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Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York

Prospect Park is a 526-acre park in Brooklyn, New York located between Park Slope, Kensington, Windsor Terrace and Flatbush Avenue, Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and seven blocks north east of Green-Wood Cemetery. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after they completed Manhattan's Central Park. Attractions include the Long Meadow, a ninety acre meadow thought to be the largest meadow in any U.S. park; the Picnic House which houses offices and a hall that can accommodate parties with up to 175 guests; the Litchfield Manor, a historic site of the previous owners of the southern part of Park; Prospect Park Zoo; a large nature conservancy; the only urban Audubon Center & Visitor Center at the Boathouse and Brooklyn's only lake (covering 60 acres); a The Prospect Park Bandshell that hosts free outdoor concerts in summertime; the Wollman Rink for skating; and various sports and fitness activities including seven baseball fields. There is also a private Quaker cemetery on the grounds of the Park in an area known as Quaker Hill.

The Long Meadow from the north, summer 2003

History of Prospect Park

The Battle Pass area circa 1792
Originally the terminal moraine and outwash plain of the receding glaciers of the
ice age, the area around the Park was the site of the Battle of Long Island during the U.S. Revolutionary War and became known as Battle Pass where the highest point known as Prospect Hill jutted up approximately 200 feet from sea level. In the nineteenth century the Park was mostly farm land; the cost of acquiring the Park land by the City of Brooklyn was upwards of $4 million. The actual cost of construction of the Park amounted to more than $5 million. Originally the Park was to stradle Flatbush Avenue and go past the later built Eastern Parkway. Planning and construction of the Park was originally begun before the Civil War in 1860 but stopped during the war. After the war in 1865 Olmsted and Vaux were hired and Vaux convinced the city that more lands to the east and nearer to Green-Wood Cemetery should be purchased including the area of the park known as Nethermead and the farm land where Prospect Lake was built.

The artistic vision of Olmsted and Vaux

As a work of engineering and landscaping Prospect Park was so revolutionary in its time that some considered the Park a work of art in itself; others were critical of the ideas of Olmsted and Vaux as they were seen as breaking with European traditions. Olmsted and Vaux literally engineered the Park to recreate wild nature as they had experienced in photographically documented trips across the United States. They created the large Long Meadow out of land that was filed with lowland peat bogs, they moved and planted trees, hauled topsoil and created a vast mowned turf with specifically placed trees (that have been recently been replanted to bring back the original design). Large swathes of trees were planted around the perimeter of the Park to create a buffer zone between the surrounding urban landscape so that the Park could be a true rural oasis away from the hussle and bussle of the city of Brooklyn; other major landscaping projects under the Olmsted, Vaux * Company plan transformed the Park by the time it was finished in 1868.

On the Bridle Path, 1912
In designing the watercourse Olmstead and Vaux also took advantage of the pre-existing glacier formed kettle ponds and lowland outwash plains. A winding naturalistic stream channel with several ponds feeds a sixty acre Lake. They crafted the watercourse to include a steep, forested Ravine — perhaps their greatest masterpiece of landscape architecture — all with significant river edge flora and fauna habitats. This was all done to give the urban dweller a "sub-conscious" experience of nature within the city as Olmsted believed it was possible and necessary to provide such nurishment for the general public in the overwelming urban environments of his time.

The Prospect Park watercourse

Perhaps the most fascinating of Olmsted and Vaux's creations is the Prospect Park watercourse. All the waterways and lakes in Prospect Park were man-made. Originally engineered by Olmstead and Vaux to be a vast nature preserve recreating American wilderness areas as an oasis for urban residents, by the mid-twentieth century these landscaped waterways fell into a state of terrible disrepair. In 1994 the Prospect Park Alliance launched a 25-year, $43 million restoration project for the watercourse.

If one follows the water from its source the water in Prospect Park takes us on a course starting at the top of Fallwill Falls into Fallwill Pool past the Fallwill Bridge through the recently restored Upper Pool and Lower Pool, where migratory birds rest and marsh and other water plants can be found. Past the Esdale Bridge through Ambergill Pond one enters into a tree covered area then on to the smaller Ambergill Falls through Rock Arch Bridge past the gorge area called The Ravine. The design called for the trikle of water to be heard throughout the forest and this effects lasts on to the Nethermead Arches through the Binnen Water where a variety of water lilies can be found. The watercourse then moves on to the Music Pagoda Bridge where performances of music were often given.

Near the Boathouse, circa 1890s

The waters then move past the Binnen Bridge to the once again operative Boathouse (now Audubon Center & Visitor Center) on to the Lullwater pond and then under the Lullwater Bridge around the Penninsula — an area that is a sanctuary for birds where wild meadows can be found. Moving under the large Terrace Bridge the waters move to their final destination, entering into the sixty acre artificially built Prospect Lake that includes several islands. Once severely poluted Prospect Lake now boasts an annual fishing contest; now, again, boats of visitors once more move across the Lake.

This trip along the watercourse demonstrates the revolutionary approach of Olmsted and Vaux in their re-creation of various types of natural water formations; not only did they plant a variety of trees, bushes and other plants, but they moved rocks, boulders and earth to recreate a variety of natural environments for the pleasure and stimulation of Brooklyn’s nineteenth century urban dwellers.

Map of the Park, c. 1880s

The Ravine District

With the watercourse moving through it a 146 acre section of the Park's interior that is the center of Brooklyn's only forest is known as the Ravine District. Olmsted and Vaux saw the Ravine as the heart of Prospect Park and the centerpiece of mountainous tableaux similar to the Adirondack Mountains. As of 2003 the Ravine has been partially restored and the restored section is open to the public. The perimeter of the area is a steep narrow 100 foot gorge. Still recovering from decades of overuse that caused soil compaction and erosion, the Ravine and surrounding woodlands have been undergoing restorations since 1996. The watercourse goes through the Ravine leading to the Boathouse which was designed by the famed architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White and was one of the most fashionable destinations in the Park in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As the Park decayed this historicall signficant structure was in peril of destruction; luckily, the Boathouse was saved in the 1980s by the then New York Mayor Lindsay Wagner and has been completely restored and refurbished; now housing the Audubon Society's only urban interpretive center in the United States.

Robert Moses and Prospect Park

During the twentieth century a variety of innovations were introduced by Robert Moses into Prospect Park, including a variety of playgrounds for children; he also supervised the building of the Prospect Park Bandshell near the statue of the Marquis de la Fayette on Ninth Street and Prospect Park West. However the landscaping of the interior of the Park continued to hide the original plan of Olmsted and Vaux as soil erosion and lack of maintenance caused the landscaping to deteriorate. In the 1990s a new volunteer and privately controlled non-profit organization was founded to help revitalize the Park; to date the Prospect Park Alliance has begun the work of transforming the Park back to its original state.

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