Friday, June 16, 2017

"The Dairy" - Central Park

photo by Brian Clark ("sooner") via

In 1853, the same year that the New York State Legislature set aside more than 750 acres to create The Central Park, authorities noticed a suspicious rise in the amount of cow's milk being brought from outlying farms into Manhattan.  Previously about 90,000 quarts arrived in the city each day; now the number rose inexplicably to 120,000.  An investigation was launched.

The findings were chilling.  Investigators found 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.

In the meantime, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won the 1858 design competition for Central Park.  Their vision would create open space for all New Yorkers, including the poor and underprivileged.  The green spaces, terraces, ponds and roadways were designed not only for their beauty, but to contribute to public health.  As the Park developed, it would play a substantial role in the milk crisis.

But for now the unspeakable corruption and tragedy continued.   When, in 1862, a Brooklyn “distillery dairy” caught fire, The New York Times described the deplorable condition of 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.

At the southern point of Central Park--the spot where families would first enter--was to be a Children's Area.  Although not originally part of Olmstead and Vaux's design, plans were laid for a dairy here in 1869.  Its purpose would be to provide children with 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.”

Calvert Vaux designed the dairy, a whimsical fantasy of Victorian Gothic, 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.

Victorian children gather on the grass outside the Dairy not long after its completion.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Despite the promise that the milk would be supplied "at cost" and the refreshments would be affordable, one Southern family visiting the park in 1874 was thunderstruck at their bill.  After visiting the menagerie on October and seeing among the exhibits the laughing jack-ass, they "discovered they were hungry."

According to the letter to the editor of The New York Herald written by a New York friend, they entered the Dairy and ordered two cups of coffee, one glass of milk and three sandwiches.  When they were finished, the father asked how much he owed.  When the waiter told him $2.50, he hesitated.  John Bangles, who write the letter, said "Our friend does not roll in wealth...he demurred and the waiter, with a glance of pity and a smile, said, 'Well, $2.25.'"  The reduced bill would be equal to about $50 today.

"My friends then departed, the little boy asked what was the mater, the father muttered something about seeing another laughing jackass."

One can almost hear the cacophony within the Dairy in this etching by J. N. Hyde that appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1872 (copyright expired)

It seems that the Southern family were victims of an unscrupulous waiter.  In his 1882 New York by Gaslight, 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."

An unusual view reveals the surprising scale of the building, including the cow barn section.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The dairy not only provided children wholesome refreshments in 1899, it was a source of amusement in the form of one draft horse.  On January 18 the Pennsylvania newspaper Republican, wrote about "'Dan Sorrel,' who draws the milk wagon that takes the milk to Central Park Dairy every morning.  His driver often amuses the children that gather about his pet by saying:

'Now, Dan, I believe you are a Democrat.'

'No,' shakes the head.

'What! a Republican?'

'Yes, yes, yes,!' and a stamping of both front feet, while the tail is slashed about like a banner to emphasize his sentiments."

In November 1911 New Yorkers may have been surprised and disappointed when they read that Park Commissioner Charles B. Stover planned to do away with the Dairy as a concession.  The New-York Tribune reported that Stover had announced "in the near future he would convert the Dairy, one of the oldest refreshment stands in the park, into playrooms, doing away with the privilege, which dates back to the early days of the park."

The playroom idea did not work out.   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 suffered the humiliation of becoming 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.

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