Bryant Park: The Fall and Rise of Midtown’s Most Elegant Public Space

NEW PODCAST  In our last show, we left the space that would become Bryant Park as a disaster area; its former inhabitant, the old Crystal Palace, had tragically burned to the ground in 1858.  The area was called Reservoir Square for its proximity to the imposing Egyptian-like structure to its east, but it wouldn’t keep that name for long.

William Cullen Bryant was a key proponent to the creation of Central Park, but it would here that the poet and editor would receive a belated honor in the 1884. With the glorious addition of the New York Public Library in 1911, the park received some substantial upgrades, including its well-known fountain. Over twenty years later, it took on another curious present — a replica of Federal Hall as a tribute to George Washington.

By the 1970s Bryant Park was well known as a destination for drug dealers and most people shied away from its shady paths, even during the day.  It would take a unique plan to bring the park back to life and a little help from Hollywood and the fashion world to turn it into New York’s most elegant park.

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The Bowery Boys #179: The Fight For Bryant Park

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William Cullen Bryant, photo taken by Matthew Brady

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William Cullen Bryant in bust form, but Launt Thompson.  It seems this bust has made its way back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

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William Cullen Bryant installed in his marble niche behind the New York Public Library.  This picture was taken in 1910, well before the radical redesign of the park in the 1930s. (Museum of the City of New York).

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During World War I, the YMCA had a special ‘Eagle Hut’ built in the park for traveling servicemen. (Library of Congress)

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A colorful depiction of the Bryant Park ‘demonstration gardens’ that were planted during the war. (Library of Congress)

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Bryant Park in 1920. Looking west on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue (you can see the elevated railroad!) In the distance is One Times Square. Note the reappearance of the Chesterfield Cigarettes billboard from the picture above. (Museum of the City of New York)

Bryant Park in 1920. Looking west on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue (you can see the elevated railroad!) In the distance is One Times Square. (Museum of the City of New York)

Constructing a replica of Federal Hall in a barren Bryant Park. (Picture taken by the Wurts Brothers, Museum of the City of New York)

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The Federal Hall reconstruction had a corporate sponsor — Sears Roebuck & Co.  Here’s how it looked in better days.  Believe it or not, the reproduction of Mount Vernon actually did get built in New York — in Prospect Park in Brooklyn!  (Bryant Park Corporation)

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Bryant Park’s Federal Hall, May 1932. (Museum of the City of New York)

Bryant Park's Federal Hall, May 1932. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The interior of Bryant Park’s Federal Hall. (Museum of the City of New York)

The interior of Bryant Park's Federal Hall. (Museum of the City of New York)

The reconstruction of Bryant Park in 1934, overseen by new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses

The reconstruction of Bryant Park in 1934, overseen by new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses

This photo was taken by Stanley Kubrick during his years as a photographer for Look Magazine. The caption reads “Park Bench Nuisance [Woman reading a newspaper, while a man reads over her shoulder.]” Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This photo was taken by Stanley Kubrick during his years as a photographer for Look Magazine. The caption reads "Park Bench Nuisance [Woman reading a newspaper, while a man reads over her shoulder.]" Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

People enjoying the New York Public Library’s outdoor reading room, 1930s. (New York Public Library)

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Bryant Park at night, photo by Nathan Schwartz, taken in 1938. (New York Public Library)

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The hedges of the central lawn, photo taken in 1957.  These were removed in the desperate effort to clean up the park in the late 1980s. (Library of Congress)

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Bryant Park in the 1980s.  High walls allowed for suspicious behavior to occur in the at all hours of the day. (Bryant Park Conservancy)

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Overlooking the new renovations in the late 1980s (Bryant Park Corporation)

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Bryant Park after the clean-up, taken sometime in the 1990s. Photo by Carol Highsmith (Library of Congress)

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Great overhead shots directly from the Bryant Park Conservancy!

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