View Full Version : 20 gates to Central Park

February 7th, 2003, 08:20 PM

February 2, 2003

Portals to the 19th Century


THERE are 20 gates to Central Park, but most people don't even know they exist. Probably not even the artist Christo, who late last month received permission from the city to swathe the park in 23 miles of billowing saffron-colored fabric for two weeks in February 2005. The project is called "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005."

But what of Central Park's original gates? There is no charge for entering the park, and no turnstiles or gatehouses are visible as you walk through the openings in the low stone wall along its borders. But if you look closely, you will see that some entrances have names carved into the sandstone: Scholars' Gate, Hunters' Gate, Explorers' Gate. The gates of Central Park represent one of the last battles fought by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park's designers, to realize their vision of a pastoral escape from the chaos of a rapidly growing metropolis.

By the early 1860's, the nearly completed park was recognized as a masterpiece of landscape architecture. But some people thought the exemplars of high society who frequented the old park drives in their open carriages should be able to pass through tall, European-style gates, gates that reflected their place in the world. Olmsted, for his part, declared that "an iron railing always means thieves outside or bedlam inside," and he was outraged by this attempt to go against the park's original design.

As with so many New York stories, this one has to do with whom you know, or whom you are married to. The proposal for ornate, French urbanist-style gates at the park's southern entrance had been put forward by Richard M. Hunt, an eminent American architect trained in Paris who was, not insignificantly, the brother-in-law of a wealthy member of the commission that ran the park. Hunt's proposal included an enormous plaza with a decorative fountain, curving stairways and a 50-foot-high Classical-style column. He also envisioned the park as housing many more buildings than originally planned.

Olmsted and Vaux saw this as nothing less than an attack on everything their design was meant to accomplish. The European style symbolized the European monarchy, while the low walls and simplicity of the wilderness inside the park represented democracy and the American republic.

The park's two designers battled Hunt, ultimately blocking approval of his plans. Whether it was an ethical victory or one that was due to Park Comptroller Andrew H. Green's notoriously tightfisted decision-making is an open question. After all, it is a lot cheaper to carve some names into a wall than to build a plaza with a fountain.

But what names! Warriors' Gate and Farmers' Gate at the north end of the park; Artists' Gate and Artisans' Gate at the south end. The names were chosen in 1862 by the park's commissioners to try to represent the people who might be using the park and their professions.

They represent a bygone era, and read almost like the chapter headings in a 19th-century primer. Yet while some seem abstractly poetic, others still resonate with the life inside the walls. Enter at the Children's Gate on Fifth Avenue near 76th Street: there is a playground, and if you wander between this gate and Inventors' Gate at West 72nd Street you will see the statues of Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen. There is the model boat pond to conquer if you can ship aboard a vessel heading out to sea. For the space of one's childhood, perhaps, it is possible to believe in growing up to become an inventor.

Opposite Merchants' Gate at Columbus Circle, it is eerily appropriate to see the new AOL Time Warner Center towering higher every day as a testament to the power of the American corporation. Strangers' Gate at 106th Street and Central Park West marks an entrance opposite the building we thought was a haunted castle when I was growing up in the neighborhood.

In fact, it was a hospital, then a nursing home, and now, after years of neglect, it is being turned into condominiums. But the construction isn't complete, and with pigeons roosting in its four turrets, it still looks like an abandoned castle. A black slate stairway leads into the park at Strangers' Gate, and to enter the park there is to enter a fairy tale: a wilderness welcoming all strangers, as Olmsted and Vaux intended.

Though all the gates were named in the 19th century, most of them didn't receive their lettering until a few years ago. The former parks commissioner, Henry J. Stern, and the Central Park administrator, Doug Blonsky, took on finishing the carving of the names as part of the park's restoration, and the final inscription was completed in December 1999. Mr. Stern felt that since the names were a reminder of the city of nearly 150 years ago, they should not be changed.

Of course, the naming was as imperfect as any democratic endeavor. There is no Clerks' Gate, a common profession at the time. But there is also no Lawyers' Gate, Therapists' Gate or Computer Programmers' Gate. In fact, the gates exist only in the names. That moment of walking through them is as simple and significant as the moment a performer walks from the wings to the stage. An invisible line is crossed, and in that moment is the metamorphosis. A century and a half later there is no architecture, only poetry: Woodman's Gate, Mariners' Gate. The gates are there and not there.

As Vaux put it at the time: "How fine it would be to have no gates."

Rebecca Chace is completing her second novel, “Leaving Rock Harbor.”

February 8th, 2003, 03:59 PM
Olmsted and Vaux never cease to amaze.

January 15th, 2008, 12:00 PM
Merchants' Gate: Columbus Circle
Women's Gate: Central Park West at West 72nd Street
Explorers' Gate: CPW at West 77th Street
Hunters' Gate: CPW at West 81st Street
Mariners' Gate: CPW at West 85th Street
All Saints' Gate: CPW at West 97th Street
Boys' Gate: CPW at West 100th Street
Strangers' Gate: CPW at West 106th Street
Warriors' Gate: Central Park North at Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. (7th Avenue)
Farmers' Gate: CPN at Malcolm X Blvd. (Lenox Ave.)
Pioneers' Gate: Duke Ellington/James Frawley Circle at 5th Avenue
Vanderbilt Gate (only gate named for a person): 5th Ave. at East 106th Street
Girls' Gate: 5th Avenue at East 102nd Street
Woodmen's Gate: 5th Avenue at East 96th Street
Engineers' Gate: 5th Avenue at East 90th Street
Inventors' Gate: 5th Avenue at East 72nd Street
Scholars' Gate: 5th Avenue at East 60th Street
Artists' Gate: Central Park South at 6th Avenue
Artisans' Gate: CPS at 7th Avenue