In the decade before the Civil War cow’s milk was brought into Manhattan from outlying farms; around 90,000 quarts per day. In 1853 it was noticed that the number inexplicitly rose to 120,000. Investigation discovered that some dairymen were diluting the milk with water, then adding flour to restore its consistency. But worse, unscrupulous dairy farmers, many in Brooklyn, were feeding their cows the alcoholic mash left over from the whiskey distillery process.
These cows were stricken with disease and deformities – losing their tails and hooves and developing open sores. The resulting milk, called “swill milk” by the press, was a thin, bluish liquid. To disguise it, the dairymen added plaster of Paris, starch and eggs. Molasses gave it the proper coloring of wholesome milk. Harper’s Weekly, the newspaper that lead the charge against swill milk, reported that up to 8,000 children in New York died every year.
When, in 1862, a Brooklyn “distillery dairy” caught fire, The New York Times reported on the milk cows that were released into the streets. “Many of the cows were in such a weak condition that they were thrown down and trampled upon by the more recent additions to the stock, and several will have to be braced up before they can undergo the process of milking again…One cow in particular, owing to her deformed feet, being unable to stand, attracted considerable attention, and yet the lookers-on were assured that she gave the best milk of any animal in the whole country. [The cows had] long tails, short tails, stub tails, and some with no tails at all. Their appendages were in every conceivable condition, from a sound stump down to stumps in every degree of decomposition… It was a most pitiable and disgusting spectacle.”
The scandal was taking place just as Central Park was being planned. At the southern point of the park – the area where families would first enter – a “Children’s Area” was laid out. Though not in the original plans, a dairy was conceived where children could receive wholesome milk and pastries with no fear of contamination.
On February 18, 1870 The New York Times happily anticipated the new project. “The Commissioners of the Central Park have determined to erect and open next Spring a dairy for the supply of pure, wholesome, and unadulterated milk for the special use of invalid and delicate ladies and their infant children visiting the Park…There is a cottage being erected, with a handsome steeple and ornamental turrets, for the accommodation of ladies and infants. There will be female attendants there, and all the regular conveniences. In the basement cows will be kept in readiness to supply the demand made of them. Around this cottage a fine area of land is set apart for a playground, exclusively for the very young children, being distinct and separate from the present boys’ and girls’ playground…The milk will be supplied at cost price.”
|stereopticon photo -- NYPL Collection|
Calvert Vaux designed the dairy, a whimsical fantasy of Victorian multi-colored gingerbread right off the pages of Hansel and Gretel. The polychrome wooden loggia was intended to shelter the children from the elements and catch cool breezes in the summer. The stone block dairy, a combination of Manhattan schist and sandstone, took its inspiration from picturesque country German church architecture.
|photo NYPL Collection|
Within two years the Children’s Area would also include the Carousel, the Children’s Cottage (since destroyed), the Kinderberg Rustic Shelter.
In 1882 James D. McCabe, Jr. described the Dairy as "a tasteful gothic structure of brick and stone. Here pure milk and refreshments may be had at moderate prices. Residents of the city can always purchase fresh milk or cream here, for sick children, and a great quantity is sold daily for this purpose."
A small restaurant was established in the Dairy which closed in the first decades of the 20th Century. By the 1950s the building was essentially abandoned and dilapidated. Vaux’s once-colorful loggia, now rotted and sagging, was ripped down by the Parks Department and the Dairy became a maintenance shed.
After being left forgotten for two decades, the Central Park Administration hired designer James Lamantia and Weisberg Castro Associates to restore the interior of the Dairy. In 1979 it was opened as the Park’s first visitor center.
Two years later the new Central Park Conservancy took over the Dairy and restored its wonderful wooden loggia. Today a permanent exhibit of the history and design of Central Park is housed here, under the still-surviving metal cow weathervane on the roof.
Photo Hubert J. Steed