Belvedere Castle, one of Central Park’s iconic structures will be getting some tender love and care, thanks to approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday. The Belvedere is also on track to become handicap-accessible, but the commissioners couldn’t actually approve that project.
The Gothic-style Belvedere was built as an observation tower by Calvert Vaux in 1867. Vaux co-designed Central Park with Frederick Law Olmsted. The park had opened less than a decade earlier. Central Park was designated a city scenic landmark in 1974. As an actual structure, the LPC has full jurisdiction over the castle. However, when it comes to the paths approaching it, the LPC can only issue an advisory report to the Public Design Commission.
So, the presentation, led by the Central Park Conservancy’s Christopher Nolan, was in two parts. The first part consisted of changes to the castle itself. Originally, the castle’s precipice included the castle and a masonry pavilion to the west. That structure was demolished and replaced with a wooden one not long after. That wooden pavilion was also demolished and eventually rebuilt.
The castle has also been modified over the years, in part for the installation of a manned National Weather Service station. It was reconstructed in the 1980s, when the weather station was made unmanned and positioned outside the castle proper.
Now, the castle will be getting a cleaning, new water protection and pointing, and receive new doors and windows. The pavilion will also receive a partial reconstruction and repainting.
Since the castle was designed as a ruin, without windows, LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan suggested the Conservancy work with LPC staff to reduce the reflectivity of the new windows.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum said the project would only work if the intent is to achieve the appearance of the original state. He suggested making sure the windows were set as deep as possible. Commissioner Michael Devonshire agreed that the success of the new windows hinges on the lack of reflectivity. He also observed the plans indicate they will be set as deep as possible. He expressed skepticism of the claims of thermal retention for the new windows, noting he has read several studies saying more heat is lost around a window than through it.
As for the proposal to give ADA access to the Belvedere (which, by the way, is the proper way to refer to the whole complex, not just the castle), that was less warmly welcomed.
To understand how we got to where we are, you need to know a little more about the history of this part of the park. When the Belvedere was on the southwest corner of the Croton receiving reservoir, the south side the reservoir had a promenade along it, and a lovers’ lane to the south of that.
Eventually, the reservoir went out of service and became what is today called Turtle Pond. Now, there is somewhat meandering and very steep path leading to the Belvedere from the east.
So, the plan is to transform that path into a flat one with a stone retaining wall. Nolan said it would be evocative of the reservoir promenade. It would be 12 feet wide and require the removal of only one maple tree. At 24 inches in diameter, Nolan said it was not a significant tree. Remaining greenery would be enhanced.
Commissioner Michael Golblum asked about putting the new path where the lovers’ lane used to be, to reduce visibility, and Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron suggested putting it south of the 79th Street Transverse. Nolan said both options would be even more difficult and require either cutting through non-public space and buildings or require the removal of more trees. Nolan also said that would be just one problem with a landscaped berm instead of a retaining wall. Commissioner Diana Chapin suggested the use of an elevator to get people to the Belvedere. Nolan said that would not be feasible.
Responding to the suggestion that a straight line would not be Olmstedian, Commissioner Frederick Bland noted that there are some Olmsted-created straight lines. He also said that they could just leave things as they are, preventing the disabled from having access, but that is not the way our society acts anymore.
Commissioner Chapin said all of this presented a struggle, but she didn’t see an alternative. Commissioner Goldblum added that he appreciated the Conservancy’s effort, but the proposal “misses the mark.” He said the view from the Great Lawn towards the path should take precedence over the view from the path to the Belvedere. He suggested reducing the amount of stone and using wood railings for a portion of the path. Commissioner John Gustafsson, meanwhile, suggested there could still be some undulation in an ADA-accessible path.
Public reaction to the proposals was mixed. Manhattan Community Board 5, Manhattan Community Board 7, and Manhattan Community Board 8 gave overall support to them.
“HDC finds the proposed pathway and wall an appalling affront. The wall and ramp are far larger than they need to be and violate the cardinal rule of historic preservation, that the lightest hand should be used at all times,” testified Patrick Waldo of the Historic Districts Council. “Frankly, this proposal is heavy handed and worst yet, not easily reversible. It is a direct and distinct design intervention that runs counter to Olmsted and Vaux’s vision for New York City’s Central Park. Its height, length, and width’s impacts on the surrounding landscape and the castle itself, whose elevation will be substantially buried because of this intrusion, is counterintuitive. In short, the experience of the resource is being compromised to bring access to it.”
Waldo suggested re-grading existing paths. “The Central Park Conservancy has a deep well of talented designers who have done remarkably sensitive work elsewhere in the park to create barrier-free accessibility. We cannot believe this is only solution and it certainly is not the best one,” he said, adding that if the goal is to create a visitor’s center, the conservancy should consider putting it in an entirely new structure.
As for the windows, Waldo agreed with the commissioners that every effort should be made to achieve the appearance of transparency with new windows. He suggested the commissioners get to view samples prior to approval.
“One bad decision has lead to another,” said Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City. She said there hasn’t been a project of this scale since the construction of the park itself. She also noted that the Belvedere was meant to be difficult to access, and suggested the commissioners all visit the site.
Since the Belvedere is almost smack dab in the middle of Central Park, it brings together interests from both the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Elizabeth Fagan of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts commended the goal of access, as well as the restoration, but expressed concerns over the window reflectivity and “overwhelming” access path. Maggie Hoyt of Landmark West! also called for a less invasive solution.
In the end, the commissioners voted to approve the castle restoration. LPC staff will work with the Central Park Conservancy to assure maximum window transparency. As for the access path, a report will be sent to the Public Design Commission expressing the feelings of the commissioners.