Prospect Park

Ten things you should know about Prospect Park

July 31, 2018 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Welcome to Prospect Park, which draws 8 to 10 million visitors per year. This is the park's Grand Army Plaza entrance. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Welcome to Brooklyn’s Backyard.

That’s a popular nickname for Prospect Park, which draws a staggering 8 to 10 million visitors per year.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the 585-acre greenspace. This famous team of landscape architects also designed Central Park.

A historic footnote: Vaux coined the term “landscape architecture.”

Prospect Park first opened to the public in 1867 when it was only partly built.
The city Landmarks Preservation Commission voted in 1975 to designate it as a scenic landmark.

People come from all over the borough to spend time there. For neighborhoods immediately surrounding it, namely Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Prospect Park South and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, it indeed an entertaining backyard.

There are concerts at its band shell, a zoo, playground equipment for kids, pedal boats in a lake — and miles of roads for joggers, walkers and cyclists since cars are no longer allowed in the park.

There are oodles of interesting things to know about this place Brooklynites have loved for a century and a half. Here are 10 of them, which you can drop into conversations to show off your knowledge of our borough.

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#1: The famous boathouse was nearly torn down.

Newbold Morris, who was the city Parks Commissioner in 1963, decided Prospect Park’s boathouse should be demolished because it was in disrepair.

The City Planning Commission, the Board of Estimate and Mayor Robert Wagner all said yes, do it.

The boathouse, whose architectural style is Eclectic-Italian Renaissance, had been designed by prominent Brooklyn architecture firm Helmle & Huberty and built in 1904. It had fans. They protested.

According to a December 1964 New York Times story, vocal opponents included the Municipal Art Society, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Cobble Hill Association and Clay Lancaster, the author whose research was crucial to getting Brooklyn Heights designated as the city’s first-ever historic district.

At the last minute, Morris said the city would restore the boathouse instead of knocking it down.

“I have succumbed to public opinion,” he told the Times.

The boathouse has a terra-cotta facade with eye-pleasing arches and columns. Its design is reminiscent of the Library of St. Mark’s in Venice.

In 1965, the year that the city’s landmarks preservation law was created, the boathouse was designated as a landmark.

The boathouse is now the home of the Prospect Park Audubon Center, which offers nature education programs.  

#2 Prospect Park Lake was man-made.

According to a 1975 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission about Prospect Park, Nature created a portion of a stream at Prospect Park — and humans built the rest of the park’s picturesque waterways.

#3 Poet Marianne Moore saved the Camperdown Elm.

This tree, which has downward-curving branches like a weeping willow’s, has stood in Prospect Park since 1872.

It was in bad shape in 1967, when Moore wrote a poem about it that the New Yorker published. She also served as president of a parks advocacy group called the Greensward Foundation and created a group called Friends of Prospect Park.

Today, a sign posted next to the venerable elm describes measures that have been taken to keep the tree alive.

Pulitzer-Prize winner Moore, who lived in Fort Greene, achieved celebrity late in her life.

She appeared on the “Tonight Show” and the cover of “Esquire,” threw out the first pitch at the New York Yankees’ 1968 opening game and met important sports figures such as boxer Muhammad Ali.

#4 The columns on Litchfield Villa are decorated with ears of corn.

This stunning landmark located just inside the park’s Prospect Park West and 5th Street entrance is an Italianate mansion with towers and a turret.   

Important mid-19th-century architect Alexander Jackson Davis designed the house, which was built in the 1850s.

The most fanciful element of the villa’s design is a porch with a row of wood columns — which are topped with decorative corn on the cob and sheaves of wheat.  

The Prospect Park Alliance and the city Parks Department have offices in the villa.

#5 Tree-moving machines played a key role in the creation of Prospect Park.

John Y. Culyer, the chief engineer of the Prospect Park construction project, designed two massive wagons that could move enormous trees from one part of the park to another so they could be transplanted.

According to a Princeton Architectural Press blog posting, the machines could carry trees of “five feet in circumference with large root balls weighing up to 15 tons.”

In a single year, the machines transported 600 trees that weighed a ton or more, the posting said.   

#6 Lefferts Homestead originally stood six blocks away from its current location in Prospect Park.

The Lefferts family gave the handsome Dutch Colonial farmhouse to the city in 1918 to make way for development at its original site on Flatbush Avenue.

The shingle and clapboard house was constructed between 1777 and 1783 to replace an earlier Lefferts home that burned down during the Revolutionary War.

Now there are exhibits inside the landmarked house and old-fashioned tools, games and toys to try out.

#7 Prospect Park’s Long Meadow is more than a mile long.

According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report about Prospect Park, that’s the length of the 75-acre Long Meadow.

The landscape architects designed it to give visitors the impression that it stretches to infinity.

#8 The Wellhouse is Olmsted and Vaux’s last surviving Prospect Park building.

The building, which is rosy-red brick with bands of decorative stone, was constructed in 1869. It housed machinery that pumped water into Prospect Park’s lake and other waterways.

After a $2.34 million renovation by the Prospect Park Alliance, the Wellhouse opened last year as a public restroom with toilets that turn waste into compost.

#9 The Croquet Shelter was never used for croquet.

Famous architecture firm McKim, Mead & White designed this neo-Classical landmark located on the Parkside Avenue edge of Prospect Park. The open-air pavilion with 28 columns was built in 1905.

In the early 20th century, people played croquet on the north end of the Long Meadow. It was not played near the Croquet Shelter, which is also known as the Grecian Shelter or the Prospect Park Peristyle.

#10 If called by a panther, don’t anther.

We borrowed that line from an Ogden Nash poem to draw your attention to the two bronze sculptures of panthers on limestone pedestals at the park’s Prospect Park West and 3rd Street entrance.

Artist Alexander Phimister Proctor made the statues.  McKim, Mead & White designed the pedestals.

The Park Circle entrance also has a fine pair of animal statues. They’re wild horses with riders. Sculptor Frederick MacMonnies made them, and architect Stanford White designed the pedestals.     

 

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