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The Architecture of Central Park

While Central Park is first and foremost a green oasis within Manhattan, it is also home to a wealth of architectural treasures. Many renowned landmarks, designed by equally renowned architects, are just a short jaunt from Urbana’s luxury rental residences at 985 Fifth Avenue and 800 Fifth Avenue — and some can even be spotted from the properties themselves. Explore Central Park anew and marvel at structures that tell the story of NYC’s past and point toward its future.

 

One of the most recognized, architecturally significant structures in Central Park is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. While its various parts seem to effortlessly and seamlessly blend from wing to wing (or nearly so, at any rate), this effect is actually the result of more than 75 years of work by multiple architects. The original red-brick and stone High Victorian Gothic “mausoleum” designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould was deemed dated at its completion, and within two decades, a new architectural plan overtook the original structure, completely encasing bricks behind the now-famed Fifth Avenue Beaux-Arts facade we see today. Notables who have worked on the Met over the years include architect and Met trustee Richard Morris Hunt; his son, architect Richard Howland Hunt; Karl Theodore Bitter, who contributed architectural facade sculpture designs; and the team of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, whose work includes the glass sides and rear of the museum.

 

While the Met’s architecture speaks more to NYC’s knack for the reinvention of a building, The Frick Collection is the story of masterful reuse. At one time the residence of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, the home was transformed into a museum for Frick’s ever-expanding collection. Frick’s final choice of architect was as notable as his first. He originally sought designs from Daniel Burnham, famed director of works for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and later the designer of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. But Frick dismissed Burnham’s Italian palazzo concept and commissioned architect Thomas Hastings of Carrère and Hastings to design the Indiana-limestone-faced mansion in the Beaux-Arts style we see today. The current structure maintains the style of the era and serves as a splendid example of the life of post-Gilded Age tycoons like Frick. In recognition of this, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

 

If the Met and the Frick satisfy the preference for grand presentations typical of early 20th century American architecture, the Guggenheim Museum challenges it directly. When, in 1943, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter from Solomon R. Guggenheim’s art adviser Hilla Rebay asking for a new building design to hold Guggenheim’s large collection of new and radical artistic works, Wright was slightly dismayed at the choice of the NYC location: a place whose skyscrapers and industrial buildings Wright deemed antithetical to much of his body of work. Stating, “but we will have to try New York,” Wright pressed forward and indisputably fulfilled Guggenheim’s request that the building be “unlike any museum in the world.” Building off the natural elements of Central Park, Wright’s design called for carrying visitors to the top of the circular structure where they would proceed down a spiraling ramp, making their way through various galleries of self-contained yet interdependent sections. The open rotunda design would also let visitors view several bays at once. The rest, as they say, is architectural history. 

 

Though their original plan didn’t call for buildings in Central Park, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, co-designers of the park, went ahead and designed one anyway. Using Manhattan schist mined from within the park they created what is now one of five visitor centers there, the Belvedere Castle. It is also the highest and by far the most whimsical outpost from which to view the park. Embodying the Italian translation of its name, “beautiful view,” Belvedere Castle treats visitors to unrivaled views of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir to the north and the Ramble to the south. Not just a lovely spot for lingering, the castle is also an excellent place to start an exploration of the park with its offerings of free family and community programs covering such topics as birding, history, natural history, and stargazing and astronomy.

 

Though Belvedere Castle reflects the very bedrock of Manhattan, it’s Bethesda Terrace that best harkens back to the island’s natural landscape and heritage. “Nature first, second, and third — architecture after a while,” Vaux boldly stated in presenting this, the “heart of the park,” along with Olmstead. And they delivered on this promise with a terraced structure where people could experience nature in the midst of social gatherings; both an escape from the stresses of the modern world and a place to congregate with others looking to do the same. Bethesda Terrace is an icon within the icon that is Central Park, and a masterpiece of 19th century architecture and sculpture. Its only equal may be Bow Bridge, which holds a particular allure for lovers. Featured in films such as “Manhattan,” “The Way We Were,” and “Keeping the Faith,” the cast-iron crossing in classical Greek style by Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould is 60 feet of serendipity. Don’t be surprised if you happen upon a proposal or a stolen kiss at this spot, either upon the bridge or in a rowboat passing underneath.

 

Central Park is full of inspired architectural masterpieces that tell the rich story of the city and serve as the backdrop for many a memory. Come for a visit, just a few blocks from the Central Park luxury rentals offered by Urbana Properties, and rediscover the many faces of the world’s most renowned green space.