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History of Bryant Park: Before It Was a Park

April 21, 2020

Given its location at the center of one of the world’s great cities, it comes as no surprise that the history of the area that is now Bryant Park is rich, predating even the Declaration of Independence.

The history of this space as more than true wilderness began in 1686, when New York’s first Royal Governor Thomas Dongan deemed the area, among other “unappropriated lands” to be public property under the control of the Common Council, a precursor to the City Council we have today. It remained as such for more than 100 years with little interruption, although a notable exception came in 1776 when General George Washington and his troops are said to have passed through the area following their retreat from the Battle of Long Island.

The New York City grid system of streets was laid out in 1807, and the land that would come to include Bryant Park was incorporated into the city in 1822. One year later, the land was designated as a potter’s field; a burial ground for New Yorkers that could not afford more formal accommodations (the bodies have since been removed). It continued to be used for that purpose until 1840, when the rapidly growing city built a reservoir at the present-day site of the New York Public Library. Called the Croton Reservoir, this vital piece of infrastructure covered four acres and held 20 million gallons of water drawn from the Croton River in Westchester County. Its massive 50 foot exterior walls also made it a popular promenade and viewing platform for notable New Yorkers of the time, such as Edgar Allen Poe.

The area to the west of the reservoir was initially known as Reservoir Square, and was utilized as the site of the “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” from 1853-1854. Considered by many to be the first World’s Fair on American soil, the exhibition was heavily influenced by the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (aka, the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London’s Hyde Park. The showpiece was NYC’s own Crystal Palace (an almost exact replica of its English counterpart) that housed four thousand exhibitors and displayed industrial wares, consumer goods, and artwork. Alongside the Crystal Palace was NYC’s then-tallest structure, the 315-foot-tall Latting Observatory.

Unfortunately, the exhibition was a financial bust and closed in late 1854. The Crystal Palace itself burned to the ground in 1858, inadvertently making space for Reservoir Square to serve as an encampment for Union troops during the Civil War.  Shortly after the war, in 1870, Reservoir Square was finally converted into a park, aptly named Reservoir Park.

That’s a lot of history, and we’re just through the 1860’s. For more information, check our website. When programming returns to the park, you can also take a free Bryant Park Tour. Led by knowledgeable members of BPC’s executive staff members, the tours cover the park’s rich history, award-winning design, distinct amenities, and ongoing maintenance efforts.