, dog-walkers, and drummers. But the aspiration to provide, in Olmsted’s words, “simple, temperate, healthful, rural and domestic forms of recreation” to Brooklyn’s “overworked inhabitants” is, perhaps, more fully realized today than ever before. Throughout its history the people of Brooklyn, and many others, have used, shared, and shaped Prospect Park.

Visitors to The Means of a Ready Escape will learn that sheep roamed the Long Meadow until the 1930s, Brooklyn’s middle-class black families chose Prospect Park over closer green spaces because it was a place where they “felt welcome,” Robert Moses’ efforts to modernize the Park resulted in paving grassy areas for parking lots, and that Adele, a Park Slope caretaker, famously led children into the Park to play, introducing them to the safe haven it could be, despite the era in which the Park fell into disrepair. As the borough changed, so did the Park. The fiscal crisis of the seventies coincided with early waves of gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods. Lacking facilities staff to maintain its infrastructure, the park became perceived as notoriously unsafe. The gem-like boathouse we know today was then used as a recycling center. Paths and fences went unrepaired. The non-profit Prospect Park Alliance was formed in the eighties, in an effort to sustain, restore and advance the Park. Examples of the hard work of compromise within a public park space, like rules around barbequing, the creation of the Drummers Grove, and car access in the park, are explored. Because the bones that comprised its foundation were so very sound, the Park has endured. 

This history is told through panels and over 150 artifacts and documents including numerous postcards, scrapbooks, posters and photographs that reflect the ongoing relationship between the park and its many users. Visitors will enjoy viewing Olmsted and Vaux’s original plan of the Park, 1920s objects like tape measures and paper weights that depict scenes from the Park, hand drawn renderings from the 1990s of the Park’s woodlands restoration, and a model of the AIA National Honor Award-winning Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center at Lakeside by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects in collaboration with Prospect Park Alliance, which opened in 2013. 

For hours and directions, please visit the Brooklyn Historical Society website.


Prospect Park Archives

Stuff You Missed in History Class: Prospect Park 150 Edition

April 17, 2017

In 2017, in conjunction with Prospect Park Alliance’s 150th Anniversary celebration, beloved podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class celebrated the park milestone with a two-part episode dedicated to all things Prospect Park. Over the course of the episodes, hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey delved deep into the Park’s creation by Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the early years of the park and  its decline in the 1960s and 1970s, and the more recent renaissance led by Prospect Park Alliance.

From Stuff You Missed in History Class:
“Brooklyn’s massive public green space tells the historical story of its community. From an undeveloped tract of land, the space was developed to become an Olmsted and Vaux masterpiece. This year marks the park’s 150th anniversary, so we’re celebrating this piece of living history with a two-parter.”

Listen to Prospect Park, Part 1 

“In our second episode about Brooklyn’s 150-year-old public park, we interview three guests, each with a unique knowledge of the park’s history and its restoration in the last three decades. Many, many thanks to Charles Birnbaum, President and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Christian Zimmerman, Vice President Capital & Landscape Management at Prospect Park Alliance, and Tupper Thomas, former Prospect Park Administrator for speaking with us.”

Listen to Prospect Park, Part 2 

You can also listen to or download these podcasts at the iTunes Store

Prospect Park 150: The Creation of Prospect Park

January 18, 2017

In 2017, Prospect Park Alliance celebrates the 150th anniversary of Prospect Park. All year, we’ll be bringing you tales from the history of Prospect Park, from important milestones to untold stories. In this piece, learn about the creation of the Park. 

Robert Fulton’s steam ferry transformed Brooklyn into the world’s first commuter suburb in 1814, forever changing the docile farming existence of 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 most populous city in the country, following only New York 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 across the East River 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 S.T. Stranahan, a business and civic leader with considerable real estate interests in Brooklyn. In the early 1860’s 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, and would oversee the Park project from inception to completion.

In 1861, civil engineer Egbert L. Viele proposed a layout for the new Park. Though Stranahan was impressed with Viele’s design, his own vision differed. In 1865, Calvert Vaux sketched Prospect Park’s present layout at Stranahan’s request. After Central Park, Vaux was ready for a new project, and his report persuaded Brooklyn commissioners to authorize the full purchase of the land for Prospect Park. Vaux convinced his partner Olmsted to join the effort, and together in 1866 they submitted a comprehensive plan for the development of Prospect Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who grew up on a farm in rural Connecticut during the 1820’s and ‘30s, had very strong beliefs about the function of public parks in people’s lives. To Olmsted, a great park should be a tranquil, rural landscape where people could recuperate from the incessant pace of city life. Prospect Park then, would provide a peaceful escape where weary Brooklynites might revitalize the mind, body and soul. Olmsted believed that 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 country—a place reminiscent of their homelands perhaps—right out their own backdoors.

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, and a rich forest complete with maples, magnolia and cherry trees, among others. Original Park structures included rustic shelters and arbors, and 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 complete with milking cows. The design team could not keep curious and delighted visitors away, and welcomed them inside for the first time on October 19, 1867, long before the Park was complete. In 1868, two million people came to enjoy what would come to be known as “Brooklyn’s Jewel.” 

Today, just about 150 years later, the Prospect Park Alliance staff work to continue to advance the vision of Olmsted and Vaux. This is achieved through restoration of historic structures, the creation of innovative new amenities like the LeFrak Center at Lakeside, and in partnership with the City, the daily upkeep of the landscape. It is a year-round efforts that keep this space an essential resource for the millions of visitors every year. 

Learn more about the Prospect Park Alliance, and how you can become a steward of this great Park.

Brooklyn Historical Society

From the Archives: Skating through History

January 20, 2016

After an unseasonably warm finale to 2015, winter has finally come to Prospect Park. However, the warmer weather didn’t stopped countless Brooklynites from enjoying the classic cold weather pastime of ice skating. At the LeFrak Center at Lakeside’s state-of-the-art rinks, skaters can glide on the ice all season long, regardless of Mother Nature’s plans.

This wasn’t always the case. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, eager skaters were forced to wait for a complete freeze of the Lake before taking to the ice. Because of fluctuations in temperature, Prospect Park visitors were notified of the Lake’s ability to accommodate skaters through creative means: a red flag hung at Grand Army Plaza, as well as signs on the fronts of the trolleys that used to traverse Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Park West.

An article from the Brooklyn Eagle on December 18, 1882, describes the scene on the first day of skating that year: “Boys who were on their way to school suddenly began to feel sad and wondered if their father’s [sic] physicians would not order fresh air and exercise instead of the usual intellectual cramming.”

In those years, the first day of four-inch-thick ice was cause for celebration borough-wide, and led to peak crowds of as many as 20,000 skaters. With so many folks flocking to the ice, and with periodic warm spells midwinter, the scene at the Lake was understandably chaotic and unpredictable. Collisions between skaters and slips through thin patches of ice were not uncommon; all the while, “keepers,” uniformed in blue, tried often fruitlessly to instill a sense of order on the ice amidst the commotion.

Fortunately for Brooklyn skaters, crashing through the ice or being trampled by a renegade toboggan are concerns of the past. In 1960, under the guidance of controversial master planner Robert Moses, work began on the Park’s first skating rink, Wollman Rink, on the site of today’s LeFrak Center. Gone were the days of watching trolleys to figure out the afternoon’s plans. Park-goers could skate at any time during the season on the Park’s first skating rink.

And of course, things only got better in 2013 with the opening of the LeFrak Center, the Prospect Park Alliance’s contribution to Brooklyn skating. Its two modern rinks provide even more space to glide and an improved experience for skaters. If you haven’t paid the LeFrak Center a visit yet this year, be sure to stop by and check out the variety of ice-based programming this season – no need to look for a red flag in Grand Army Plaza! 

Summer from the Archives

December 8, 2015


On a sunny summer afternoon, upon entering the Park at Grand Army Plaza, the view wouldn’t be all that different. (Although the Plaza was limited to horse-drawn carriages back then.) Loungers would still occupy grassy patches of the Long Meadow, and bicyclists could still be seen circling the Park Drive. However, the Long Meadow was also dotted with sheep in the 1890s – their presence was both utilitarian and aesthetic in choice; they kept the lawn trimmed, and the Park’s designers Olmsted and Vaux sought to emulate the look of an English countryside.


Should your 1890 Park visit coincide with May Day – a now largely forgotten holiday celebrating the arrival of spring – on the first of May, you could find yourself literally wrapped up in a Maypole on the Long Meadow.


After a long day spent at the Long Meadow enjoying the beautiful summer weather, rather than venture out of the Park to a bodega for a drink or snack, Park goers in 1890 could stay in the Park and head to the Dairy – a spot of shaded reprieve where patrons could sip fresh milk from one of the Park’s in-house dairy cows.


Of course things have changed. Brooklyn now boasts over two million residents, and the Park receives over 10 million visitors annually. But there’s still no better way to spend a summer weekend afternoon than in Prospect Park.

Endale Arch Restoration

November 20, 2014

Prospect Park Alliance has begun the restoration of Endale Arch, one of the first architectural elements constructed in Prospect Park in the late 1860s. Park creators Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux planned Endale Arch and its counterpart, Meadowport Arch, to function as crucial transitions between the busy city and the tranquility of the Long Meadow. Their design, as ever combining elegance with practicality, ensured that vehicles were kept out of the way of pedestrians. 

This five-year restoration will be completed over several phases. In the first phase, which will conclude in Spring 2015, the Alliance will restore the stone retaining walls and plantings on the south side of the Arch. Subsequent phases will replace the Arch’s interior wood paneling and benches; reset boulders to stabilize the surrounding hillsides; add native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants; and improve drainage to reduce flooding.

The project is funded by a generous grant from the Tiger Baron Foundation and Councilmember Brad Lander’s participatory budget process, and represents the Alliance’s continued efforts to restore and care for Brooklyn’s greatest natural treasure. Learn more about current park improvements.

From the Archives: Halloween

October 22, 2014

The Halloween Haunted Walk is one of Prospect Park’s oldest and most anticipated seasonal traditions. Each year thousands of costumed children flock to the Park to enjoy carnival games, face painting, music and a spooky journey through haunted woods. 

In 1980, young ghouls and goblins were invited to descend on Prospect Park’s woodlands for the first Haunted Walk, originally in the Ravine. It was the perfect setting for an extremely spooky attraction. Costumed performers hid behind trees, a zombie emerged from a coffin, and a figure covered in moss sprang from the Binnen stream. The man responsible for the frightful scene was Urban Park Ranger Rick Garcia, who was the first to create and don the famous Headless Horseman costume that remains a staple of the Haunted Walk to this day. The core of Garcia’s vision was to create a “timeless Halloween” aesthetic, stocking the scenes with classic figures like witches, goblins, vampires and ghosts.

Over the years, the event grew in popularity. In 1987, Tupper Thomas, president of the newly formed Prospect Park Alliance, walked the long line wearing her iconic witch’s costume. The Alliance invited jugglers, actors and musicians to entertain the crowd as they waited for the anticipated trek. The Halloween Haunted Walk has remained a cherished Brooklyn tradition for over three decades, retaining its original spirit of bringing families into the heart of the Brooklyn’s most treasured park.

From the Archives: Battle of Brooklyn

August 1, 2014

Long before designers Olmsted and Vaux reshaped the topography to create Prospect Park, the lowland hills of Brooklyn served as the stage of the largest battle of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place August 27, 1776. The chain of hills ran more than 100 miles and stood between 100 and 150 feet overlooking long, open flatlands. The area was covered with thick forest and brush. There were only four passes that cut through this rocky ridge, including Flatbush Pass in what is now Prospect Park.   

Read an account of the Battle of Brooklyn. 

From the Archives: The Vale of Cashmere

June 2, 2014

The story of the Vale of Cashmere, which occupies the northeast corner of the Park, actually started about 17,000 years ago when a buried chunk of the Wisconsin glacier began to melt, collapsing the soil and leaving a divot surrounded by steep walls of earth.

Park designers Olmsted and Vaux were attracted to the dramatic terrain. They designed a small pool and gardens, and outfitted the space with parallel bars, swings and a seesaw. Children sailed miniature boats and played in the underbrush while their parents escaped the summer’s heat in the Rustic Arbor on the hillside above.

In the 1890s, the firm of McKim, Mead and White, recently hired to design the nearby Grand Army Plaza, were asked to redesign the Children’s Playground. They replaced the pool’s soft edge with a granite balustrade in the Beaux-Arts style and installed a fountain. The wife of Brooklyn Mayor Alfred Chapin nicknamed the area the “Vale of Cashmere,” inspired by the Thomas Moore poem “Lalla Roohk, an Oriental Romance.”

The Vale eventually lost its sweeping views of the surrounding landscape to maturing trees and overgrown shrubs. Today, the Vale is on the list of projects that the Prospect Park Alliance hopes to tackle in the coming years. The creation of the Zucker Natural Exploration Area was a first step in this process.

Learn how you can help support the Alliance’s work to restore and maintain Prospect Park. Help take care of the Vale by volunteering with the Alliance’s East Side Revival.

From the Archives: 1912 Carousel

April 1, 2014

The Prospect Park Carousel is perhaps one of the most cherished destinations in Brooklyn. However, this is not the first Carousel in Prospect Park. Since 1874, Brooklynites have flocked to the Park to enjoy this warm-weather amusement. The original Carousel was horse drawn and located in the Vale of Cashmere at the northeast corner of the Park, which was designed as a play area for children. It was subsequently moved to the Long Meadow after a fire in 1885, in the area that is now home to the Picnic House.

Upon the creation of the Children’s Corner in 1952, the current Carousel was brought to the Park from Coney Island. A gem of craftsmanship, it features 53 hand-carved horses, a lion, a giraffe, a deer and two-dragon-pulled chariots created by the renowned carver Charles Carmel in 1912. Carmel was trained near the Prospect Park horse stables, which enabled him to create masterfully lifelike creatures. The Carousel is one of only 12 of his works still in existence. In 1983, mechanical problems and deterioration forced the Carousel to close.

Four years later, the Prospect Park Alliance raised $800,000 to restore this Brooklyn treasure as its first capital restoration project. The mechanical components were repaired, twenty layers of paint were removed, and conservator Will Morton VIII skillfully recreated the historic design. Morton also added 60 renderings of Brooklyn and Prospect Park referenced from historic photos. The newly restored Carousel was opened to the public in October 1990. It is maintained to this day by the Prospect Park Alliance.