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Belvedere Castle, located in the middle of Central Park at 79th street, is one of the park’s most monumental structures. Its name literally translates to “beautiful view” in Italian. The castle provides an amazing view of the rest of the Park and New York City. According to the Central Park website, the castle sits on “the second highest natural elevation in the park” on a mount called Vista Rock. The architecture was inspired by a combination styles including Gothic and Romanesque. It is a masterfully crafted attraction, with its magnificent stone façade, turret and flag, two wooden pavilions and two balconies.

Intended to be merely a fantasy piece (a “Victorian folly”) for the park, Belvedere Castle was nothing more than a shell of a castle with ornate open window frames and doorways. It was designed by architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead and sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould in 1865.

Calvert Vaux grew up comfortably in England, taking up architectural training in several styles including Gothic. He moved to New York in the 1850s after Andrew Jackson Downing recruited him for a landscape gardening practice. Together with Downing, he worked on projects such as the more formal reconstruction of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. His plans to improve the urban culture culminated in his plans for Central Park. He was the first architect in New York City to advocate apartment houses. Vaux was an intellectual who saw many possibilities within the sect of rural construction, blending together elements of art, nature, and craftsmanship.

Architect Jacob Grey Mould is most famously associated with re-working Olmstead and Vaux’s plans for Morningside Park, the physical barrier between Columbia University and Harlem. His works include Central Park, Bethesda Terrace, the National Academy of Design, the original parts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History building, and the fountain for City Hall Park. Other than his architectural accomplishments, Mould played piano and organ, illustrated books, and translated foreign works into English.

Frederick Law Olmstead was born in 1822 in Hartford, CT. He is given the title of founder of American landscape architecture. Before discovering landscape architecture, he worked as a sailor, farmer, editor, and publicist and studied engineering. Olmstead and Vaux entered a design competition together in 1858 and their landscape plan for Central Park won. Olmstead’s designs personify the ideas he gathered in his travels across England, China, and the American South; he believed all citizens should have access to a common green space, now the idea fundamental to a “public park”.

Belvedere Castle overlooks several other popular attractions such as Turtle Pond (directly below the Castle’s base), the Great Lawn (just to the side of it), and the Delacorte Theater to the left of the balconies, all of which add to the mysterious allure of the castle. Depending on which path you take to get to Belvedere Castle, one might pass the Swedish Cottage and Shakespeare Garden, containing statues inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet.

Turtle Pond is literally a man-made pond where five kinds of turtles permanently reside. The pond was all that was left after the reservoir of the old Croton Water System was filled to become the Great Lawn. It was reconstructed in 1988 and houses other wildlife creatures such as aquatic birds, dragon and damselflies, fish and frogs.

The Great Lawn is 55 acres of lush, green grass, dense foliage, and baseball diamonds. The area was originally the site of the Croton Reservoir and could have been transformed into anything from a WWI memorial to an opera house, but Olmstead and Vaux wanted a “rural retreat” area to blend in with their curved, romantic landscape. It was filled with excavation material from Rockefeller Center and the Eighth Avenue subway. It was used exhaustively for performances in the 60s and 70s for the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Bon Jovi, and the New York Philharmonic, and underwent a well-deserved restoration in 1995.

Delacorte Theater holds several plays in the summer including the popular Shakespeare in the Park performances. A permanent amphitheatre replaced folding chairs and a portable stage thanks to a very generous donation by philanthropist George T. Delacorte.  It officially opened as the summer home of the Public Theater in 1962 with a performance of The Merchant of Venice. The theater is horseshow-shaped and holds more than 1,800 people, claiming more than 100,000 visitors each season. Many famous actors have graced the stage over the years like Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman, and, recently, Al Pacino.

-Laura Ayala

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