Ask me to name my candidate for the most charming spot in Manhattan and you'll probably get the answer "The Ladies Pavilion in Central Park." Postcard-perfect, it is at once peaceful, fanciful, historic and beautiful. Erected in 1871 the little cast iron building has had a bumpy life, narrowly escaping oblivion more than once.
Built originally as a trolley shed, or "ombra" (from the word "umbra" meaning shelter ... so let's play a word game: If a big shelter is an umbra, a little shelter is...that's right!...an umbrella!) at the entrance to the Park at 8th Avenue and 59th Street. Similar shelters were erected in several places for the comfort of those New Yorkers who had to travel long distances by trolley to enjoy the Park.
As the Maine Monument was being planned at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1912, the lacey little building would have to go. It was moved to Hernshead in Central Park -- the tiny peninsula that juts into the Lake (Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux felt it resembled a heron's head, hence the name). Olmstead had particularly liked this site and lavished it with lush flowering shrubs and trees. To this day it is one of the most beautiful spots in Central Park in the Spring.
The "Ladies Cottage" had formerly sat on the site and was used for women to demurely slip into their iceskates out of the prying eyes of gentlemen who might catch a glimpse of exposed ankle. The fate of the Ladies Cottage is not known; however the Ladies Pavilion took up the cause and feminine discretion was preserved.
As the 20th Century progressed the Lake was used less and less for skating as the Wollman ice skating rink was installed in 1949. As the 1960s drew to a close the Ladies Pavilion was in obvious disrepair and sorely neglected. In 1970 architects Adams & Woodbridge, through the efforts of the Friends of Central Park, assessed that extensive repairs and component replacements were crucial. Nevertheless, City red tape delayed action and in September 1971 the Pavilion lay in pieces, vandals having toppled the deteriorating structure to the ground.
Luckily everything that could be saved was gathered and stored while the struggle for funding continued. In 1972 restoration began. A masonry foundation was veneered with Manhattan schist coping stones that once served as the foundation for a Central Park comfort station. Within the year the 500 cast iron elements were ready for reassembly and like a 2-ton phoenix the Ladies Pavilion began rising to life again.
Except for the absence of the multi-colored slate roof, the result was virtually indistinguishable from the little trolley shelter of 1871. Painted blue grey with gold-leaf touches it was reopened in October of 1973 (having cost only $21,000 because Parks Department employees did most of the work).
In the absence of consistent maintenance, however, the Pavilion was in bad shape again by the early '80s. A less extensive restoration was again undertaken, replacing missing parts, repainting in colors closer to the originals and repairing the roof and foundation. Twenty years later the struggle continues as weather and abuse take their toll. Yet the Ladies Pavilion remains one of the most delightful spots in New York.