NYC – Great Lawn – Why so Flat? revised with 2015 article

Winter look at the Great Lawn

I added a 2015 article about Bryant Park read  here


I cannot tell you how many times I have been on the Great Lawn of Central park. Many times watching a baseball game or going to a concert as well as enjoying thewalking through the park during the winter. Often, I  wondered why this area  was designed to be  so flat and open – Other large areas of the park have rock outcroppings and hills.

So, Why is the Great Lawn so flat? 

The answer can be found interesting enough in the building of the water system for NYC.

First, a Little History

Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street

Before the Great lawn in 1835, New Yorkers approved a visionary project to replace private wells and cisterns with a 40-mile-long masonry aqueduct from a new dam across the Croton River in Westchester. The aqueduct channeled 80 million gallons a day to an Egyptian-style distributing reservoir on the site of the present New York Public Library at 42d Street and Fifth Avenue. Yes, 42nd and 5th avenue! a moment historian Henry Collins Brown called “the greatest forward stride in the city’s history, [with] the general introduction of running water.” (Prior to that, think rain buckets.)


This is now the Public Library and Bryant Park

What does this all have to do with the Great Lawn being so flat ?

Prior to Central Park

In 1842, another reservoir was created which was more than six times the size of the 42d Street reservoir, the Yorkville Reservoir was a giant rectangular chamber 836 feet wide and 1,826 feet long. It stood just south of the present kidney-shaped reservoir in the park. A huge rectangle, it had sloping walls and a flat strip along the top 18 feet wide. To keep people off this potential promenade, it was guarded by a fierce-looking double row of picket fences.


In 1861 Harper’s Weekly allowed as how the contents formed “a noble sheet of water,” but the magazine was not impressed with its walls of “ponderous masonry” and concluded that the reservoir offered “but slight picturesque attraction.”

By that time the construction of Central Park was under way anew reservoir was  designed to the north with a picturesque, undulating pedestrian path open to sightseers.  In 1917 a Department of Parks report said that the new Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills would permit a shutdown of the Yorkville Reservoir, and in 1925 the department took over the structure.

What would be put in its place?

Many were considering creating an exhibition hall, a stadium, a parking lot, swimming and wading pools.Wanting a large flat space , a  design for the Great Lawn was approved, and in the early 1930s the interior of the reservoir was filled with construction debris, and the walls partly demolished. Eventually the debate concluded in 1937 and grass was planted, creating the oval styled-field now known as the Great Lawn.  And, because the lawn was so flat, Then, during the 1950s, eight baseball diamonds were installed along the outer rim of the lawn.


While it is a wide and vast serene greenery in the city, the Great Lawn is famous not just for its beauty.  It has been the long time host to annual concerts such as the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as other memorable performances by world-class acts. Interesting for several years afterwards there were reports of family having picnics on the lawn finding water seeping up from the old reservoir. This was corrected in a 1997 restoration of the lawn


  • You don’t need a lot of snow, just the lightest dusting around the Great Lawn in Central Park, to see a remnant of old New York. If the wind is right, the snow catches on a long, mysterious ridge on the east side, leading north to a strange half-pyramid of stone. These are the traces of the long-gone 1842 Yorkville Reservoir. Anyone of an archaeological inclination can make a circuit of this subterranean public work, starting with the ladies’ room entrance of the restroom building next to the Delacorte Theater. Head north perhaps 200 feet, crossing the paved pathway to a sign explaining the history of the Great Lawn. At its base, stretching away a few feet and exposed by erosion, is part of the sloping wall of the west face of the reservoir. It stretches north underground to the back of the police station on the 86th Street Transverse Road. There, part of the north wall, perhaps 15 feet higstoneh, is used as a retaining wall for a parking lot. On the east side of the police station, just beyond the north end of the basketball courts, a large corner section of the reservoir, the walls crudely repointed with white cement, pokes out of the earth.

This aerial photograph, taken in the late 1920s, offers a view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Lower Reservoir in Central Park, and the skyline of Central Park West. The Lower Reservoir was drained in 1930. and because of the large flat space was filled in to create the Great Lawn.


The construction of Central Park ceases to amaze me. Who would have known that there was once a large reservoir under the Great Lawn and just behind the metropolitan Museum, surly I didn’t?

2 comments on “NYC – Great Lawn – Why so Flat? revised with 2015 article

  1. Fantastic post, Thom! What interesting historical tidbits. I also loved your photographs and illustrations. Especially your top shot and the photo of Fifth Avenue and Bryant Park. The shadows of the buildings and flag, the snow and blue sky are gorgeous. Gorgeous. Theadora


  2. terrific post, very informative & loved the historical views. also great contemporary shot of the great lawn in winter 🙂 lol!


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