By Laurie Lewis
In the 1857-58 competition to design Central Park, all entries had to include a flower garden. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux placed the garden in the southern end of the park in their competition-winning design. They didn’t really want to construct it, however. Although the entire park was man-made, the designers wanted it to look as if Nature had created it, and buildings and formal gardens hardly qualify. Eventually, flower-lovers conceded to Olmsted and Vaux’s suggestion to substitute a model boat pond for the garden. The official name of the boat pond, just off Fifth Avenue at 74th Street, is Conservatory Water, a nod to the original plan for this site.
Map of part of Central Park around 1873.
At the bottom center are the suggested site of the Conservatory or flower garden (red-brown color) and the actual site of the model boat pond, Conservatory Water.
In 1899, Central Park finally got a formal flower garden. A large, E-shaped, glass greenhouse opened to the public in the northern end of the park, at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street. Called Conservatory Garden, it was a popular year-round attraction in the early twentieth century. The structure, however, was expensive to maintain, and in 1934 the dilapidated greenhouse was demolished. Three years later a new Conservatory Garden opened on the same site. This one was entirely outdoors.
The six-acre spread—some call it a secret garden, because many lifelong New Yorkers do not know about it—is actually several distinct gardens. Each of the three main areas has a unique fountain. Separating the three gardens are double rows of crabapple trees, which shimmer with pink and white blossoms in the spring, offer shade to benches in the summer, and create a lovely picture with their twisted bare branches in the winter.
Visitors enter at the center garden, passing through a wrought-iron gate that once graced a Vanderbilt mansion just south of Central Park. The center garden is in the Italian style and consists mainly of a broad green lawn. At the far end are a raised wisteria pergola and a fountain that sprays relief to delighted children on hot summer days.
The north garden, in the French style, is at its best twice a year. In the spring, thousands of tulips brighten the flower beds. In the autumn, Korean chrysanthemums, which are taller and more pastel than typical mums, take over. Between these blooming periods, rose arbors beckon visitors to enter and enjoy the Three Dancing Maidens fountain. The water splashing on the bronze bodies and dresses almost makes the dancers come alive.
The south garden, in the English style, has many varieties of plants laid out in several rings. At the center is the fountain that gives this garden in particular, as well as the entire Conservatory Garden, its “secret” name. A sculpture in a small lily-pad–adorned pool depicts a boy playing a flute and a girl holding a bowl of water for birds. This is the Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain, and the children are the main characters in her classic book The Secret Garden.
When Olmsted and Vaux shied away from formal flower gardens, they probably did not envision anything as charming and diverse as the present-day Conservatory Garden, New York City’s own secret garden.
Visit the Secret Garden on Our Jane’s Walk
Every year we offer a free tour as part of Jane’s Walk, a global event in which people lead tours in a favorite part of their city. Our Jane’s Walk this year goes to the northern part of Central Park and ends at Conservatory Garden. The walk begins on the west side of the park. Meet us at Central Park West between 90th and 91st Streets at 11 AM on Saturday, May 4. We’ll walk along the Reservoir, visit the Pool, enjoy a hike in the North Woods, climb to the site of an early American military fortification, and, after about 2 hours, finish in Conservatory Garden. There, the crabapple trees and tulips should be at their peak.
For more about our walk, see https://www.mas.org/events/central-park-marvels-of-the-northern-half-2. For the complete Jane’s Walk roster in New York, see https://www.mas.org/janes-walk-nyc. If you won’t be in New York the first weekend in May, look for a Jane’s Walk wherever you are.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city’s most surprising landscapes. Take a hike in the woods, and you’ll feel as though you’ve left the city. Discover New York’s own Secret Garden. If history rather than nature is your thing, fear not. You’ll learn about the role this area played in early American wars.
Join us on Saturday, May 4, at 11 AM to explore the northern part of Central Park. Reservations are not necessary, and the tour is FREE as part of Jane's Walk. Meet on the park side of Central Park West between 90th and 91st Streets, across from the El Dorado apartment building.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan reflects American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them as well as rogues like William “Boss” Tweed. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Alan gives this tour on Saturday, May 11, at 10 AM. Email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to make a reservation and to learn the meeting location.
Central Park: Highlights of the Southern Half
In the popular southern half of Central Park, you’ll recognize some of the most filmed and photographed sights in New York, including Strawberry Fields, the Sheep Meadow, Bethesda Terrace, and the Lake. Spring will be all around us.
Take a walk with Laurie through the southern half of Central Park on Tuesday, May 14, at 1 PM. Please email the guide (email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Public Art of Lower Manhattan
You don’t need to go to a museum to see great art. This interactive tour includes some of the most interesting and varied art in New York City. The artworks are as old as the doors of Trinity Church and as new as the SeaGlass Carousel.
Alan gives this tour on Saturday, May 18, at 10 AM. Email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve your place and to learn the meeting location.
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. On this tour, you’ll meander through charming Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs as you learn where some famous writers—including Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Edward Albee—lived. Maybe the Village aura will spark your own creativity!
Laurie gives this tour on Sunday, May 19, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at email@example.com.