In 1842, the receiving basin for the Croton Aqueduct, the city's first dependable source of drinking water, opened on the site where the Great Lawn is today. This drawing shows how little development there was in the area at the time.
Click on the picture for a better view.
This drawing, done in about 1840, shows the artist's conception of what you would have seen if you had stood at the top of what is now Summit Rock (which used to be called Nanny Goat Hill), and looked west to the fashionable estates along Riverside Drive and then across the Hudson River to New Jersey.
Although the park area looks almost uninhabited in these images, there were several residential settlements in the area, including Seneca Village, Harsenville, the Piggery District, and the Convent of the Sisters of Charity. These settlements included schools, churches, cemeteries, shops, public hospitals, and other institutions, and their inhabitants had been the pioneering cultivators of the land that was soon to become a park.
Beginning in 1849, a small group of civic-minded New York visionaries began to agitate for the creation of a grand, artfully sculptured uptown park, modeled after the opulent public parks of Europe. They would eventually include James William Beekman, a State Senator; William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post; Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape gardener and writer; Robert Minturn, a wealthy merchant; and Fernando Wood, the Mayor.
By this point in the city's history, there were several kinds of parks for the inhabitants.
There were small parks that were for private use only. Private parks were usually enclosed with elegant iron fencing and had locked gates. Only those who lived on the surrounding streets had a key.
The public had access to multi-purpose parks, also known as "squares" and "commons". These parks were used for military drills and executions as well as recreation. Cemeteries were also green spots, and it was not unusual to see New Yorkers strolling and picnicking near the graves of those who had passed on.
Here is an illustration of Union Square Park in the mid-1800s.
Three areas were proposed for the new park. They were Battery Park, Jones's Wood, and an underdeveloped section in what was then considered upper Manhattan. You can see where they were on a map of the city if you click here.
Since most New Yorkers still lived south of Fourteenth Street, some people wanted to enlarge Battery Park, a popular site at the southern tip of Manhattan Island with an elegant promenade along the water.
A plan to add about 300 feet of landfill was approved in 1853.This created a large and accessible space but was not as expensive as building a park from the ground up.
But Battery Park did not satisfy the needs of the population that was expanding uptown, so city officials turned to two other sites, one of which would eventually become Central Park.