Once upon a time, Calvert Vaux designed a fairy-tale castle - not for a princess, but for a park.
In the Greensward Plan that Vaux created with Frederick Law Olmsted in 1858, the only straight line is a grand promenade: the Mall. The Mall and Bethesda Terrace were designed to open up to a lovely view across the Lake to the Ramble. Through the 1860s, while the Park was under construction, only one manmade structure was visible beyond the Ramble - a firetower perched on the highest point at the southern end of the Park. As work on the Park neared completion, the Board of Commissioners assigned their staff architect, Calvert Vaux, to create a focal point for the view by replacing the firetower with something more ... decorative.
Vaux was trained in the most popular style of his day: Gothic Revival. It was the perfect style for a castle. Viewed in the distance, the Belvedere had a fairy-tale charm. It also gave a delightful old-world touch to the marvel of modern engineering, the Croton Reservoir, in whose still waters it was reflected.
Those who braved the convoluted paths of the Ramble to reach the castle discovered that it wasn’t very spacious. Vaux had designed it at three-quarter scale, to make it look more distant and imposing from the Mall and the Reservoir.
Even at three-quarter scale, the Belvedere was a massive project. During their brief reign in the early 1870s, Boss Tweed’s cronies on the Board of Commissioners scrapped the second half of Vaux’s castle. Instead, they assigned architect Jacob Wrey Mould to design a colorful wooden pavilion. That was far cheaper than the second stone structure Vaux had designed. Even so, Andrew Haswell Green, his frugal hands firmly grasping the financial reins after the Tweed Ring's downfall, grumbled that the Belvedere project was “unnecessarily extravagant.”
In the following decades, the only residents of the fortress were a few brave meteorologists, who were forced by a lack of window panes into uncomfortably close contact with New York’s erratic weather.
By 1901, the trees in the Ramble had grown so high that the Belvedere could no longer be seen from the Mall and Bethesda Terrace. Out of sight, out of mind. When the park was strapped for cash – as it often was - the Belvedere was among the first structures to be slighted.
Mould’s pavilion collapsed to splinters around 1900. In the 1920s, the committee for the Mitchel Memorial blithely proposed razing the castle, which a park commissioner deemed “without value from an artistic standpoint.” By the 1970s, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, vandals were bombarding the Belvedere with spray paint. Its granite retaining walls were falling down. Its windows were boarded up.
Belvedere Castle was refurbished and reopened in 1983. It’s again charmingly reflected in water – now little Turtle Pond, the last remnant of the original Croton Reservoir. Visitors scale its narrow stairs for a sweeping reconnaissance of the Park. But trees still block sight of it from the south, so it’s no longer the happy ending to a view from Bethesda Terrace.
This one is over the door to the Belvedere.
G.K. Chesterton said, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."