Stories from DEP is a collection of feature articles
published in DEP's internal newsletter, Weekly Pipeline.
This article was originally published May 22, 2012.
Holy Moses! How Great Lawn Went From H2O to RBI
It’s spring time and that means it’s time to play ball. For New Yorkers, one of the most popular destinations for baseball and softball is the Great Lawn in Central Park. And it’s no wonder. In addition to its nine ball fields the Great Lawn is a veritable oasis of green grass surrounded by trees and breathtaking views. Lost to memory and all but erased from the landscape, few park visitors know that the Great Lawn was originally the site of a vast 150 million gallon reservoir that received and stored drinking water for the growing and increasingly thirsty city. Simply known as the Receiving Reservoir, the 31-acre body of water was an integral part of New York City’s first publicly-owned and operated drinking water system, supplied by what is now known as the Old Croton Aqueduct.
The Receiving Reservoir occupied precisely seven blocks between 79th and 86th Streets and between 6th and 7th Avenues. At the time of its construction there was no Central Park and the city’s population was concentrated below 14th Street. The reservoir was built to ensure a water supply close to the city in the event that the aqueduct supply was interrupted for inspections and repairs. It also supplemented the water supply during drought and in the summer months when less rain meant less water flowing in the Croton River. Its site on high ground assured that water would continue its downhill flow to the city solely by gravity.
Unlike the grand Distributing Reservoir, designed in the popular Egyptian Revival style, the Receiving Reservoir was simple and practical. Sloped embankment walls formed its rectangular perimeter. Both the outer and inner walls were covered with stone masonry. The walls were planted on top with grass surrounded by a double fence to create a mile long promenade. A large outcropping of bedrock too immense to excavate formed its southwest corner. The height of its walls varied according to the terrain. The highest was 38 feet. Constructed with a southern and northern basin, either basin could be drained for repairs or cleaning without interrupting the water supply. Four gate houses controlled the water flowing out of the reservoir. Like sentries, the gate houses were perched over the reservoir in order to access the greatest depth of water. Anticipating the city’s northward expansion, three of the gate houses controlled water flow to neighborhoods east and west of the reservoir that had not yet been populated. More than a manmade lake, the reservoir was engineered with a flexibility that allowed its operators to respond to future growth, a hallmark of the water supply system that persists today.
When the Croton Aqueduct first flowed into the Receiving Reservoir on June 27, 1842, it was greeted by a 38 gun salute to commemorate its 38 mile journey. Among the spectators were Mayor Robert H. Morris and Governor William H. Seward. Designed to supply a population of 1,750,000 with 20 gallons per day, the aqueduct was expected to be sufficient for many years . However, in less than ten years water consumption far exceeded estimates. Between 1840 and 1850 New York City’s population exploded and consumption, hovering near 80 gallons per capita per day, threatened to outpace supply. Acutely aware that the delivery capacity of the Croton Aqueduct could not keep pace officials committed to building another storage reservoir within the city. In 1862 the City opened a new one billion gallon Receiving Reservoir between 86th and 96th Streets, literally a stone’s throw away. Before construction got started its rectilinear design was reconfigured to imitate a natural lake formation in keeping with the pastoral landscape envisioned by the Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux Greensward Plan for Central Park. When it came to the old reservoir, Olmstead and Vaux had no choice but to incorporate it into their plan. They did so by camouflaging it behind a grove of trees.
After the completion of the Catskill Aqueduct and City Tunnel No. 1 in 1917 the need for the old Central Park Reservoir, diminished. With plans to convert the site into a World War I memorial, flow into the old reservoir was shut off on May 18, 1925. The reservoir was formally transferred to the Department of Parks on November 6, 1929 and emptied the next year.
Plans for the war memorial never materialized. Progressives championed a park with recreational areas while others promoted a formal promenade between the Art Museum on the east and the Natural History Museum on the west. Eventually a plan for a grand lawn, originally put forth by the American Society of Landscape Architects won out. Slowly but surely, work to fill in the reservoir moved forward, utilizing thousands of cubic yards of material excavated from Rockefeller Center and the 8th Avenue subway. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses opened the Great Lawn in 1936. The baseball diamonds were added in the 1950s, also under Moses.
Physical remains of the old Receiving Reservoir are few and can be found only if one knows where to look. The bedrock that forms the edge of Turtle Pond is the same that formed the southwest corner of the reservoir. Remains of the reservoir’s western wall can be found in a stand of trees north of the Delacorte Theater. The most impressive ruin is located along the 86th Street transverse wall where, tucked up against the east end of the Central Park Police Precinct is the northeast corner of the original Receiving Reservoir (pictured). Its sloped stone embankment wall is unmistakable. It’s worth a visit and if time permits, hike up to Belvedere Castle for a bird’s eye view of the Great Lawn; the perfect spot to imagine the Croton Aqueduct water spilling into the reservoir for the first time, and transforming the city forever.