Early History

Potter's Field

In 1686, the area now known as Bryant Park was designated public property by New York Colonial Governor Thomas Dongan. After being routed by the British in the Battle of Long Island, at the start of the Revolutionary War, General Washington's troops raced across the site. In 1807, the grid system of streets was laid out in what is now considered midtown, expanding north from the already cosmopolitan downtown Manhattan. Fifteen years later, in 1822, the land came under the jurisdiction of New York City, and one year later, was turned into a potter's field. The city decommissioned the potter's field in 1840, in preparation for construction of the Croton Reservoir on the adjacent plot of land (now the Central branch of the New York Public Library).

The Croton Distributing Reservoir and Reservoir Square

Built in between 1839 and 1842, the Croton Distributing Reservoir was a man-made four acre lake, surrounded by massive, fifty-foot-high, twenty-five-foot-thick granite walls. Along the tops of the walls were public promenades, offering expansive views of the growing city. This water-supply system was one of the greatest engineering triumphs of nineteenth-century America, and widely considered an integral part of the first supply of fresh water carried by aqueducts into the city from upstate New York. Iron pipes transported water forty-one miles to the receiving reservoir in what is now Central Park, thence to the distributing reservoir at this site. The aqueduct system, constructed at a cost of $11.5 million, officially opened on July 4, 1842. In 1846, the New York City Common Council ordered construction of a public park on the land next to the Reservoir. Reservoir Park was formed in 1870, and one year later, underwent a $72,000 renovation. The reservoir itself was eventually torn down, following numerous delays, in 1900.

The Crystal Palace and Latting Observatory

Inspired by the success of The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the famed Crystal Palace exhibition hall in Hyde Park, London, New York City began preparations for a similar exhibit on U.S. soil. The New York Crystal Palace was built on Reservoir Square, the park just west of the Croton Reservoir. Designed by Georg Cartensen and Charles Gildemeister, the glass and metal structure was built in the shape of a Greek cross and boasted a domed roof 100 feet in diameter. It remained standing until October 5, 1858, when it burned down.

The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, also commonly referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, featured four thousand exhibitors and displayed the industrial wares, consumer goods, and artworks of the nation. Notable exhibits included mineral resources of the U.S., the newest precision steam engines, and the largest crocodile ever captured. United States President Franklin Pierce delivered a speech at the opening ceremony on July 14, 1853.

Built next to the Crystal Palace in 1853 as part of the exhibition, was the 315-foot-tall Latting Observatory. Conceived by Waring Latting, and designed by architect William Naugle, this octagonally based, iron and wood tower was the tallest building at the time of its construction and offered patrons unobstructed views of Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey. It perished in an 1856 fire.

The first of its kind in New York City, the Crystal Palace Exhibition set off one of the first major tourism booms in New York with over one million visitors. (In spite of its popularity, the exhibition's sponsors lost $300,000 on the venture.) The exhibit closed on November 1, 1854, though the structure remained standing and was leased for a variety of purposes over the next four years.

The Civil War Years

During the Civil War, Reservoir Square was used as an encampment for Union Army troops. Shortly after, in March of 1863, the Union government issued the first draft notices in American history, setting off a series of riots throughout the city. One of the most horrendous acts of the riots was the July 1863 burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. Throughout the late nineteenth century, many uses were suggested for the reservoir site and also the square, including a rejected petition to use the space for an armory.

Did you know?

Seventeen-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens (later to be known as Mark Twain) visited the Crystal Palace Exhibition. He wrote that the Crystal Palace was “beautiful beyond description.”