Here’s another New York City factoid: There is a single block within Midtown Manhattan that, at different points in time, has held a park, a reservoir, an exhibition hall, and a library. It has changed as New York City has changed, with each new element within its borders forming a unique and important facet of the lives of the city’s residents. This is a story of change and rebirth within the heart of New York City. This is the story of Bryant Park.
Named after abolitionist William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878), Bryant Park is located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues between 40th and 42nd Streets in Midtown Manhattan, approximately one block from Times Square. The Main Branch of the New York Public Library is currently located within the park and generally forms the park’s Eastern boundary. However, in the mid-1850s, the future site of Bryant Park held the Croton Distributing Reservoir and an ornate exhibition building called the New York Crystal Palace.
Completed in 1842, the Croton Distributing Reservoir had walls that were purportedly 50 feet high, 25 feet thick, and was built in a vaguely Egyptian style (as “Egyptian style” was understood at the time, of course). In a Manhattan that had the Second Middle Collegiate Church on Lafayette Place as its tallest structure, walking atop the 50-foot walls of the stylish reservoir afforded New Yorkers of the time previously unmatched views of the surrounding area and other points of interest for miles around.
Before continuing, there are a number of notes to make about the Croton Distributing Reservoir. First, while it is often stated that the Second Middle Collegiate Church was lower than the reservoir, it is a challenge to determine if the height comparison was based on the height of the church’s spire against the overall height of the reservoir, or if it was based on the topmost point of the church from which the outside could be seen against the height of the walkways atop the reservoir. Unfortunately, making a concrete determination at this point is difficult—if not impossible—since the Second Middle Collegiate Church (circa 1842) no longer exists. The second point to be made is that the surrounding area gained the name “Reservoir Square” after the Croton Distributing Reservoir was completed. Curiously, a small, unrelated area of the same name exists in the city of Poughkeepsie, NY. (Click here to see it.) Finally, there is an excellent description of the Croton Distributing Reservoir within the pages of The Alienist, author Caleb Carr’s gripping crime novel set in the New York City of the 1890s.
In 1853, the New York Crystal Palace was constructed within Reservoir Square, in what is now the greenery of today’s Bryant Park. It was an iron and glass marvel fashioned after a Greek cross that featured a dome 100 feet in diameter and was largely inspired by the Crystal Palace that existed in Hyde Park, London. (Click here to learn more about the Crystal Palace in London.) It was in the New York Crystal Palace that inventor Elisha Otis first publicly demonstrated a conveyance that we take for granted today: the safety elevator (so called because it does not plummet to the ground if its cable fails). Unfortunately, the spectacular New York Crystal Palace burned down in 1858, leaving nothing of its shining majesty behind.
New York’s attraction to the Croton Distributing Reservoir was short-lived, and in the following decades there were cries for its demolition as an eyesore. Please note that it is not clear how the reservoir went from “Egyptian style” to unwanted eyesore in the eyes of the public, but the fact that it did is beyond any doubt. Demolition of the reservoir was performed in the 1890s, clearing the way for the construction of the main branch of the New York Public Library, the completion of which was in 1911.
Would you like to know more? If so, please click here to see information about a surviving part of the Croton Distributing Reservoir and its link to the New York Public Library.
All the best,
- All images in this post are in the public domain or are modified to render them unsuitable for the purpose of high-quality reproduction.