The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Central Park Zoo
The Greensward plan did not provide for a zoo, although other design competitors had favored the idea. In 1859 August Belmont persuaded the park commissioners to look into the operation of English and European zoological and botanical gardens. That year's annual report called for a zoo to be run by a private group, that would pay rent and charge admission. Shortly after the beginning of the new year, some of the city's wealthiest gentlemen organized the American Zoological and Botanical Society to plan the zoo. Within another few months, the state legislature authorized the board to set apart up to sixty acres in Central Park for a zoological and botanical garden to be run by the new society. [Ch133]

Just as some advocates viewed Central Park as the future rendezvous of the polite world, so some enthusiasts imagined a zoological garden as a place for their socializing -- particularly if it were organized with special privileges for subscribers. The private society's projected zoo would be open to the public but closed to the general public on Sundays. [Ch135]

When the zoological society's plans foundered during the Civil War, the state legislature authorized the park commission to establish a zoo under its own auspices in 1864. Olmsted had recommended in 1860 that the board set aside the relatively level land east of the rectangular Lower Reservoir (between 73rd and 86th streets along Fifth) that Viele had once envisioned as a parade ground and the Greensward plan had designated for a playground. But by 1864 Olmsted and Vaux were insistently opposed to a zoo in the main body of the park, and they drew up a plan to put one at Manhattan Square (the tract of land between 77th and 81st streets and Eighth and Ninth avenues, later the site of the American Museum of Natural History), which the 1864 legislation annexed to Central Park. Delays in grading the surrounding streets slowed progress, and at the end of 1869, only preliminary excavations and a portion of the foundation wall were completed. [Ch139]

As park officials argued about management, location, and organization, a zoo had actually emerged under their noses. Almost from the opening, people had been making gifts to the board, including a strange assortment of historical relics (shells fired at Fort Sumter, for example), art works (a large collection of plaster casts from the late sculptor Thomas Crawford, which were ultimately displayed in the old Mount St. Vincent Chapel), and especially live animals. Olmsted recalled later that most of the first animals received were "pets of children who had died" or left town. If true, New York children kept a rather weird collection of pets in the 1860s, since among the animals presented to the park were a deer, a goose, an alligator, a peacock, a porcupine, a pelican, a prairie wolf, a silver gray fox, and a boa constrictor. By the summer of 1863, the board had set up a wire-enclosed space near the Mall for some of these animals. There, a disabled Civil War veteran looked after five or six deer, three bald eagles, two yellow-tufted cockatoos, an antlered buck, a raccoon, and three monkeys. [Ch1310]

Mounting donations -- more than 250 animals arrived in 1864 and 1865 alone -- gradually built the zoo. In 1865 General William T. Sherman contributed three African Cape buffaloes he had picked up in his march through Georgia. In 1865, the commissioners placed the collection in more permanent quarters at the Arsenal. In warm weather larger animals -- for example, Sherman's buffaloes -- grazed out behind the Arsenal, tied to a willow tree. In 1868 the park authorities fenced in an area east of the Lower Reservoir (the present site of the Metropolitan Museum) for a deer park. Despite continuing complaints about the need for better quarters, the zoo emerged as one of the park's most popular attractions, especially after an 1865 fire destroyed the "happy family" animal exhibit run by America's best-known entertainment impresario, P. T. Barnum, at his American Museum. Such upper-class New Yorkers as George Templeton Strong griped that it "amount[ed] to little" and was arranged "without any system" but conceded that it received "much attention from visitors." [Ch1311]

With the ascension of the Tammany-controlled Sweeny park board in 1870, the zoo received even more attention from park administrators. A few months after taking office, the new commissioners turned over the Arsenal interior to park offices and a burgeoning natural history collection and moved the animals into five newly constructed buildings in the yard of the building. The parks department then began to buy animals rather than just take whatever was left at the doorstep. [Ch1312]


The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art