Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Lost 1868 Central Park Garden

The original building supports the large sign.  Central Park is just off the frame to the right, across 59th Street. --photo NYPL Collection
The pleasure garden was already a long-standing tradition in New York when Central Park was being planned. Most famous of these had been the Vauxhall Gardens opened in 1767 by Samuel Fraunces who is best remembered as the owner of Fraunces Tavern. New Yorkers flocked to the pleasure gardens for entertainment, refreshments and open air.

On June 27, 1858 the New York Herald predicted that the newly-opened Palace Garden would be the “most beautiful, the most attractive, and in all probability the last great garden that individual enterprise will be enacted to devote to the health, pleasure and recreation of the citizens of New York.”

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won the Central Park Competition that same year; their naturalistic Greensward Plan defeating designs based on the pleasure garden concept. Concerned that a more artificial and ornamented pleasure garden plan would win, the New York Tribune urged citizens not to be “led astray by the claptrap and gewgaw…the harrowing spectacle of Nature made mince-meat of—her fair proportions indiscriminately chopped up and served to suit only a vitiated taste.”

The Tribune writer need not have been alarmed.

However the throngs who flocked to the Park even before its official opening in 1873 created a tempting opportunity. On May 25, 1868 the Central Park Garden was opened just outside of the Park. Soon thereafter, it was purchased by the high-profile financier, James Fisk. The wealthy Fisk “greatly beautified the place by a costly transformation,” according to manager Commodore Joe Tooker.

Starting out as a three-story brick building, it stood on the west side of 7th Avenue between West 58th and West 59th Street. A large sign along the roof line announced the name in large capital letters. The Garden offered patrons a restaurant and nightly concerts during the summer months in the open air “promenade” or “garden” to the rear.

The in-house orchestra was conducted by Theodore Thomas, deemed by The New York Times in 1872 as “the most proficient orchestra in the country.” Thomas’ orchestra was made up of 50 players and attracted audiences of from 1,000 to 2,500 persons a night. The Times article reminded readers that “The excellence of Mr. Thomas’ concerts in the past, and the beauty and comfort of the Central Park Gardens have long been familiar themes.” The 1876 edition of Appletons’ Illustrated Hand-Book of American Cities pronounced the concerts “musical entertainments of the highest order.”

Admission to the concerts cost 25 cents. According to Tooker the average Sunday concert would take in about $600 and the cost to stage them was also $600. The manager explained that the reason Fisk bothered was “the fun that he got out of them.”

Central Park Garden patrons enjoyed the convenience of the 7th Avenue Railroad that terminated at the entrance to Central Park, as well as the Broadway line of horse cars which had a stop at the same location.

Fisk eventually grew bored with the single orchestra and the Garden’s non-profit status. A trio of managers was hired and attractions were doubled. The 65-piece 9th Regiment Band performed as did the celebrated Russian violinist Wieniawski; cornetist Levy; and several principals of Strakosch’s Italian opera company. Fisk demanded that the public get top entertainment. “The public knows when it’s getting its money’s worth,” explained Tooker.  Profits rose to 300%.

On January 6, 1872, James Fisk was shot to death by Edward S. Stokes over the actress Josie Mansfield with whom both men were having an affair.

The Garden’s reputation grew quickly.  In 1876 Taintor’s Route and City Guides noted “At 58th Street is the famous Central Park Garden, the summer-home of the Thomas orchestra, and the most noted public resort of its kind in the country.”

With the Garden’s increased popularity came the necessity to enlarge and a large brick building was annexed to the south.

In 1883 a circus came to town and the owner, Mr. Doris, was having “great trouble” with his snakes. The great trouble was, simply, that they all died; all except for a very large boa constrictor from Calcutta. The Central Park Garden took the 23-foot snake off Mr. Doris’ hands, billing it as the “Jumbo Python;” but then rethought the idea. At the time actress Annie Pixley was appearing at the Garden and her business manager, Frank J. Pilling, was convinced to buy the reptile.

The enormous boa was reportedly two-feet in diameter. After about a week, Pilling was amazed when he looked into its box one morning to find that the it had laid 60 or 70 eggs and was still in the process of laying. Pilling reported that the “snake was quite cross and resented being handled.”

The snake was sold to the Zoological Gardens in Philadelphia for around $2,000. As for the eggs, Pilling decided to try to hatch some of them, leave most of them with the mother, and “some of them I shall make into an omelet, just to see how snakes’ eggs taste.”

For twelve days in December 1886 the Central Park Garden was turned over to a charity fair for the benefit of the Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids. While Ernest Neyer’s orchestra played, patrons strolled through a Japanese garden, a large floral arbor, “a candy stand of huge size laden with good things,” and various tables of merchandise. The fair was chaired by Jacob H. Schiff with the assistance of half a dozen equally-wealthy New Yorkers. Both the governor and mayor delivered addresses on opening night.

Before long, however, the Central Park Gardens would be no more.

By the early 1890s the large brick building had become the Central Park Riding Academy. The original, smaller building was converted to a natatorium where Professor Beach gave exhibitions.

On October 10, 1893 a fire in the Academy caused by a cigarette that was tossed into a hay mound resulted in a stampede as the 200 horses were being evacuated. Some ran into Central Park, others ran downtown for blocks. One horse, Laperello, which was valued at $2000 was burned to death. The fire did about $2,000 damaged to the building.

The somewhat rag-tag collection of buildings that had been the scene of decades of entertainment faced its doom on June 17, 1920 when the Academy hung a sign on the door “Gone Out of Business.”

In 1920 the Academy was closed and boarded.  The iron gates, visible beneath the central arch, were decorated with musical symbols; a reminder of the building's past -- photo NYPL Collection
On August 1 Lee and J. J. Shubert announced that they had leased the land and intended to build a 2,200-seat theater, designed by architect H. J. Krapp. Demolition was to begin immediately.

Instead, the structures remained until 1928 when the New York Athletic Club began construction on its soaring city headquarters.

Pleasure gardens in Manhattan breathed their last gasp when the masterful Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925. Few New Yorkers today are aware of their importance in the social history of the city. But of the many gardens of the 19th century, the Central Park Garden was perhaps the most renowned.

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