Central Park Plaza - 1890


A May day at the Central Park Plaza. Illustration drawn by Hughson Hawley for the Harper's Weekly, May 17, 1890 (see text below). Street Scene looking south on Fifth Avenue. The Old Plaza Hotel, on the right, opened its doors later on October 1, 1890. In the distance is the tower of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. This square was named Grand Army Plaza in 1923.


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Text (below) accompanying the illustration of the Central Park Plaza in Harper's Weekly, May 17, 1890. Title: MAY DAYS AT THE PLAZA.

"City life has its various currents, possessing distinctive characters. The stream of humanity which flows on either side of the New York Post-office is composed of those who for the most part are earnestly engaged in bread-winning or money-getting. The hum of traffic dominates. Almost within a stone's-throw of the great business buildings in the locality are homes of squalid poverty that contribute more or less to the motley throng of people in the busy streets. The head-quarters of the municipal government is there, and the Tombs prison is close at hand. It is a centre sui generis. If the spot in the metropolis that presents the particular and greatest contrast with this be sought for, it is to be found in the Plaza at the southeast entrance to Central Park, a spirited and lifelike picture of which, by Mr. Hawley, appears in the present issue of the WEEKLY. The scene here differs diametrically from the former in everything save a certain activity, and even that is of an opposite nature. The ruling motive in this case is recreation, and there are no homes of squalid poverty in the vicinity, but, on the contrary, those of notable wealth. May Fair is all about it.

The Plaza lies before the principal entrance of the chief pleasure-ground of New York, and there is no time in the year perhaps in which it presents a more interesting appearance than it does in these pleasant May days, when the weather specially invites the populace out-of-doors, and before our American substitute for "the quality '' seeks the country and the shore. Through this ganglion, as it were, of the nervous system of the city course vehicles in infinite variety to and from the Park drive. Equestrians, who seem yearly to grow more numerous, of both sexes appear with frequency. Nor are pedestrians lacking on the sidewalks and crossings. These are for the most part making their way to and from the Park walks.

The Plaza is to New York largely what Hyde Park Corner is to London, and the entrances to the Bois de Boulogne, the Thiergarten, and the Prater are respectively to Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. It is suggestive, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another, of each and all of these and also of the fact that the distinguishing points of difference in the great cities of civilization are becoming less and less marked as time passes. Dissimilarities in the vehicles. dress, and general appearance of the well-to-do classes are all but obliterated, and on the chief streets of the capitals of the world even the marks of a distinctive national architecture are rapidly disappearing. A glance at the Plaza reveals omnibuses that might be seen passing Apsley House or on the Paris boulevards, and coaches, victorias, coupés, dog-carts, etc., that are now peculiar to no special locality. The Hansom cab, wh1ch was exclusively English five or six years ago and a curiosity in New York, has now become common. The white-aproned and white-capped nurse-maids with their baby-carriages on the Plaza, might have been set down there from almost any European city; the equestrians might have been translated from Rotten Row; and the horses disfigured by amputated tails bear sad testimony to the fact that the brainless fad responsible for the deformity may prevail against the sense of the ridiculous and regard for looks as well in one part of the world as in another, and is no index of locality.

The authorities did well when they secured this area from private ownership, and made provision for the amply demonstrated public need at the point where the finest avenue of the city and the best residence districts find their chief access to the Park. The "Circle" [Columbus Circle] at the Boulevard and Eighth Avenue entrance has been similarly and wisely set apart, and is correspondingly useful. But the Plaza is the more important spot, and will hold its supremacy indefinitely. The immediate architectural surroundings of the Plaza are in a very irregular and unsatisfactory state, and present a marked contrast to what might be properly expected there, and what will doubtless be seen in a comparatively short time. The new hotel to be opened in the fall [Plaza Hotel], which occupies all the west side, is well enough, and consonant with the dignity of its location; but on the east side, on Fifth Avenue, yet remains a string of low wooden houses, or sheds, that can only be tolerated in view of the appropriate buildings that must soon rise on their site. The value of the property precludes the erection of anything but structures suitable to the place and in accord with the residence neighborhood in the immediate vicinity. In this are the finest dwellings in the city, including those of the Vanderbilts and others. Upon certain vacant lots near by residences are in project that will confirm the character of the district outlined, and render the Plaza a more notable centre even than it is now.

This part of New York in fact is but just taking on its permanent shape. The east side of Fifth Avenue fronting on the Park from the Plaza north is gradually putting forth unmistakable evidence of what that part of the avenue, whose houses are particularly favored as to frontage, will become. The vacant spaces are constantly growing less and the line of handsome establishments more continuous. When the unfinished condition of things at and near the Plaza, now somewhat unpleasant to the eye, gives place to one of completeness, another of the chapters of the growth of the city may be considered closed in a very satisfactory way."


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Copyright © Geographic Guide - New York City in the 19th Century.










Central Park Plaza - 1890






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