Parks and Recreation

Ten unusual views of Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza

When park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux regrouped after the success of Central Park to design another great park for Brooklyn — encompassing Prospect Hill and the Revolutionary War site Battle Pass — they preserved a greater amount of natural topography than they had in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean that Prospect Park hasn’t gone through a few radical changes of its own since it opened between the years 1867 and 1873.

Their Grand Army Plaza has experienced few changes since it opened in those years, but the structures around it have certainly changed, presenting some surprising views at the mighty war monuments.

New York Public LIbrary

1. Women of the Wellhouse
The caption for this stereoscopic view (taken sometime in the 1870s-80s) calls this a ‘well house’, although it may have also been a a coal storage shed or even an outhouse! Brooklyn’s main reservoir was on Prospect Hill, and the park was constructed partially to protect the water source from encroaching developers.

2. Prospect Park Dairy
As they had done in Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux infused the landscape with various romantic, fairytale-like structures, including this dairy house, providing guests with milk straight from the cow. Central Park still has a version of their dairy, but Prospect Park’s was regrettably torn down in the 1930s to make way for the Prospect Park Zoo. (NYPL)

Library of Congress

3. Brooklyn Sheep

 Sure, you many know Sheep Meadow in Central Park once had actual sheep grazing — they were considered a rustic design ornament and a natural landscaper — but what happened to the animals after Robert Moses kicked them out in 1934? Like so many trendy things, they moved to Brooklyn! They joined Prospect Park’s already thriving sheep colony (pictured below, from 1903) before moving on to other pastures. (Courtesy LOC)

New York Public Library

4. Floral Steps, 1904
The manicured flora that grace these steps predates the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by several years. The stairs are still there today, of course, though unadorned.

Courtesy Dept of Records

5. Drinking Fountains
With water aplenty, Prospect Park has been dotted with drinking fountains since its inception. This rather unusual fountain, from 1938, may still be around, but I doubt you’ll see anybody drinking from it.

6. Deer Paddock
The zoo also replaced the rather extraordinary Deer Paddock, where the sometimes docile creatures were allowed to wander around. This despite some of them occasionally escaping and running into the surrounding neighborhood (as one adventurous buck did in 1906).


7. Stately Reservoir Tower
High atop Brooklyn’s second highest point on Mount Prospect sits the reservoir tower, only a couple decades old (1893) but looking like a medieval ruin in this image. Date of this picture is unknown, although the ground for the Brooklyn Public Library main branch building was broken in 1912, so it was clearly sometime before then. The Brooklyn Museum is in the distance. [NYPL]

Library of Congress

8. And, yes, the Reservoir itself
The reservoir was built here in 1856 and was meant to be included within the park designs. With Flatbush Avenue ultimately cleaving the hill from the rest of the proposal, Olmsted and Vaux left it out. This picture is from between 1910-1920. [LOC]

9. From high above
This bird’s eye view from 1951 illustrates the plaza’s similarities to that of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.


10. Library vista
And this view is from two weeks ago! During the Partners In Preservation Open House, the staff at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch led guided tours to the rooftop, offering a very particular take on the plaza. And if my camera had been better, you would see off in the distance the Statue of Liberty, situated several miles away.


This post originally ran in July of 2017.

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