on bryant park: a brief history

academic writing

Bryant Park is located in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. It sits between 40th and 42nd Street, along 6th Ave and shares a quadruple-sized lot with the New York Public Library. The park is utilized all year long in every season for different events, as well as a lunchtime getaway for hard-working New Yorkers. I chose Bryant Park as the space I will explore in this essay because I have explored it often while visiting New York City and it has an extremely interesting history behind it, often unknown to casual tourists. It has gone through a few design phases, paired with various functions; but it now French formal garden style with a large expanse of grass to occupy.

Currently, Bryant Park is one of the calmest spaces in Midtown Manhattan and the largest green space south of Central Park in New York City, but it was not always this way. Originally, Bryant Park was an empty lot used for military drills to train soldiers of the American Revolution1. After the war concluded, the west side of the space became a potter’s field, a graveyard for poor and indigenous people. While occupied by a cemetery, the Midtown population demanded a large green space, and the large lot with the potter’s field was in a central location. Tourists and residents of the area often utilized the west side of the park, despite the graveyard to the east. This notion relates back to the first urban parks in America, which were often cemeteries. 

Although the primary function was morbid, the space was an open area of lawn, necessary for the further development of the city. Similarly to the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the future Bryant Park adapted to the new found function and encouraged recreational use.

In the 1840s, the graves in the field were removed and a reservoir was built on the east side of the lot. The east side of the lot became known as Reservoir Square, while the west side became known as the Crystal Palace, an area occupied by the 1853 World’s Fair. This World’s Fair, The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, was not as glamorous or as well-landscaped as the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition would be, as the Crystal Palace, where the first safe elevator was demonstrated, and adjoining Latter Observatory was simply placed on the lot, without further planning or landscaping. Compared to Burnham’s precarious design of Chicago for the Expo, the design of the would-be Bryant Park was mediocre.

Soon after, the 1870s, the lot was designated a park and renamed Bryant Park after the New York Evening Post editor and abolitionist, William Cullen Bryant. Soon after, the reservoir was removed and the New York Public Library was built in its former spot. In addition to the construction of the New York Public Library flanking Bryant Park’s east side, the development of the steel skyscraper enabled the park to be contained on all sides. While the overall design of Bryant Park is due to the Commissioner’s Plan grid, it becomes a piazza or open courtyard when flanked by tall buildings on all sides.

In the midst of The Great Depression and the off-putting noise by the newly constructed subway system, Bryant Park began to decline. In the mid-1930s, a competition was held to find a landscape architect to rehabilitate the existing space. Lusby Simpson from Queens won the competition and landscaped the park into a French Formal Garden style. As a result, Bryant park is geometrically planned, symmetrical, and contained by a pristine promenade of trees on the north and south ends of the lot, and the large expanse of green lawn still exists today to create a functional oasis in the center of the busiest city in the world. During winter months, it is used as a winter village, full of pop-up eateries and shops, due to the cozy atmosphere enabled by flanking trees and buildings.

In conclusion, various lessons and precedents from the past have been influences on the multiple designs leading up to the modern design that Bryant Park has today. The idea of the cemetery as an urban park was utilized post-war when half the lot became a potter’s field, but a need for isolated, public, green space was called for. Additionally, the The Exhibition of the Industry of Nations was only the second World’s Fair to exist, most likely influencing Burnham with design ideas for the Columbian World’s Exposition and introducing interesting ways to attract exhibit-goers. Finally, the French Formal Garden style of design that the park has creates beautiful symmetry and results in a prominent end destination, with trees and the library flanking sides of the park. As a result of these elements of design, Bryant Park continues to be one of the most used and exciting spaces to visit in New York City.

Image from bryantpark.org.
"Before They Were Parks." : Manhattan : NYC Parks. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2016. <https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/before-they-were-parks/manhattan>. 
"Bryant Park." Bryant Park. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2016. <http://bryantpark.org/about-us/history.html>.
Thompson, J. William. The Rebirth of New York City's Bryant Park. Washington, DC: Spacemaker, 1997. Print.