1902 Annual Report, New York City Department of Parks

The rich history of Prospect Park is both peculiar and fascinating. The area in which it is located was originally forests and hills, the largest of these hills being named “Mount Prospect,” of which the Park would essentially later be named after. Its early ecology included a very rich soil in which was ideal for the growth of trees such as oaks, hickory, chestnuts, red maple, sweet gum, sour gum, tulip, white and green ash, and American elm. With the passing of time and further diversification of the Park’s plant life, various animals entered the area to eat from the vegetation. Soon afterwards, predators of these animals also entered the area, including wolves (Canis lupus), snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), several species of hawks, and, eventually, humans (Homo sapiens.)

As a result of about 200 years of European colonization, the forested area became open pasture. During the American Revolution, the park served as the battleground for the “Battle of Long Island,” in the August of 1776, where American forces were led by soon-to-be first President of the United States, General George Washington. Washington’s army would eventually be forced to retreat, however the battle stood as a symbol that the Continental Army was not going down without a good fight, and would later be known as one of the War’s fiercest encounters. “Today, plaques just north of the zoo commemorate this event, as does the Maryland Monument at the foot of Lookout Hill[1].”

Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection / American history -- 1776

Beginning in 1814, due to the newly invented steam ferry by Robert Fulton, the population of the area of Brooklyn began to grow exponentially. About 20 years later, the Brooklyn was chartered as an official city, and in only 30 years later, it would become the third largest city in the country, only behind Manhattan and Philadelphia, PA. As the population of Brooklyn increased with oncoming European immigrants, more and more of the city was being urbanized. At the same time, in 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had just introduced the term “landscape architecture” into the English language, as they had just finished the creating of Manhattan’s Central Park out of only 800 acres of uneven rock.

The movement of Brooklyn to create a park of its own soon began, led by a wealthy businessman of the time, James Stranahan. In the early 1860s, Stranahan argued that a park in Brooklyn “would become a favorite resort for all classes of our community, enabling thousands to enjoy pure air, with healthful exercise, at all seasons of the year….[2]” Stranahan also wanted to create the park as an attraction to lure more wealthy people into the area and turn the city of Brooklyn into a great metropolitan area. He would become the Park Commission’s first ever President and would oversee the entire creation of Prospect Park from beginning to end.

Originally, Stranahan hired Egbert L Viele, the original Chief Engineer for Central Park, to design the Park. The Park acquired its name from the large hill named “Mount Prospect,” that still passes through the Park today. Viele determined that the total costs of producing the Park would be around $300,000. However, the Civil War struck in 1861, and would delay the Prospect Park production for a few years. After the war, the designs for Prospect Park became much more ambitious, with the thought of making the Park the greatest in the United States. This would result in an increase in budget of more than one million dollars. Calvert Vaux would be brought in by Stranahan to assist Viele, and he would later recruit his good friend and partner in creation of Central Park, Mr. Olmsted. When reviewing Viele’s initial proposal, titled the “1861 Plan for the Improvement of Prospect Park,” “Vaux found the division of the park by Flatbush Avenue problematic, thought that the park should have a lake, and urged for southward expansion beyond the city limits and into the then independent town of Flatbush[3].”

Plate 16: [Bounded by Terrace Place, 11th Avenue, Prospect Avenue, Seeley Street, (Prospect Park) Coney Island Avenue, Parkside Avenue, Ocean Avenue, Albemarle Road, Church Avenue, West Street, Fort Hamilton Avenue and (Greenwood Cemetery) Gravesend Avenue.]

Atlases of New York city. / Atlas of the borough of Brooklyn, city of New York : from actual surveys and official plans by George W. and Walter S. Bromley.

Vaux and Olmsted would draw up a plan that Stranahan would ultimately approve, and the creation of Prospect Park went underway on May 29, 1866. The Park was completed in 1873, and the overall cost of acquiring the Park land was nearly four million dollars, while the total cost of creating the Park was more than five million dollars. Stranahan would be seen as the “Father of Prospect Park,” while Vaux and Olmsted ceased from working on the Park due to the Financial Crisis of 1873.

During World War II, Prospect Park was the host of Manhattan’s defense against aircraft. New York’s late urban planner, the famous Robert Moses, also played a part in the early years of the Park’s formation. After years of endurance, Prospect Park has survived wars, and threats of erosion or destruction. It is now one of the most famous parks of New York City, as it offers so many attractions aside from its natural beauty including the Picnic House, which accommodates outdoor parties, the Prospect Park Zoo, a boathouse, Auboudon Center, and the Spring Cherry Blossoms. The people of New York decided that the boroughs were getting too crowded, and now a wonderful park exists for citizens to relax and take a break from the fast-paced life that faces every New Yorker. This of course is totally free of charge, just the icing on the cake.

[1] “Prospect Park Alliance: Official Website of Prospect Park” – http://www.prospectpark.org/visit/history/timeline

[2] Ibid.

[3] Berenson, Richard J., The Complete Illustrated Guidebook to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

One Response to History

  1. Jason Munshi-South says:

    This section is very good, but you could perhaps describe some of the features detailed in the early plans for the park that were adopted or never came to fruition. Any more information on the original ecology of the area would also be excellent. Have you checked the Welikia website, or searched for papers on the Brooklyn forest?


Leave a Reply