Frederick Law Olmsted Describes the Mall, Central Park, in a letter dated Saturday, May 23, 1874 *
The double rows of American Elms, planted fourteen years earlier, create a green tunnel. Sunlight filters through the canopy of new leaves and throws dappled patterns of light and shade on the gravel walk. It is a beautiful day, the Mall is crowded: ladies in voluminous skirts and colorful hats; Irish nurses in bonnets and white aprons, pushing baby carriages; gentlemen in frock coats and top hats; a few young clerks in stylish broadcloth suits; the children in a variety of dress, miniature versions of their parents. It is a decorous crowd; tomorrow – Sunday – is when working people have a holiday and attendance will be even larger.
At the north end of the Mall, on the west side, is the bandstand. Mould has pulled out all the stops for this design. The raised platform is covered by a Moorish-style cupola, dark blue and covered with gilt stars. It is topped by a sculpture of a lyre. The roof is supported by crimson cast-iron columns. The bandstand is unoccupied – the Saturday-afternoon concerts start next month. The annual summer series is so popular – up to forty-five thousand people attend – that the park board has provided extra seating and has taken the unprecedented step of allowing listeners to sit on the grass. Not everyone admires these free concerts. “The barriers and hedges of society for the time being are let down,” sniffs the Times, “unfortunately also a few of its decencies are forgotten.”
The barriers of society are not altogether absent. Across the Mall from the bandstand is a broad concourse where the wealthy park their carriages and, separated from the lower orders by a long wisteria arbor, listen to the music in comfortable isolation. Beside the concourse stands a large one-story building with a swooping tiled roof and deep overhanging eaves. Originally the Ladies Refreshment Stand, it has recently been converted into a restaurant called the Casino.
*An excerpt from Witold Rybczynski – A Clearing in the Distance, pp.317-18 in which a letter of Frederick Law Olmsted, a principal designer of Central Park, is quoted.
NOTE FROM CHRISTOPHER LONDON—How popular and crowded concerts were in 1874 on the Concert Ground! When will this area of the park be made available, again, for use as originally intended in the Greensward plan for Central Park? Present NYC Parks Department policies seem to make the Naumburg Bandshell available mostly on Monday and Tuesday evenings during the summer. The building is physically neglected, on its exterior and interior. But, in 2015 the Central Park Conservancy erected scaffolding to secure the building, and its features. Once studies of its present decay are undertaken, it may begin to restore the Naumburg Bandshell, in the near future. It is hoped, in partnership with the NYC Parks Department, that the Concert Ground’s role, dating to the 19th century, as a place of great beauty and tranquillity in which to enjoy musical concerts in Central Park will be restored too.
FROM E.B. WHITE’S Here is New York, 1949
Another hot night I stop off at the band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind sings, bringing leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. On a bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, “Drink to me only with thine eyes …” In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins-the “Queen Mary” announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. “I leave,” sobs Mary. “And I will pledge with mine,” sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro: they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” It is a magical occasion, and it’s all free.