Monday, February 15, 2021

The Lost Lion Park - Columbus Avenue and 110th Street


Well dressed patrons arrive in carriages for a day of recreation around 1870.  Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, 1919 (copyright expired)

In 1857 Swiss-German immigrants August Schmidt and Emanuel Bernheimer founded the Lion Brewery.  The expansive complex stretched from Columbus to Amsterdam Avenue and from 107th to 109th Street.  Following the Civil War the property was expanded to the north where a sprawling pleasure garden, Lion Park, was erected.

New Yorkers had enjoyed pleasure gardens since the 18th century, especially in the summer months when relief from the stifling heat was welcome.  Lion Park was the mid-Victorian equivalent of a recreation park today.  Years later The Sun said "Originally Lion Park was a popular family picnic ground, a place for meetings, for recreation and amusement.  Its natural scenic advantages were enhanced by art.  Large sums were expended in floral cultivation, in the construction of walks and paths, in cleaning groves for the accommodation of picnic parties, and in marking rustic bowers and shelters."

As the rural venue became increasingly popular, a menagerie was added and then a dancing pavilion known as the Belvidere.  It was touted as being the largest in the United States.

The Belvidere hosted concerts by the popular 30-piece Theodore Thomas orchestra, organized in 1864.  (Thomas would go on to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.)  On August 11, 1865 the New York Herald reported the performance the following afternoon would be "unusually brilliant."  The writer was as complimentary to the venue as to the orchestra, calling Lion Park "that delightful suburban retreat."  He added, "The Belvidere, with its fine gardens and the magnificent landscape it commands is one of the pleasantest places of resort within reach of the people."

The fame of Lion Park stretched as far as California and on August 1, 1875 the San Francisco Chronicle described it as "being tastefully laid out and well kept up, equipped too, with tenpins, merry-go-rounds, swings and other instruments of diversion.  In the intervals between more temperate enjoyments a small balloon is sent up to the stupefaction of children and nurse-maids, on which occasion a band plays appropriate airs."  The fact that a brewery owned and operated the restaurant apparently blurred the distinction between a saloon and café.  The article said "There is likewise something called a restaurant, where you may stay the pangs of hunger and slake your thirst."

That "restaurant" made history of a sort early in 1867.  Police Superintendent Kennedy initiated a strict enforcement of the excise law that prohibited selling alcohol on Sundays.  Weekends were crucial to Lion Park and so the restaurant's manager took drastic steps to prevent its closure.  The Sun reported "At Lion Park the police were defied and the manager erected an insurmountable barricade between the police and the beer dispensary."  After unsuccessful attempts and bad public relations, Superintendent Kennedy gave up and allowed the restaurant to remain open on Sundays.

Lion Park was a favorite spot for picnics and outdoor gatherings of social groups and company outings.  It was the scene of the Liederkranz Society's Night's Festival in June 1867.  The New York Times reported on "the music, the dancing, and promenading, and eating and drinking of mild German beverages, and general enjoyment, after the German fashion."   

The isolated and elevated area made the lamplight of the Belvidere visible for miles.  On August 7, 1868 the New York Herald described:

Lion Park from its eyrie above the Park threw out long lances of light as beacons to the pilgrims from the east side and blazed forth as the night advanced like the palace of Aladdin or St. Peter's at Easter.  From a thousand blazing lights, from the blinding glare of the calcium to the merry twinkle of the prisoner within the Chinese lantern, from many a loud tongued instrument which spoke as Reitzel or Bergmann directed, from many a peal of merry voices or murmur of pattering feet over the broad floor, was wafted a welcome to the hundred wanderers from all points of the compass.

Diverse groups like St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church, the Dry Goods Clerks' Association, and the Caledonian Club held their picnics and games on the grounds.  The Sun said, "From a mere pleasure and picnic resort, as time accomplished its changes, Lion Park became the greatest headquarters for gatherings, political and social, that the city probably has ever known."  The Belvidere was, as well, a favorite meeting venue.  "All the great political organizations, military, social and fraternal societies of new York at some time or other have met there on important occasions," said the newspaper.

The Belvidere was the scene of glittering events, like the "literary entertainment and ball" given in February 1886 for the benefit of the fife and drum corps of Farragut Post, No. 75 of the Grand Army of the Republic.  

By the time of that event the Morningside Heights neighborhood around the park was less isolated.  On April 28, 1888 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide noted, "There is a good deal of indignation amongst the residents in the neighborhood of Lion Park about the noise made by the music and the crowds which patronize that dancing resort."  The journal sided with the newcomers, saying "This is quite natural and there is no reason why it should be continued when the property-owners and residents surrounding demand its removal."

The battle worsened as neighbors lobbied to have 108th Street extended through the park grounds.  The street, indeed, existed on paper and was opened in 1884 on either side of the park.  On April 7, 1892 The New York Times reported "Property owners feel that they have been badly treated in this matter, all the more because the owners of the park were supposed to have ceded to the city without any money considerable land across which the thoroughfare was to be extended."  The brewery, of course, had as much incentive to prevent the opening of the street as its neighbors had to open it.

Three years later, on March 8, 1895, The New York Times reported on the sale of half of the Lion Park property and noted "as a result, the picnic ground known as Lion Park, which has long been objectionable to property owners near by, will be wiped out."

But the newspaper spoke too quickly.  The Lion Park owners had successfully retained the portion of the property which held the Belvidere, which was renamed the Lion Palace.  Meetings, dancing, and entertainments continued, no doubt to the disgruntlement of the neighbors.

The Lion Palace offered bowling, concerts, a roof garden and lodge rooms.  The Tammany Times, September 26, 1898 (copyright expired)

In February 1898 a masked ball was held here.  And a few weeks later, on March 14, 1898 The Evening Telegram reported on the reception held by the I.D.K.D.Y. Social Club.  It noted, "The special interest was centred in the cake walk.  It was composed of seven couples, the gentlemen all in fancy costumes and the lades in light colored evening gowns."  

But these would be the last grand events in the Lion Park Belvidere.  Four days later The New York Times reported the Lion Park property had been sold.

On January 8, 1899 The Sun lamented, "Workmen are now tearing down the structures that are a part of Lion Park.  The place will soon be of the past.  Modern dwellings and business buildings are to go up there.  With the passing of Lion Park a historic spot is blotted out."

The article recalled, "At a number of the great barbecues, for which Lion Park in the old days was noted, former Mayor Fernando Wood presided before the multitude."  The writer said, "To list the names of the civil, political and other associations who have gathered on all occasions at Lion Park would fill a book," and noted, "It was at Lion Park that the first great French ball was held, and it was a wonderful affair."

Before the end of the year houses and apartment buildings went up, eliminating any hint of the once fashionable pleasure garden.

The site at 110th Street and Eighth Avenue as it appeared around 1905.  photo by W. R. McFadden from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

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