The Public Realm Central Park
A Naturalistic Park

So you moved down the Mall towards the Belvedere, and you come to the Terrace, the most carefully planned architectural feature of the park, and the symbolic heart of the park, because the detail in this terrace, designed by Vaux and Mould, tells you about what the park is all about.

Central Park was designed as a naturalistic park. It is supposed to feel like you're out in nature, and you're supposed to be able to experience the seasons in New York, so that in every season of the year the park will change. But also the park had another meaning.

In the nineteenth century there was a tremendous amount of antiurban feeling in America. There was this view that the city somehow corrupted people, that the true American spirit was out on the farm and out in nature. Thomas Jefferson was very suspicious of cities and very much in favor of a more agrarian life.

Central Park was designed as this naturalistic environment where urban dwellers could go and commune with nature, and could become better citizens. They would be cleansed of all of the evils of urban life, and by communing with nature they would go back out into the city as better people.

And this is all very evident in the ornamental detail that was chosen for the Bethesda Terrace. There is extraordinary stone carving on the terrace and the stone carving reflects on nature in New York City. You can trace the year in nature in New York through examining the sculptural detail that is designed for the terrace. And it was Jacob Wrey Mould who was responsible for this very naturalistic and extraordinary carving.

It starts with early spring at the base of the terrace with a bird sitting on a nest with eggs, indicating new life in the spring. And then moving up and down the stairs of the terrace you have spring, summer, fall, and winter.

And you have large panels of birds and plants. This is the late spring, early summer. And every one of these plants is identifiable. It is extraordinarily naturalistic. The stone carvers who were responsible for this created some of the great late-nineteenth-century ornamental detail anywhere in America.

You can see the quality of the detail. This reflects a lot of the theories of John Ruskin, who both Vaux and Mould were very influenced by, who believed that the sculptors should be given leeway to use their artistry and freedom to create one-of-a-kind designs, and that every little detail shouldn't be planned by the architects.

And the sequence ends with birds on bare branches. In the fall you see geese migrating, and it creates a wonderful feel for nature. And so that you can experience nature in the park and you can see it exemplified here on the terrace.

The one major piece of sculpture in the park is the Bethesda Fountain, and this fountain also summarizes the ideas of the curative power of the park.

This sculpture, which was designed by Emma Stebbins, a very successful woman sculptor of the second half of the nineteenth century. She designed a sculpture for a fountain that was designed by Calvert Vaux. And it's the angel Bethesda. And in the book of John there is a story of an angel coming down to the Bethesda Fountain in Jerusalem and troubling the water, that is, touching the water and the water moves. And if you touch the water after that you would be cured of all that ailed you.

So this angel here has water bursting out of her feet, and the water pours into a series of fountain basins and then into a very large basin where the water is always in motion, and you can touch the water and be cured. So it symbolizes the curative power of the city. And in fact, it's a very powerful image. A few years ago the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, which is a play that deals with AIDS, has its last scene at the Bethesda Fountain. And the last scene is a very optimistic scene about cure. And this image of the curative power of the fountain was used very, very powerfully there.

If you look in the book of John today you won't find the story of the angel Bethesda. This was a well-known story in the 1870s when this was done. And people would have understood what was being discussed, or what the symbolism was of this sculpture. But in the late nineteenth century the King James Bible was revised, and some passages that were deemed questionable were removed, and among them was this story. So although it was a well-known symbol it disappears from the Bible.