September 5, 2014
Madison Square Park: From Swamp to Gem
The story of the evolution of Madison Square Park is a long and involved one. We’ll only give a brief look here, but if you want to get the complete story, see Miriam Berman’s excellent Madison Square.
When, in 1686, the Royal Governor of New York first designated Madison Square Park a public space, it was a swampy hunting ground. In fact a creek — Cedar Creek — ran around and through the north end of the park on its way to the East River.
In 1794, the area centered about where the reflecting pool is today became a potter’s field for victims of the yellow fever epidemic who died at nearby Bellevue Hospital. While many bodies were later moved to Washington Square, there is evidence some are still buried under the park.1
The area became the Parade Ground in 1807, and was used for maneuvers during the War of 1812. The Parade contained an arsenal, barracks and a drilling area. During this period, the grounds contained 238.7 acres and extended from Seventh to Third Avenues, between 23rd and 34th Streets.
Madison Square was reduced to 89.2 acres in 1814, extending from Sixth to Fourth Avenues, between 23rd and 31st Streets. It was at this time that the park was named for James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and principal author of the United States Constitution.
When fear of a British invasion passed, the arsenal on the field’s south end (approximately centered on 25th Street and Fifth Avenue) became the first home dedicated to the reformation of teenage delinquents. It was destroyed by fire in 1839. The same year, The Boston Post Road running through the park grounds was closed. It had been the main route from New York to New England in the 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries. (Also called East Post Road, it traversed the park from approximately 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue through the northeast corner of today’s park.)
In 1844, the park was reduced to its current size of 6.2 acres, 2.5% of the original Parade Grounds.
On May 10th, 1847 the park was opened to the public with a rigid plan reflecting the adjoining street grid.
Original Grid Plan
Ignatz Pilat (later an assistant to Fredrick Law Olmstead in designing Central Park) and William Grant redesigned the park in 1870 to look much as we know it today. Miriam Berman, “The Historian of Madison Square” comments, “The elegant curved walkways around a large central lawn, with fountains thirty feet in diameter, both north and south, was an ingenious solution for a relatively small park, its circular design providing relief from the city’s inflexible grid plan. There were no paths to take one directly across the park; instead, meandering and intertwining paths invited one in and gently led one around and through, giving the illusion of a park much grander in size.”2
The Pilat-Grant Plan
In 1871 the southwest corner of the park was sheared off to relieve the traffic congestion at 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue. This area would not be restored to the park until 1999.
A new plan based on original grid plan was proposed in 1919. It was not executed.
In the February 24, 1935 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, yet another plan was proposed based on the original grid plan. This plan was never embraced.
An editorial piece in The New York Times on December 4, 1962 advocated for a parking lot to be built under the park: “We endorse a complete study, with the hope that further development of the facts will confirm the feasibility of what appears to be an excellent idea.”3 Opponents fought the garage that they said would threatened the park’s historic trees and would bring higher traffic levels to the area. Fortunately, after several years, this plan was abandoned.
Because of the park’s continuing decline through the 70s, Donald E. Simon, a former parks department official, planned the first ever campaign to have private funds maintain a city park. Metropolitan Life and New York Life responded to Simon’s proposal and became the primary supporters of Madison Square Park’s upkeep in 1979.
1986 – 1988
Ground was broken to restore the park in 1986 and the first phase – the northern half of the park — was completed in 1988. The southern half remained in dismal condition until the most recent restoration.
E. Timothy Marshall and Associates created the final plan for the restoration of the entire park in 1997.
The approval of the E. Marshall and Associates plan allowed groundbreaking to take place on November 15, 1999.
Restoration of the park was completed in June 2001, and it began to transform the NoMad area surrounding it.
Throughout the years, private individuals and individuals representing enlightened corporate thinking have worked to preserve and enhance Madison Square Park and to bring it down to us in finer condition than it has ever been. Thousands of people each day are the beneficiaries of the constant dedication, planning and generosity of these forebears. On the 200th Birthday of the park we should appreciate all that these men and women have done and perhaps reflect on how we can hand down such gifts to future generations — legacies that can affect their lives as wonderfully 100 or 200 years from now as Madison Square Park complements ours today.
- Bowery Boys, “I site on Your Grave: New York’s Hidden Burial Plots,” Monday, October 25, 2010, downloaded 8. 15.14 from boweryboys.com
- Berman, Miriam, Madison Square, Gibbs-Smith Publishers, Salt Lake City, 2001, p. 18.
- The New York Times, Editorial: “A Madison Square Garage,” downloaded 8.21.14 from the archives on nytimes.com.
Berman, Miriam, Madison Square, Gibbs-Smith Publishers, Salt Lake City, 2001, p. 18.
Wikipedia, “Madison Square,” downloaded 9.19.13 from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madison_Square.
Lau, Margaret, Epoch Times “Madison Square Park Relived,” downloaded 8.12.14 from http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/united-states/madison-square-park-relived-52231.html.