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History of Bryant Park: The Middle Years

May 1, 2020

Part one of our exploration of Bryant Park history ended with the formation of Reservoir Park in 1870. This little patch of land has been a park ever since, but as part two of our three-part series will show, that’s about the only thing that remained the same.

Reservoir Park had a short run, and in 1884, it was renamed Bryant Park in honor of William Cullen Bryant, civic reformer and longtime editor of the New York Evening Post. The Croton Reservoir was next to go, as explosive population growth in New York City rendered it inadequate to meet demand by the end of the 19th century. After much discussion about what to do with the site, a plan was approved to build the New York Public Library, and construction began in 1900. The Beaux-Arts beauty, designed by John Merven Carrére and Thomas Hastings, was completed in 1911 and connected to the park by the Upper Terrace.  Although the reservoir is gone, evidence of it remains – a segment of the reservoir is visible to the public in the lower level of the South Court of the Schwarzman Building.

Just as things began to settle on the eastern side of Bryant Park, the construction of an underground train line beneath Sixth Avenue uprooted the western boundary. Since 1878, the Sixth Avenue elevated train line had cast a literal and figurative shadow over the park (Here’s a YouTube clip of what it was like to ride that line). In early 1922, however, the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) company began digging their tunnel beneath Sixth Avenue, forcing the northern end of the park to close until 1927. The IRT crews also used much of the remaining park space to store equipment and debris, leading a New Yorker writer in 1936 to lament that Bryant Park was one of the most “badgered and turned up lots in the world.”

In 1932, to celebrate the 200th anniversarry of George Washington’s birth, the Washington Bicentennial Commission built a replica of Federal Hall at the eastern end of the park, adjacent to the library. The structure remained, boarded up, for a year after the celebration, adding to the forlorn nature of the park.

By this time, Bryant Park was considered a disreputable eyesore, and more than 100 plans to restore it had been created with no momentum. Finally, in 1933, the Architects’ Emergency Committee held a competition for the park’s redesign to engage unemployed architects. The contest was won by Lusby Simpson of Queens. Due to a lack of funding, however, Simpson’s plan was not implemented until 1934, under the direction of new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, with laborers from the Depression-era Civil Works Program. Simpson’s plan was influenced by the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, and sought to transform Bryant Park using a formal French garden style. Among the most notable features introduced by Simpson were London Plane Trees, the Lawn, stone balustrade, and formal pathways  Bryant Park still honors this French influence today, with Petanque courts and Le Carrousel Magique.

Moses was becoming known as someone who could get things done, and his work at Bryant Park bolstered that reputation. The park reopened on September 15, 1934, and the redesign, including the lawn centerpiece, was widely regarded as a great success. From that point forward the physical layout of Bryant Park has remained largely undisturbed, with the library to the east, and redesigned Bryant Park to the west. While the physical structure of the park remained the same, the third and final installment of this series will detail how the park still managed to transform over the next 86 years.