Morningside Park (Manhattan)

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Morningside Park
Morningside Park.jpg
Location110th to 123rd Streets in Manhattan, New York City
Coordinates40°48′22″N 73°57′31″W / 40.8062°N 73.9586°W / 40.8062; -73.9586Coordinates: 40°48′22″N 73°57′31″W / 40.8062°N 73.9586°W / 40.8062; -73.9586
Area30 acres (12 ha)
Operated byNew York City Department of Parks and Recreation
Public transit accessSubway: "B" train"C" train to Cathedral Parkway–110th Street or 116th Street
Bus: M3, M4, M7, M10, M11, M116

Morningside Park is a public park in Upper Manhattan, New York City. The 30-acre (12 ha) park is bounded by 110th Street to the south, 123rd Street to the north, Morningside Avenue to the east, and Morningside Drive to the west. It forms the border between the neighborhoods of Harlem to the east and Morningside Heights to the west. Much of the park is adjacent to Columbia University, located on the western border.

Morningside Park is operated by New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Its natural geography contains a cliff of Manhattan schist rock which separates the highlands of Morningside Heights and the lowlands of Harlem. In addition, several rock outcroppings and a man-made ornamental pond and waterfall are located within the park. The park also contains three sculptures, as well as several athletic fields, playgrounds, and an arboretum.

The area near Morningside Park was originally known as "Muscota" by the Lenape Native Americans. The park was first proposed by the Central Park commissioners in 1867, and the city commissioned Central Park's designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to produce a design for the park in 1873. Over the next fourteen years, little progress would occur, despite Jacob Wrey Mould being hired to design new plans in 1880. After Mould died in 1886, Olmsted and Vaux were asked to modify the plans again, and construction was completed in 1895. Monuments were installed between 1900 and 1914, followed by softball diamonds, basketball courts, and playgrounds between the 1930s and 1950s. After Columbia proposed building a gym in the park in 1963, major student protests arose in 1968, resulting in the eventual abandonment of the plan. The excavation site was turned into a waterfall and pond in 1990. An arboretum was added to the park in 1998.


Morningside Park's distinctive cliff of Manhattan schist. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is located atop the cliff, and the park's pond is located at left.


Morningside Park straddles the more-than-100-foot (30 m) cliff between the high terrain of Morningside Heights to the west and the lowlands of Harlem to the east. The cliff was created through fault movement and smoothened during glacial periods.[1]:362 Initially, Manhattan was settled by the Lenape Native Americans,[2]:12 who referred to the area nearby as "Muscota" or "Muscoota", meaning "place of rushes".[3][4][5][6]

Dutch settlers occupied Manhattan in the early 17th century and called the area around Morningside Park, "Vredendal", meaning "peaceful dale".[3] The lowlands to the east was called "Flacken" by the Dutch and later translated in English to "Flats".[7] Initially, the land to the east was not settled due to its marshy topography.[4] It became known as Montagne's (or Montayne's) Flat after Johannes de la Montagne, who in 1658 was among the first settlers of New Harlem; he owned about 200 acres (81 ha) between 109th and 124th Street.[4][6][8]:5 The western boundary of the area was the cliff, while the eastern boundary was a creek that emptied east into the East River.[9] (Part of this creek in modern Central Park, Montayne's Rivulet, was also named after de la Montagne and still exists today.[8]:5[10]) Montagne's Flat was subdivided into lots in 1662, and four years later a new charter for New Harlem was given to the British who occupied British New York.[9] Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the cliff would form a geopolitical boundary between Harlem to the east and the heights to the west.[7]

The western boundary of New Harlem was drawn through the present-day Morningside Park in 1666, running from 74th Street at the East River to 124th Street at the North River (now Hudson River).[4][8]:153–156 To the west of the line was the common lands of British-occupied New York, which was sold to Jacob De Key in 1701.[4][9][11]:175 Following Harman Vandewater's acquisition of part of the De Key farm by 1735,[4][11]:98[12] it was called Vandewater Heights by 1738.[3] Vandewater Heights would then be sold by 1785 to James W. De Peyster.[4][12] There were several disputes over the De Key farm throughout the 18th century, which eventually resulted in the cliffside being named as the farm's eastern boundary.[4] Meanwhile, Montagne's Flat was owned by several families in the 17th and 18th centuries, several of whom also owned slaves, according to censuses taken in 1790, 1800, and 1810.[4] Colonial forces used a road on the land to retreat during the Revolutionary War's Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776.[3][13]

In the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, which laid out a grid system for Manhattan island, little regard was given to the topography of the area.[4][14][15] Shortly afterward, during the War of 1812, several blockhouse fortifications were built in the area. These included Blockhouse No. 1 in what is now Central Park and Blockhouses No. 2, 3, and 4 at present-day Morningside Park.[16] The blockhouses at Morningside Park were located along the cliff and were numbered from north to south: Blockhouse No. 2 at 113th–114th Streets, No. 3 at 121st Street, and No. 4 at 123rd Street.[3][16][17] However, these would not be used in battle, and were left to deteriorate.[9][18] Morningside Heights would remain sparsely developed for the next half-century with the exception of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum and the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum.[17]

Design and construction[edit]

Initial plans[edit]

Morningside Avenue runs along the edge of the park in Harlem

By 1866, the state legislature had given the Central Park commissioners the authority to construct streets on Manhattan's west side from 67th to 155th Streets.[17] As such, in 1867, lead Central Park commissioner Andrew Haswell Green proposed that a park be built in Morningside Heights to avoid the expense of expanding the Manhattan street grid across extremely steep terrain.[1][3][19] Green enclosed a map by John J. Serrell that modified the Commissioners' Plan to this extent.[17][19] The Central Park commissioners passed an act on March 26, 1868, allowing the acquisition of lands for parks, under which 31.238 acres (12.642 ha) was acquired for Morningside Park and 0.018 acres (73 m2) were condemned for $1.33 million.[17][20]

In April 1870, the Central Park commission was dissolved and the City of New York obtained jurisdiction of the property.[3][17] The same September, Department of Public Parks (DPP) chief engineer Montgomery A. Kellogg was asked to create a plan for Morningside Park.[17][21][22] Over the next year, the city would spend $5,500 to conduct surveys of the proposed parkland.[17] Kellogg presented a design for the park in October 1871.[17][23] The New York Times said that the park's name was apt for it would "[possess] a sunny exposure in the early morning hours," and described the planned park as having "handsome walks, flower-beds, jetting fountains, [and] a play-ground" among other things.[17][24] The Times predicted that the planned Morningside Park "will doubtless be a favorite resort for children and invalids."[24] However, Kellogg's plan was rejected by the Board of Commissioners for Public Parks.[3]

In April 1872, the DPP created a committee to discuss possible upgrades to the street to the park's west side, and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who had designed Central Park's Greensward Plan, were commissioned to produce a design for the park.[25] In a September 1872 article, the Times predicted that the construction of Morningside Park and its proximity to Broadway and Central Park would raise property values nearby.[26] Talk of a preliminary study and map started circulating in March 1873.[25] By that September, Olmsted was assigned to work on Morningside Park exclusively, and to that extent, he was dropped from his position as superintendent of other parks. Olmsted and Vaux's plan, called "A Preliminary Report on the Improvement of Morningside Park", was presented to the DPP on October 11, 1873.[25][27][28]:100–108 Due to the limitations of the terrain, the proposed Morningside Park would be designed to emphasize scenery and its proximity to Central Park, and as such, would contain several features including balconies, a planted lagoon, a lawn at the north end of the park, and a retaining wall with stairways.[25][27][28]:100–108[29][30] The work would cost about $816,000.[25][27][28]:109 Five days after the plan was presented, the DPP approved it "in principle".[25]

Beginning of construction[edit]

Morningside Park's play fields

Due to various factors, including work stoppages following the economic depression following the Panic of 1873, construction on Morningside Park stagnated for 14 years.[1][25] Nevertheless, work did start in 1873; according to an annual report published later that year, the walks were being constructed, a sewer and the lagoon were nearly complete, and stonecutters were busy carving the stone for the park's perimeter walls.[25][31] A Times article in April 1875 stated that the city's Department of Public Works was laying roads and sidewalks to the west and east of the park.[32] Furthermore, Olmsted reported in July that when work had been halted the previous October, various parts of the park were under construction such as the sewer, pond, walks, and embankments.[33]

Little work would be performed in the following five years, except for the construction of roads.[33] On June 16, 1880, the Legislature passed a law allowing the city's Department of Public Works to finish the roads, sidewalks, and retaining walls near Morningside Park.[33][34] In addition, that September, the Legislature appointed Jacob Wrey Mould as the new architect of Morningside Park; Mould had previously worked with Olmsted and Vaux in Central Park.[35] Mould submitted a plan for the streets in April 1881, which was projected to cost $234,000. It called for eleven entrances, with two main entrances located at each of the separate portions of 116th Street; granite stairs; a retaining wall at Morningside Drive, the western border, consisting of gneiss and ashlar; overlook bays; and railings of granite and cast-and wrought-iron.[33] The plans were approved in August 1881. Mould's final plans for the western side of the park were submitted in September 1882, and the next month, plans for the northern, eastern, and southern sides of the park were approved.[33]

In January 1883, Julius Munckwitz was asked to create plans for Morningside Park, while Mould was named as Munckwitz's assistant. After Munckwitz's plans were submitted that March, DPP chief engineer Kellogg (who was later promoted to engineer of construction) worked on completing the measurements. Contracts for foundations were awarded in April, while contracts for the western side's entrances and overlooks were awarded to Charles Jones that July. Jones began work on the western border in November 1883 and completed his contract nearly a year later. Meanwhile, in January 1884, Munckwitz started preparing plans for the western steps and entrances, which were approved that October.[33] The Times reported in December 1884 that over $71,000 was needed for the park.[36] Though Munckwitz quit the DPP in mid-1885, he continued working with the project as a consultant.[33]

By February 1885, the stairways on the western border at 110th, 116th, and 120th Streets were being built. That May, Michael McGrath won a contract to build granite steps, brick arches, and other ornamentation at the 110th and 116th Street entrances on the western border and at four intermediate overlook bays.[33][37]:240 The park was still in a rural state, as indicated that same year: according to a Times article, police captured 16 cows illegally grazing in the park, and local dairymen were fined for pasturing their herds there.[38] Following this, the DPP ordered that all signs and other "defacements" be removed from the park site.[37]:271 By mid-1886, several local entities were expressing frustration at the lack of progress at Morningside Park. For instance, in May 1886 and January 1887, the Morningside Park Association formally requested that action be taken to complete the park.[39] Furthermore, after Mould died in 1886, the DPP needed to hire a new architect for Morningside Park.[3] Kellogg submitted new plans for $250,000 worth of park improvements in February 1887, at which point the Times reported that only the 116th Street staircase and part of the retaining wall had been completed over the last fourteen years. These plans were ultimately approved.[40]

Final plans and completion[edit]

In June 1887, the DPP asked Olmsted to create informal plans for Central, Morningside, and Riverside Parks. In response, Olmsted said he would only do so if Vaux was also hired.[39] Ultimately, Olmsted's proposal was voted down,[41]:235 and Kellogg and city parks superintendent Samuel Parsons were instead asked to report on Olmsted and Vaux's original plan.[39] That July, a group of Civil War veterans stayed in the park during the Independence Day weekend, firing cannons and pretending to storm the blockhouse walls.[42][43] Though Parsons and Kellogg presented their proposed changes in August 1887, which they believed were feasible with the available $250,000 appropriation, local property owners asked that the original plan be used instead.[39][41]:212[44] Later that month, the board voted to let Olmsted and Vaux work on the plan.[41]:296[45]

The plan was modified to accommodate changed conditions, such as the construction of an elevated railway station at 116th Street and Eighth Avenue.[1][45] Among other changes, the modified design included a broad path and a thin path traversing the lower portion of the park.[3][45][46] Initially, Olmsted and Vaux had proposed a southeastern entrance plaza, a lagoon, and an exhibition hall; however, the modified design eliminated all of these, while adding a lawn and "Restawhile" recreation structure.[45] Olmsted and Vaux had differing visions for Morningside Park: Olmsted believed that the area should be kept naturalistic, and advocated the removal of all except one east-west path, while Vaux did not believe that paths would negatively affect the park's purpose.[45] The "General Plan for the Improvement of Morningside Park" was approved by the DPP in October 1887,[41]:351–352[45] and a request for $250,000 in bonds was approved by the Board of Estimate the following month.[45]

Path in Morningside Park

In mid-1888, contracts were awarded for earth and rock filling, and for the construction of basins, walls, and stairs in the southern portion of the park. At the time, Vaux suggested widening the roadbed and narrowing the eastern sidewalk of Morningside Drive, on the western side of the park. Further appropriations in September 1888 and March 1889 asked for $50,000 apiece. Subsequently, Vaux's suggestion to modify Morningside Drive was approved in July 1889, as was Kellogg's request for asphalt, concrete, and gravel for pavings.[47][48] That September, the DPP voted to proceed with the completion of stairs and overlooks at Morningside Avenue north of 117th Street, in the same design as those previously built. Stairs and walls were finished that December. Further plans, approved in early 1890, called for the completion of the western entrances and overlooks, as well as the installation of railings and ornamentation.[47][49] By December 1890, the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide reported that the work was almost done. The Guide said of the park, "It is not very wide, but it is some three-quarters of a mile in length. It has hills and dales and green swards, which, with its imposing terraces, make it peculiarly attractive."[50] Morningside Park was even briefly considered for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, though this did not come to pass.[51]

Plans for walls and railings at 110th Street (southern border) and Morningside Drive (western border) were approved in October 1890,[52][53] followed by the awarding of a contract for such in February 1892.[52][54] Because of delays in constructing the steps, two time extensions were awarded in August and October 1891. Meanwhile, pavings were completed in May 1891 and the parapets were finished the following December. By June 1894, parks superintendent Parsons had noted that parts of the park were nearly completed,[52] and that October, contracts were awarded for the paving of sidewalks.[52][55]:322 Construction of the park was completed in 1895.[3] Vaux, who had remained with the project throughout that time as a consultant, drowned that year in Gravesend Bay. Parsons later wrote that "...perhaps Morningside Park was the most consummate piece of art that [Vaux] had ever created."[3][52][56]:58–61

The completion of Morningside Park was concurrent with the development of nearby Morningside Heights; the park's construction had necessarily resulted in the creation of the neighborhood's street grid, and several institutions relocated to the area.[1][57] The first of these included the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, constructed starting in 1892[a] on the site of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum.[57][59] Furthermore, the Bloomingside Asylum moved out of the area in 1888 after protests about the asylum's presence,[57] and three colleges moved to the site: Columbia College (now part of Columbia University), Teachers College, and Barnard College.[60] Other institutions that moved to Morningside Heights following the park's completion included: St. Luke's Hospital, the former Home for Old Men and Aged Couples; St. Luke's Home for Indigent Christian Females; the former Woman's Hospital; Union Theological Seminary; and Eglise de Notre Dame.[57]

Early and mid-20th centuries[edit]

Early 20th century

Morningside Park had a number of sculptures and structures installed after it was completed.[61] In 1900, the statue Lafayette and Washington by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi was installed at the park's eastern border, within the triangle bounded by Manhattan Avenue, Morningside Avenue and 114th Street.[3][62] At the time, only one structure had been built in the park, a wooden shanty for tool storage. In 1901, a "women's cottage and refreshment room" was approved along with a $8,250 appropriation for such,[63] and the year after that, Barney and Chapman proposed an ornate outhouse in the French Gothic style, containing a tower with space for tool storage.[61][62] Ultimately, a simpler one-story restroom structure was erected in 1904, at a site on 114th Street that had originally been the proposed location of the "Restawhile".[64][65] An oval stadium, proposed between 118th and 120th Streets in 1909, was strongly opposed by many residents and neighborhood organizations,[66] and the idea was eventually scrapped.[65] In 1913, Carl Schurz Memorial by Karl Bitter and Henry Bacon was put in the park, followed the next year by Edgar Walter's Seligman (Bear and Faun) Fountain.[3]

Morningside Park quickly started to deteriorate, and complaints of vandalism were recorded as early as 1905.[67] The sidewalks around the park were paved in 1911.[68] When the city proposed to "popularize" Central Park in 1911, local residents complained that Morningside Park had been neglected, was crime-ridden, and had generally declined due to its use as a playground as opposed to a passive-recreation space.[66] New York City parks commissioner Charles B. Stover stated that the park's issues, which included hillside erosion and lawn damage, were because the southern area had not been outfitted with proper drainage.[69] Other issues were caused by a large Independence Day celebration in 1912, the erosion of the cliff near Blockhouse No. 4 in 1913, and the destruction of part of the overhanging cliff rock in 1915.[65] A request for $94,500 toward Morningside Park's renovation was made in 1914,[70] and by 1916, protests had resulted in the reported completion of said renovation.[65] Also in 1914, a fence was installed around part of Morningside Park.[71]

Further controversy developed in the mid-1910s due to the proposed construction of a Catskill Aqueduct pumping station within the park. While a temporary structure had existed in the park since at least the early 1910s,[72] the New York Board of Water Supply began construction of a steel-frame pumping station in January 1916.[73] The plans were unknown to the public at the time, and had not been authorized by either the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York City Board of Aldermen, or the Municipal Art Commission.[72][74] Once the public learned of plans for the structure, several civil engineers and associations started to form opposition to the project.[72][75] The sculptor Gutzon Borglum filed a lawsuit to stop construction of the pump building that February.[76] Shortly afterward, New York Supreme Court justice Edward R. Finch issued an injunction to stop the project temporarily, citing the project's status as an "illegal encroachment".[77] Ultimately, the Board of Water Supply applied for a permanent pumping station,[78] though in July 1916 the Board of Aldermen voted instead to build an underground pump structure.[79]

Improvements to Morningside Park were also conducted from the 1920s through the 1960s. In its annual report of 1929, NYC Parks reported that much of the vegetation had to be replanted because of neglect or vandalism.[80] By the mid-20th century, Morningside Park was perceived as dangerous, though because of its proximity to Harlem, crime in the park was perceived as signs of a racial problem. In 1935 The New York Times reported that Teachers College of Columbia University had posted a sign in a dormitory informing students "it is not safe to enter Morningside Park at any time of the day or night."[43][81] The Times also reported that residents were concerned that "unemployed destitute" individuals posed a danger to the park's safety.[81]

A playground and comfort station was added at 113th/114th Streets on the east side of Morningside Park in November 1935; another proposed polygonal comfort station was apparently not built, and the 113th/114th Streets comfort station was replaced by 1945.[72] A playground at the northeastern corner of Morningside Park was also constructed in 1935; it was expanded with extra equipment in 1941, including numerous athletic courts, a wading pool, exercise structure, swings, slides, and a children's play area.[72][82] Also by 1941, rock outcroppings on the south lawn were removed to make way for softball fields.[72] During this era, a proposal to rename Morningside Park, "Franz Boas Park", was rejected by parks commissioner Robert Moses.[83] The 1904 restroom structure was demolished in 1952, except for its western wall, at which point jagged-topped stone barriers were erected next to paths in the park. Two years later, the bronze railings on the western and southern borders were replaced with iron picket fences. A playground on Morningside Avenue between 116th and 119th Streets was finished in 1956, while sandboxes were installed on the Morningside Drive overlook balconies the next year. The wrought-iron fence on the eastern border was replaced, and the park's hillside restored, in 1962.[72]

1950s and 1960s controversies[edit]

Columbia athletic complex[edit]

Columbia University buildings on Morningside Drive overlooking Morningside Park

In a 1955 piece in the Times, one observer noted, "the park was virtually off-bounds to [Columbia University] students and faculty as ‘too dangerous.’”[84] At the time, parks commissioner Moses and Columbia president Grayson L. Kirk were discussing allowing Columbia to use part of Morningside Park.[85] The plan was approved by the Board of Estimate in December 1955,[85][86] and soon after, Moses and Manhattan borough president Hulan Jack announced that Columbia would build a comfort station/field house, storage building, and athletic complex on a 3.5-acre (1.4 ha) section of the park.[87] The athletic complex contained two fields for softball, three for football, and one for soccer. The complex was opened in May 1957.[88] The arrangement between Columbia and the city stipulated that the university would be the sole user of the complex during weekdays between June and October, while it would be open to the public at other times.[86] The fields soon became popular with neighborhood residents.[89]

More controversial was Columbia's proposal in January 1960 to erect a building to the north of the athletic fields.[43][85] The structure, to be located on a 2-acre (0.81 ha) plot, would have an upper level to be used as a Columbia gym, and a lower level to be used as a community center.[90] The complex was supported by Moses, mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr., and the New York City Council. A 50-year lease was approved in March 1960,[91] signed the August, and accepted by the Board of Estimate.[85] The structure was to cost $9 million, of which alumnus Francis S. Levien donated $1 million in May 1962.[92] Furthermore, in 1961, new lighting was installed in the southern section of Morningside Park to deter crime.[93] However, the project faced some opposition by 1964 due to Columbia's rapid expansion at the time. Some residents denounced the proposed Morningside Park construction as a "land grab", while others protested the proposed gentrification that would accompany such expansion.[94] Subsequently, in March 1964, neighborhood associations and officials toured the park to demonstrate its deteriorated conditions and need for funding, as well as to show that it was safe.[95]

Thomas P. F. Hoving, one of the parks commissioners who succeeded Moses, said in January 1966 that he was "pretty damned upset" about the deal because it would perpetuate segregation.[96] The planned separate east and west entrances were seen as an attempt to circumvent the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then a recent federal law that banned racially segregated facilities. University administration under Grayson Kirk denied that this reflected racial bias and stressed that greater park services would benefit the Harlem community.[97] In March 1966, the university's student council passed a resolution asking the university to reconsider the gym plans,[98] and two months later, bills to ban the gym's construction were introduced in the State Senate and Assembly.[99] That October, Columbia announced it would suspend groundbreaking for the gym till the next year,[100] and by May 1967, university officials were considering changing the plans.[101] Unsatisfied, protesters picketed outside Kirk's home that July,[102] while Harlem officials decried a proposed compromise to build a community swimming pool instead.[103] The Board of Estimate voted to approve the plans anyway in October 1967,[104] and despite further protests that November,[105] construction started in February 1968.[106] At the time, New York Times architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable said, "the real tragedy of the whole Columbia gym affair is that this dubious and even harmful project has been carried out in good faith."[107]

Columbia students and faculty amplified their opposition to the gym project in mid-1968, resulting in major student protests. That April, the faculty of Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation called on Kirk and the trustees to reconsider the gym.[108] Student organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Afro-American Society held "sit-ins", and mayor John Lindsay requested that work be suspended while the protests were ongoing.[109] Students occupied administration and classroom buildings and shut down the university for several weeks.[43][109] The Columbia faculty formed a committee to intervene[110] after a large 2,500-person protest on April 30, which involved a New York City Police Department raid at several buildings.[111] Meanwhile, parks commissioner August Heckscher II said that if Columbia was to drop its plans, he would have a community recreation center built at the site.[112] The same month, $500,000 was allocated for restorations to the park, and the newly Morningside Park Preservation Committee filed a lawsuit alleging the misuse of parkland.[109][113] As a result of the protests, Kirk resigned in August 1968 and was replaced as Columbia president by Andrew W. Cordier.[114] Under the leadership of Cordier, Columbia's trustees studied possible new sites for the gym[115] before voting in March 1969 to cancel the project altogether.[116]

Elementary school[edit]

The south end of the park

At the same time as the Columbia controversy, another dispute arose after the New York State Legislature designated the northwestern corner of Morningside Park for the site of a public elementary school in 1963. Both Mayor Wagner and borough president Edward R. Dudley supported this initiative; Dudley said that the site was "rubbish-strewn and a danger spot for children", even though the Municipal Art Commission argued that the site was located atop the ruins of Blockhouse No. 4.[109][117]

After the City Planning Commission proposed another site several blocks east, neighborhood groups alleged that the plan would further segregation since the mostly-minority population of Harlem would not be able to reach the school.[118] Other neighborhood groups opposed the use of Morningside Park for anything other than recreational use.[119] The City Planning Commission's chairman recommended that the proposed school site at Morningside Park be disapproved, but in February 1964, the Board of Estimate approved the plan anyway and rezoned 1.35 acres (0.55 ha) from parkland to educational use.[120] The structure, known as PS 36/Margaret Douglas Elementary School, was built between 1965 and 1966 and was designed by Frederick G. Frost, Jr. & Associates as a concrete-and-brick educational complex atop a stone base and rock outcroppings. At the time, it was the first school in the city to be designed purely for early elementary grades, serving kindergarten through second grade.[120][121]

Cleanup and current state[edit]

Park entrance

Even by the 1960s, Morningside Park had a reputation for being unsafe and unsanitary.[95] After the Columbia protests ended, Morningside Park was the site of several murders, muggings, and other crimes, furthering its notoriety. Litter lined the park, and it became a frequent homeless hangout.[122] So common were crimes there that it was given the nickname "Muggingside Park".[123] In 1971, after the controversy over the now-canceled Columbia site had subsided, NYC Parks published its "Proposed Rehabilitation of Columbia Gym Site", which called for a playground on the site's eastern edge and new paths on the western side. it was reported that Columbia had agreed to compensate for the demolition that had occurred in the park.[120][124] This resulted in the formation of the West Harlem Coalition for Morningside Park.[120] Focus on Morningside Park and other parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted came in 1972, on the 150th anniversary of his birth.[125] The West Harlem Coalition hired Lawrence Halprin Associates in 1973, but plans for renovating Morningside Park were postponed after the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis.[120] At this point, Huxtable wrote in the Times, "Morningside Park may now be the city’s most crime-ridden, underutilized and dangerous spot."[126] More than a decade after the Columbia gym plan was canceled, the construction fencing remained on the site.[127]

The state's department of parks was in talks with Bond, Ryder and Associates for a “redevelopment design” of Morningside Park by 1978; at the time, the West Harlem Community Organization and Morningside Park Coalition were participating in the redesign process.[120] In 1981, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held two shows that included Morningside Park, including a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, as part of the "Olmsted Project".[128] At that time, Morningside Park was being considered by the LPC for "scenic landmark" status, but this was opposed by residents and activists would rather redesign the park.[120] The same year, Thomas Kiel and other Columbia undergraduates founded the Friends of Morningside Park, which was in support of returning the park to its original design.[127][129]

Pond at the site of the unbuilt Columbia recreation facility

NYC Parks drew up plans for a $12 million restoration of the park between 1987 and 1989. At that point, Columbia had given $250,000 toward the renovation, half of what it had pledged toward the restoration of the site.[127][130] A $5 million first phase started in early 1989 and was conducted by a partnership of Quennell Rothschild Associates and Bond Ryder James.[120] It entailed converting the excavated crater left by the abandoned gymnasium project into a waterfall and ornamental pond,[3][131] which was the first part of the renovation to be completed in 1989.[132] The pond, part of Olmsted and Vaux's original plan, cost $950,000, about three times as much as "standard landscaping" would have cost.[133] The reconstruction, which focused on the park between 110th and 114th Streets, also included installing new playground equipment, planting trees, creating a picnic area, and renovating the sports fields.[3] The 1957 fieldhouse was also redesigned, and a new entrance was installed at 113th Street and Morningside Drive. This renovation was completed in 1993.[120][134] At the time, there was little funding to perform further renovations at the northern part of Morningside Park, and there was just one maintenance worker for the entire park.[134] As a result, the northern part of the park was still overgrown with weeds and frequented by drug addicts.[135]

NYC Parks started a renovation of the 116th Street stairs in July 1996, and completed it two years later at a cost of $650,000.[120] After the statues were refurbished, in 1998 the park renovated the bluestone steps at 116th Street.[136] The same year, construction began on the Dr. Thomas Kiel Arboretum in the northern part of the park, named after a founder and former chairman of the Friends of Morningside Park who had died in 1996.[137] In 1998 and 1999, a group named the Morningside Area Alliance (MAA) received $35,000 in grant funding from the Kaplan Foundation to work on the park. A portion was used to assess what the park needed done most urgently, while a second portion went to reorganizing the largely dismantled Friends volunteer group.[138] The resulting "revitalization plan" suggested additional maintenance and capital improvements, as well as improvements to its character and appearance. In addition, the study found that there was still a prevalent perception of danger, and that additional security measures and better management would be needed for the park.[139] By 2001, Morningside Park's condition had improved somewhat due to the various ongoing reconstruction projects, and it was no longer considered as dangerous an area compared to in the 1970s.[122]

Several stairs and entrances were rebuilt, including at or near 114th, 116th, 120th, and 122nd Streets, and playgrounds to the south of the ballfields and at the park's northeast corner were renovated. The ballfields and northern section's scenery were restored in 2006, and a playground to the north of 116th Street started construction in 2007.[68] This playground was completed in September 2008.[140] Morningside Park was designated a New York City landmark in 2008, decades after similar statuses had been conferred upon Central and Riverside Parks.[141] Since then, additional improvements have taken place within the park. Additional trees were delivered to the park in 2009, including a sequoia tree.[142] Two years later, NYC Parks presented a plan to restore the northern section and add a playground there.[143] The area around Morningside Park, once a desolate area with a reputation for being crime-ridden, has become gentrified in the 2010s.[141]


The park is one of several promoted by Andrew Haswell Green that owes much of its design to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Additions in the 20th century include playgrounds, basketball courts, and softball diamonds.[3]

Recreational features[edit]

The playground at 116th Street, seen from a nearby path

Morningside Park contains several sporting fields. Two baseball fields and a basketball court are located at the southern end of the park. Three additional basketball courts are located near the central portion of Morningside Park. To the north are two basketball courts and four handball courts. There are also children's play structures at 110th, 113th, 116th, and 118th Streets at the bottom of the cliff, as well as a restroom at 123rd Street.[144]

Morningside Dog Run is an enclosed space for dog owners to bring their dogs to play. Primarily wood chips over dirt, there are two fenced-in areas. The larger section has multiple levels, separated by a step. The dog run is most easily accessible from the east at 114th Street and from the west at either 114th or 116th Streets.[145][146] There is also a barbecue area at 121st Street.[146]

The Kiel Arboretum is located in the northern section of the park from 116th to 121st Streets.[137] The design of the arboretum was based on original plans for Central Park sketched by Olmsted and Vaux in 1858. While later abandoned, these arboretum plans involved paths leading through several hundred species of trees and shrubs. The plans re-emerged in the Kiel Arboretum, which was built in 1998, and was started with plantings of the trees from the Magnoliaceae (magnolia) family and shrubs from the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) and Berberidaceae (barberry) families.[137]

Over the years, several playgrounds have been constructed at Morningside Park;[147] as of 2019 there are four playgrounds within the park.[148] The first one, located at the bottom of the stairs at 114th Street, was built in 1903-1904 and destroyed in 1952.[72] A playground in the northeast corner was constructed in 1935 and renovated in 1941;[72][82] it was restored several times more, including in 1992 and 2000.[147] Another playground, built in 1955-1956 at Morningside Avenue between 116th and 119th Streets, contains numerous facilities, such as courts for shuffleboard and basketball, as well as a playground with a wading pool, swings, slides, and a sandbox.[147] A third play area at 113th Street contains play equipment, while a fourth facility is located at 110th Street.[148] In 2008, a new playground opened, replacing part of the play area between 116th and 119th Streets.[140]

Geology and topography[edit]

Seen from atop the cliff

Morningside Park's distinctive natural geography is a rugged cliff of Manhattan schist rock.[1]:362[149] The geology is similar to that of Central Park and contains, from top to bottom: Manhattan schist, metamorphosed sedimentary rock; Lowerre quartzite, a metamorphosed rock; Inwood marble, metamorphosed limestone which overlays the gneiss; and Fordham gneiss, an older deeper layer.[149] There is a large rock formation of Manhattan schist in the park, which is a visible sign of the bedrock below much of lower and northern Manhattan.[150] Rock outcroppings are prevalent in Morningside Park and other nearby parks such as Central, Marcus Garvey, and Riverside Parks.[151] Besides the cliff, one large geological feature that still remains is a glacial groove located at 121st Street,[152][153] which had been noted as early as 1916.[154] Furthermore, the western border of the park between 122nd and 123rd Street is taken up by PS 36, located on a rock dropoff; this occupies the former site of the ruins of Blockhouse No. 4, which was used as a source of stone until the park's creation. A tablet was placed on the site by the Women's Auxiliary of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society in 1904, and part of the cliff was destroyed in 1915.[56]:60–64[153]

A plateau was located on the eastern side of the park. It was mostly demolished during the failed Columbia University gym construction project.[153] Today, the site includes a waterfall and pond, built between 1989 and 1993.[3][131][155] The waterfall is artificial and pumped from the city's water system using motors.[156] Residents and visitors include great blue herons, night herons, red-winged blackbirds, painted turtles, and mallard ducks.[3]

The park also contained several meadows in its early years. These were located at the south end from 110th to 114th Streets; in the central section from 116th to 120th Streets; and at at the northeast corner. These meadows were developed as playgrounds and playing fields in the mid-20th century, and the rock outcroppings were destroyed. Today, playgrounds are located on the central and northern meadows, while the southern meadow is home to fields.[153]

Paths and plantings[edit]

Morningside Park was designed with numerous paths and plantings. The paths usually followed the topography, though there are several locations where stone steps connect paths at different locations. Furthermore, there are stone stairs connecting the two portions of 120th Street, as well as between 116th Street on the west side of the park and 114th Street on the east side.[56]:61, 63[153] The paths were originally made of gravel, concrete, and asphalt, while the stairs were made of bluestone with rockwork edging on the outer portions. Benches, lights, railings, fences, and stone walls were added over the years, while the rockwork edging was replaced. In addition, the northern meadow's paths were rebuilt in 1940-1941, while the paths around PS 36 and the unbuilt Columbia gym were reconfigured or removed in the late 1960s. As part of the construction of the waterfall, the paths at the unbuilt gym site were rebuilt from 1989 to 1993. In addition, some of the stairs have also been renovated over the years.[153]

The plantings in Morningside Park were designed in various stages of the park's. Accounts vary on whether plantings were present before the park was built; in 1871, park engineer Montgomery A. Kellogg called the area a "barren piece of ground",[157] Parsons described the site as having "a considerable amount of native growth", albeit limited mainly to vines, herbs, and shrubs. Further, Parsons stated that due to the poor soil in the original plan of the park, "fine trees" could not grow there.[56]:60–61 By the 1910s, vandalism, erosion, and crowds had caused damage to many of the plantings anyway. As such, major landscaping projects took place in 1929, 1941, 1962, and 2006.[153]


The Lafayette and Washington statue
The Carl Schurz Monument
The Seligman Fountain

There are three sculptures located in Morningside Park.[158][159]

The first is the Lafayette and Washington statue (1900) by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, located at the triangle between Manhattan Avenue, Morningside Avenue, and 114th Street. Though dedicated in 1890, it was not brought to the triangle until 1900.[160][161] The statue commemorates the alliance between the U.S. and France in the American Revolutionary War, and consists of a bronze sculptural group depicting General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, both in uniform and holding hands. The group is located atop a white marble pedestal and contains an associated bronze plaque on a gray granite base. It is an exact replica of a statue in the Place des États-Unis, Paris.[161]

The second is the Carl Schurz Monument (1913), with a statue by Karl Bitter and setting by architect Henry Bacon. It stands on a brick plaza at Morningside Drive and West 116th Street, overlooking the park from its west, though is officially part of the park.[147][162] The statue consists of a bronze depiction of politician Carl Schurz, standing in the middle of an exedra (or semicircular recess) made of granite. The "arms" of the exedra contain reliefs depicting Schurz's stature as a person who fought against slavery and for the better treatment of Native Americans.[161][162] Carved stone reliefs are located below him and are flanked by bronze luminaires. The monument's side and central relief carvings, made in stone, may have been created by Bitter's associates and assistants, while the low granite relief carvings may have been made by the Piccirilli Brothers. The sculpture combines elements of the Archaic Greek and Austrian/Viennese Secessionist styles. The monument was unveiled to the city in 1913 and restored in the 1930s.[161][162]

The third is the Seligman (Bear and Faun) fountain (1914) by Edgar Walter. It was dedicated in memory of Alfred L. Seligman, the National Highways Protective Association's vice president.[147][163] Plans for the fountain's dedication in Morningside Park were revealed in 1911,[164] predating Seligman's death in a traffic accident in 1912.[147] The 7-foot-tall (2.1 m) fountain contains a depiction of a grotto, above which a bear hangs. Below the grotto, a faun is depicted playing the pipes. The fountain contains a drinking fountain and a dogs' drinking basin.[147][163] It was restored in 1997.[147]

Bordering streets[edit]

View of the retaining wall

Morningside Park is mostly linear in shape, though the northern portion of the park curves westward. All of the sidewalks were asphalt until 1911. Today, all are made of Belgian blocks and concrete, and contain trees.[68]

The western border of the park is formed by Morningside Drive, which is on top of a large retaining wall that drops sharply to the east. The retaining wall contains gneiss piers topped with granite, as well as a parapet fence consisting of granite posts and an iron picket fence.[68] Originally, this section contained bronze railings, as well, though these were replaced in 1954.[72] At each of the intersections with Morningside Drive, except for the intersections of 113th and 114th Streets, there are "overlook bays", balconies that slightly overhang the park below. The bays at 111th and 119th Street contain openings, originally used as rain shelters. All of the bays are polygonal shaped, except for the one at 116th Street, which is round and contains the Carl Schurz Monument. From this side, there are entrances at 112th, 113th, 114th, 116th, 118th, 120th, and 122nd Streets, with granite and gneiss stairways leading from the bays at the 116th through 120th Street entrances. A security booth at the 116th Street entrance was installed in 2006.[68]

The southern border of the park is formed by West 110th Street, also known as Cathedral Parkway. There is an entrance to the park from the intersection of 110th Street and Morningside Drive, within an overlook bay that contains asphalt paving; this leads to a stone stairway. Another entrance exists at the intersection with Manhattan Avenue, on the east, and consists of Belgian blocks and hexagonal asphalt tiles.[68]

The eastern border of the park is formed by Manhattan Avenue between 110th and 113th Streets, and by Morningside Avenue between 113th and 123rd Streets. On the western sidewalk is a wrought-iron picket fence with stone piers, which was originally installed in 1915 and replaced in 1962. A group of 17 London plane trees are located next to the Lafayette and Washington statue.[68]

The northern border of the park is formed by West 123rd Street. On the southern sidewalk is a wrought-iron picket fence with stone piers, which was originally installed in 1915 and replaced in 1962.[68]


Morningside Park is owned by New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.[3] It is managed by Friends of Morningside Park, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to support returning the park to its original design.[129][165] Since its founding, the group has rehabilitated the park through volunteer work.[43] The organization briefly fell apart between 1996 and 1998 following the death of founder Thomas Kiel.[122] In 2001, around 14 major public events were organized by volunteers in the park, including festivals, concerts, and various holiday celebrations.[138] By 2005, Friends of Morningside Park had approximately 1,000 volunteers.[43] The organization receives a moderate amount of money compared to similar nonprofits that maintain New York City public parks. As of 2013, it received about $50,000 a year in private donations, and the largest-ever single donation was $10,000.[166]

The Central Park Conservancy, which maintains nearby Central Park, also provides maintenance support and staff training programs for other public parks in New York City, including Morningside Park.[167]:45–46 In 2005, the Conservancy created the Historic Harlem Parks initiative, providing horticultural and maintenance support and mentoring in Morningside Park, St. Nicholas Park, Jackie Robinson Park, and Marcus Garvey Park.[167]:45[168]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ However, the Times has said that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is still not complete.[58]


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