Except for the 4 brutally practical transverse roads, the only straight line in the Greensward plan is the Mall. Vaux and Olmsted thought a grand promenade was essential for a metropolitan park – a place to stroll, to mingle, to see and be seen. The 4 lines of shade trees evoke rows of columns running the length of a church. Bethesda Terrace serves as the apse.
But Vaux and Olmsted’s policy was, “Nature first, second, and third – architecture after a while.” So from the north end of the Mall, all you see is a sweeping view across the Lake to the wilds of the Ramble - the sort of pastoral view Vaux and Olmsted loved. To prevent Bethesda Terrace from blocking that view, it sits at the level of the Lake.. The three grand staircases leading from the Mall down to the Terrace - the work of Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould - are among the most beautiful and memorable architectural features of the Park.
At the center of the Terrace is the one and only piece of sculpture that Vaux and Olmsted planned for the park. It’s the work of Emma Stebbins, who conceived the idea of representing the “angel of the waters.” A Biblical story tells of an angel who occasionally came down to stir the waters of the Pool of Bethesda, near Jerusalem. The first person to step into the pool afterwards was cured of anything that ailed him.
Stebbins put a technological twist on the “healing waters.” By the 1830s, New York was the nation’s largest city, but its limited, disease-ridden water supply was a hazard to life and property. Between 1837 and 1842, the 41-mile Croton Aqueduct was constructed to bring abundant fresh water to the city. It was among the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.
In the 1850s, one of the strongest arguments for situating a park near the center of Manhattan was the fact that it would thereby include the Aqueduct’s impressively large receiving reservoir. When Bethesda Fountain was dedicated in 1873, visitors to the park still strolled across the Bow Bridge and meandered through the Ramble in order to promenade around the walls of the original reservoir. Just north of it was the new reservoir, completed in 1862 and 6 times the size of the old one.
It’s Croton Water that the Angel of the Waters is celebrating. She holds a lily, representing purity. On the pedestal, a pair of children symbolize Purity and Health – both made possible through a plentiful supply of clean water. The third child is Temperance. For decades, drinking strong alcohol had been less hazardous than drinking New York water. The Croton Aqueduct helped make it safe to stay sober. And the fourth child? He’s Peace, and he’s here as wishful thinking. When the fountain was designed, the Civil War was still raging.