Explore some of the secrets and little known facts of New York City's Central Park. (Credit: Guillermo Varela via Flickr (CC BY-SA))
Credit: Meghan Giannotta
A secret spot of the park is now public
For the first time since 1934, Central Park's Hallett Nature Sanctuary - the area of the park that stretches from 60th through 62nd streets and is crowded with overgrown weeds and plants - will be fully open to the public this summer.
Wondering what the area looks like now? You can wander past the rusted gates select days this summer from July 1 through Aug. 31.
It’s grown by a few blocks
Central Park experienced a pretty dramatic growth spurt in 1863. Until then, the park had stopped at 106th street but its designers - Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux - decided to extend it further north to 110th street. They had not included the additional north section of the park in their original design, because they did not think the large rock outcrop and the swamp behind it, which is now the Harlem Meer, could be made beautiful, Kaledin said. "But then they realized the land had no real estate value, so they included it in the park and now it's one of the most beautiful and beloved corners of Central Park."
Credit: Getty Images / Timothy A. Clary
The great lawn was a reservoir
Central Park's 55-acre Great Lawn has hosted concerts by music legends from Simon and Garfunkel to Jay Z and Beyonce, along with countless picnics and Frisbee tosses. As far as lawns go, this one is world famous, but it wasn't part of Olmsted's and Vaux's original design. Until the 1930s, a body of water - the Croton Reservoir - occupied this space. But it was drained and filled with rubble from Rockefeller Center and the 8th Avenue subway, which were both being constructed at the time.
Credit: Tara Conry
There are clues on the lamp posts
But if you ever do lose your sense of direction, just head to the nearest lamp post or "luminaires" as they are called. There are 1,600 throughout the park and each one can shed light on your current whereabouts. On the post, you'll see four numbers. The first two digits tell you the nearest street - for instance, the above lamp post is closest to 83rd - and the second set of numbers will indicate whether you are on the east or west side. Even numbers mean east, odd ones are west.
Credit: Tara Conry
The waterfalls are the park's hidden gems
"The best kept secret is the northern section of the park," Kaledin said. Most visitors don't make it up this far, but those who do will stumble upon some of the park's hidden gems including the waterfalls in the Ravine, part of the 90-acre North Woods. Olmsted and Vaux designed this section of the park including the man-made waterfalls to resemble the Adirondacks.
Credit: Tara Conry
The War of 1812 and NYC's oldest highway
The northern section of the park also contains much history. During the War of 1812, Americans concerned about a British attack on New York built a fortification system here that included Fort Clinton, Nutter’s Battery and Fort Fish. And when the Conservancy was conducting restoration work in this area recently, an archeologist named Richard Hunter uncovered the remnants of a cobblestone highway called Kingsbridge Road, Kaledin said. It's believed to be the oldest highway out of the city.
Everything that grows in Shakespeare's garden pops up in his works
What's more romantic than flowers? How about flowers hand-picked by Shakespeare himself? That's what you'll find in the Shakespeare Garden located on the west side between 79th and 80th streets. Everything that grows in the 4-acre garden has been mentioned in one of the Bard's literary works and you'll find a plaque with the corresponding quote close by. Another little-known fact is there is something in bloom here all 365 days of the year, Kaledin said.
Credit: Tara Conry
A sunken treasure was discovered in the reservoir
The Central Park Reservoir offers breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, but that wasn't always the case. For a period of time, an unsightly seven-foot chain link fence surrounded the 106-acre body of water, and obscured the views. But when scuba divers were given permission to dive into the Reservoir, they discovered, 40-feet below the surface, a chunk of the original cast iron fence that once surrounded it. That discovery inspired the Central Park Conservancy to erect the fence that stands today, which is a replica of the original one. In 1994, the reservoir was renamed the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir to honor the former first lady. She is one of the many celebrities who have exercised on the 1.58-mile running track that surrounds the reservoir.
Credit: Tara Conry
Yes, you can go fishing in Central Park
Few may know that fishing is permitted in Central Park and that the Harlem Meer, located at far north end of the park, is the best place to cast your reel, according to Kaledin. This body of water is home to carp, catfish, bass, pumpkinseed, chain pickerel and black crappie. And between April and October, the nearby Charles A. Dana Discovery Center rents out fishing poles for free with a valid I.D. and provides the bait. (It's actually corn, but we're told the fish love it.) Oh, there is one catch, though. There's a catch-and-release policy in place, so you can't keep whatever you do hook.
Credit: Getty Images / Don Emmert
Strawberry Fields is a tear for Lennon
Of course, everyone knows that the Strawberry Fields section of the park is a tribute to the late musician John Lennon, who was fatally shot on Dec. 8, 1980 near the entrance to his New York City apartment building on West 72nd Street. Since its dedication in 1985, Strawberry Fields, which is named after Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" song, has garnered countless visitors. Many leave flowers, stuffed animals and photos of Lennon on the "Imagine" mosaic, but if they could get a bird's eye view of the park, they would see that Strawberry Fields is strategically shaped like a tear drop. This was done so at the request of Lennon's grieving widow, Yoko Ono Lennon, who worked with the landscape architect, Kaledin said.
Credit: Tara Conry
Whispering on this bench has consequences
There's also a great spot for sharing secrets inside the Shakepeare Garden. Bring a buddy and climb to the top of the garden, where you'll find this unique-looking stone bench. Sit on one end and have your friend sit on the other, then, put your mouth near the bench and whisper a message. Your companion will hear it clear as a bell as the sound travels through the bench. Just make sure no one is sitting in between you, creating interference.
Credit: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
The sheep's meadow was exactly what it sounds like
Today many visitors to Central Park flock to Sheep Meadow to relax on the lawn with a good book, but from 1864 to 1934 this space -- as its name suggests -- was home to an actual flock of sheep. The animals would roam here when not housed inside a nearby Victorian building that would later become the Tavern on the Green restaurant.
The carousel once had a hidden horse
Sure, the carousel in Central Park is cool now, but the original one was said to have been powered by a real four-legged animal. From 1873 to 1921, the "horses" that riders sat on were still wooden, but a live mule or horse hidden beneath the carousel actually made the fake ones move, Kaledin said. "The animals allegedly stopped and started when the operator tapped on the floor," she added. The current carousel, which is the fourth in the park's history, was discovered by the Parks Department abandoned in an old trolley terminal on Coney Island, according to Kaledin. Built in 1908, it is one of the largest in the country.
Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin
A film crew actually requested to 'blow up' a part of the park
There have been dozens of movies filmed in Central Park and the Central Park Conservancy has fielded its fair share of outlandish requests from film producers. According to the Conservancy's Elizabeth Kaledin, the craziest one came from producers of a Vietnam war movie. They asked if they could "blow up" the Ramble - the 38-acre woodland in the middle of the park where over 270 species of birds have been sighted - with real explosives, she said. They allegedly tried to convince the conservancy's leadership to approve the request by telling them the explosions would help turn the soil, but they were turned down.
Credit: moviemomentsAUS via YouTube
A taxi actually drove through the park in 'Die Hard'
In the third "Die Hard" movie - "Die Hard with a Vengeance" - Bruce Willis is seen driving a yellow cab through Central Park with a screaming Samuel L. Jackson in the passenger seat. "They actually drove a taxi through Central Park," Kaledin said of the 1995 film. They drove down the Bridle Path around 72nd Street and jumped the wall onto 59th Street, she said, adding, "This wouldn't happen today."
Credit: Nancy Borowick
There's only one straight path in the park
Since New York City is very grid-like, the designers of Central Park -- Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux -- purposely made the paths and roads inside the park winding to give city dwellers a place where they could wander, said Kaledin. There is only one straight line in whole park and it's the Mall. The quarter-mile stretch, which also happens to be the park's widest pedestrian way, is lined with American Elm trees that create a cathedral-like canopy over the path. "The park's designers saw what the city was going to be like and how badly people would need a place like this."
Credit: Andy Cook
Belvedere Castle went under a major transformation
This is what Central Park's Belvedere Castle looked like before the Central Park Conservancy was created. Rundown and covered with graffiti, it was just one example of the major decline the park experienced during the 1960s and 1970s as it was neglected due to financial woes. Its meadows had turned to dust bowls, its infrastructure was crumbling, and garbage and graffiti covered the park, which had become a hotbed for illegal activity. In 1980, a group of concerned citizens banded together to form the not-for-profit Conservancy, establishing a public-private partnership with the city.
Credit: Sara Cedar Miller / Central Park Conservancy
A Cinderella story
And this is what the castle looks like today.
Credit: Joe Vare via Flickr (CC BY-SA)
The Arsenal has served many purposes
The Arsenal - the medieval-looking building located on the east side of the park at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street - is the headquarters of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation and the Central Park Zoo. But when it was built in the mid-1800s it was used to store munitions for New York State's National Guard. Through the years, it's also served as a police precinct, a weather bureau, the original home of the Museum of Natural History, and a makeshift zoo filled with animals on loan from circus founder P.T. Barnum, according to the Conservancy's website. Kaledin adds, "There are some crazy old photographs of elephants literally roaming around outside of the Arsenal." Of course, this was before the Central Park Zoo opened in 1934.