Deep inside Central Park, nearly hidden by the dense woods of The Ramble, Belvedere Castle sits high atop Vista Rock. A fantasy built as much for its visual impact as its functionality as a scenic overlook, it is one of the most romantic spots in the Park.
The lofty site -- the second highest in the Park -- provided a perfect location for the type of ornamental structure Victorian park-goers so loved as well as a spot to take in the beautiful views of the natural surroundings. Designed in 1865 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, they described it as a "folly," or fantasy structure. Combining Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles they created a sprawling fairytale complex of towers, pavilions and terraces. Manhattan schist, excavated from projects going on elsewhere in the Park, provided the building material along with gray granite. The native stone makes the Castle seem to sprout directly from the bedrock on which it sits.
The picturesque spot was a favorite among 19th century visitors to the Park. Around 1900, however, lack of maintenance forced the removal of Vaux's whimsical, multi-colored wooden pavilions. A meteorological observatory was installed in the Castle that in 1912 was run by the United States Weather Bureau. That intrusion by the weather center, however, had a positive effect in that the instruments inside required that the Castle be maintained.
That all ended in the 1960s when the Observatory was transplanted to Rockefeller Center. Belvedere Castle was locked up and essentially abandoned. Like so many other treasured points in the Park, it became a target of vandalism and decay. But after two decades of deterioration and neglect, the Central Park Conservancy gave it a comprehensive restoration -- even reconstructing the painted wooden loggia using Vaux's original plans.
The Henry Luce Nature Observatory is now ensconced in the Castle, offering children displays and presentations on natural life and how naturalists investigate and discover. Budding scientists may sign out field kits that include maps, notepads, binoculars and other items needed to study the environment in the Park.
A consistent subject for photo-snappers in the Park, Belvedere Castle also served as the exterior of Sesame Street's Count von Count's home. Today, a century and a half after they designed it, Vaux's and Mould's intentions are still being met -- a romantic folly in the center of the Park that delights the eye and provides a spot to daydream.
Belvedere Castle is located in the center of the Park, around 79th Street.