The Ramble and Lake, Central Park

The Ramble and Lake, Central Park

The Ramble and Lake in Central Park together form an inseparable central feature of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's "Greensward" plan (1857) to provide a Central Park for New York City. The Ramble was intended as a woodland walk through highly varied topography, a "wild garden" away from carriage drives and bridle paths, to be wandered in, or to be viewed as a "natural" landscape from the formal lakefront setting of Bethesda Terrace ("illustration below") or from rented rowboats on the Lake. The 38 acre Ramble embraces the deep coves of the north shore of the Lake, excavated between bands of bedrock; it offers dense naturalistic planting, rocky outcrops of glacially-scarred Manhattan bedrock, small open glades and an artificial stream, The Gill, that empties through the Azalea Pond, then down a cascade into the Lake. Its ground rises northwards towards Vista Rock, crowned by Belvedere Castle, a lookout and eye-catching folly.

The formed landscape

The Park's most varied and intricately-planted landscape was planted with native trees— tupelo ("Nyssa sylvatica"), American sycamore, white, red, black, scarlet and willow oaks, Hackberry and "Liriodendron", — together with some American trees never native to the area, such as Kentucky coffee tree, Yellowwood and Cucumber magnolia, and a few exotics, such as "Phellodendron" and "Sophora". [A census of The Rambles' trees, taken by Bruce Kelly, Philip Winslow and James Marston Fitch, 1979, found 6000 trees, including sixty specimen trees of landscape value. (Rogers 1987:119).] Smaller natives include Sassafras. Aggressively self-seeding Black cherry and Black locust have come to dominate the Ramble. [Edward Sibley Barnard, "New York City Trees: a Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area" (2002:34)]

The twenty-acre Lake unified what Calvert Vaux called the "irregular disconnected featureless conglomeration of ground". [Quoted in Rosenzweig and Blackmar 1992:132] It was excavated, entirely by hand, from unprepossessing swampy ground transected by drainage ditches and ramshackle stone walls. [Rosenzweig and Blackmar 1992:134 photograph.] Through the low-lying site the Sawkill flowed sluggishly from sources under the present American Museum of Natural History and in the prospective park south of Seneca Village, originally exiting the park under Fifth Avenue about 74th Street, where Conservatory Water lies today, on its way to the East River. [Egbert Viele's 1856 survey forms the "Pre_Park Site, 1857" map in Rogers 1987:14-15.] To create the Lake the outlet was dammed with a broad, curving earth dam, which carries the East Carriage Drive past the Kerbs Boathouse (1954), at the end of the Lake's eastern arm, so subtly that few visitors are aware of the landform's function. After six month's intensive effort, the Lake was ready in the winter of 1858 for its first season of ice-skating. Its center was seven feet deep, with terraced shorelines to lower levels for skaters' safety. [Rosenzweig and Blackmar 1992:164-65.] Originally, in other seasons a tour boat picked up and dropped visitors at five landings with rustic shelters: four have been rebuilt and rowboats are rented at the boathouse.

The Hernshead

Overlooking the Lake at the rocky promontory that Olmsted called The Hernshead [A "herne" is a heron; the similarity of the rock outcropping to a heron's head may lie in the eye of the beholder.] stands the Ladies' Pavilion, a wrought iron shelter in a playful gothic style. It provides a classic atmospheric view, changing with light and weather, of Midtown skyscrapers rising from a belt of trees, with the Lake as foreground. The Ladies' Pavilion was built, probably to designs of Calvert Vaux, to shelter ladies waiting to change streetcars at the Columbus Circle corner of the park. When the "Maine Monument" was installed on its site, the cast-iron elements were disassembled and stored, to be re-erected on the Hernshead in the 1950s. The Ladies' Pavilion was almost lost to rust and vandalism when it was restored in 1979 as a project funded by Arthur Ross [The Arthur Ross Pinetum stands northwest of the Great Lawn's oval.] , one of the first projects in the restoration of Central Park.


The Ramble is one of the major centers of bird-watching in Central Park: 230 species of birds have been spotted over the years, including more than twenty species of warblers that pass through during spring and fall migration in April and October. [ [ Central Park Conservancy: The Ramble] ] .

A misguided sense that the plantings of the Ramble were progressing in some way towards a "climax forest" and should be left alone, coupled with heavy urban use, has degraded the landscape, which has been partially renovated more than once. The current on-going renovation of The Ramble and the shorelines of the Lake began again in 2006. The present goal of the woodland restoration and management program is gradually to restore the undergrowth of a healthy forest floor and to control off-path trampling and bike-riding.

The Ramble as a gay icon

Since at least the early 20th century, the seclusion of the Ramble has been used for private homosexual encounters. In the 1920s, the lawn at the north end was referred to as the "fruited plain" and in the 1950s and 1960s the Ramble was feared by many as a haven for "anti-social persons". [cite book|title=The Park and the People|url=|author= Roy Rosenzweig, Elizabeth Blackmar] In the early 1960s, under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., the parks department proposed building a senior center in the ramble with the hope of curbing gay encounters and anti-gay assaults. [cite news|title=Taking Back the Park from Crime|publisher=The Gotham Gazette|author=Julia Vitullo-Martin|date=July 21, 2003|url=] Today, the Ramble's strong reputation for cruising for sex has given way somewhat to nature walks and environmentalism. However, some in the gay community still consider the Ramble to be "ground zero for outdoor gay sex", enjoying the "retro feel" of sneaking off into the woods. [cite web|title=Springtime In Central Park|author=Richard Rothstein|publisher=QueerSighted|url=|date=April 26, 2007] A tradition much older than Christopher Street and Fire Island, the Ramble continues to be a gay icon even in the more open environment of modern New York.

Restoration project, 2007-09

The Lake was the last of Central Park's bodies of water to be renovated by the Central Park Conservancy, in a project to enhance both its ecological ["Its increasing significance as a wildlife habitat" was noted on the Conservancy's on-site information boards.] and scenic aspects. In the summer of 2007 the first phase of a restoration of the Lake and its shoreline plantings commenced, with replanting using native shrubs and understory trees around the northern end of the Lake, from Bank Rock Bay— a narrow cove in the northwest corner that had become a silted-up algae-covered stand of aggressively invasive "Phragmites" reeds— to Bow Bridge, which will receive replicas of its four original cast-iron vases towards the end of the project. In the earliest stages, invasive non-native plants like Japanese knotweed were eradicated, the slopes were regraded with added humus and protected with landscaping burlap to stabilize the slopes while root systems become established and leaf litter develops.

Bank Rock Bridge across the mouth of the cove will be recreated in its original materials— carved oak with cast-iron panels and pine decking— following Calvert Vaux's original design of 1859-60. [ [ The former replacement bridge with utilitarian spiked steel pipe handrails] .] The cascade, where the Gill empties into the lake, will be reconstructed to approximate its dramatic original form, inspired by paintings of Asher B. Durand. Sections of the Lake will be dredged of accumulated silt— topsoil that has washed off the surrounding slopes— and the island formerly in the lake, which gradually eroded below water level, was reconstructed in the summer of 2007 with rugged boulders along its shoreline, graded wetland areas and submerged planting shelves for water-loving native plants, like Pickerel weed. [ [ Central Park Conservancy press release] ] Restoration of further sections of the Lake's shoreline landscapes will be undertaken once this first segment is complete.

The first renovated sections were opened to visitors in April 2008.



*Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow et al., 1987. "Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan" (MIT Press for the Central Park Conservancy).
*Rosenzweig, Roy and Elizabeth Blackmar, 1992. "The Park and the People" (Cornell University Press)

External links

* [ Central Park Conservancy: The Ramble]
* [ Central Park Conservancy: The Lake]

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