Just one avenue over from the neon lights of Times Square, Bryant Park is one of Midtown Manhattan’s top attractions. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it’s surprisingly relaxing for the Concrete Jungle. And while we all love it, not many New Yorkers understand the park’s full story. Here are ten things you didn’t know about Bryant Park:
For the people since the 1600s. As early as 1686, colonial governor Thomas Dongan designated the area of Manhattan now known as Bryant Park as public property.
George Washington walked across it. After the disastrous Battle of Long Island, in which Continental troops lost control of both Long Island and New York City, Washington and his troops fled across the site as they escaped the British army in 1776.
Used to have a reservoir. Where the iconic Carrère and Hastings-designed library stands today was an above-ground reservoir holding 20 million gallons of drinking water for the city of New York from the 1840s until the 1890s. The public promenades on top of the reservoir’s 50-foot walls (designed in the popular Egyptian Revival style) became popular walking routes for many New York residents, including Edgar Allen Poe.
The modern elevator made its debut here. Elevator pioneer Elisha Otis displayed the first elevator equipped with a safety catch during the 1853 Exhibitions of the Industry of All Nations. His elevator, inside the exhibition’s massive glass and steel “Crystal Palace” (which would burn down a few years later) eased major public fears that elevators were unsafe.
Named after an abolitionist. After the Crystal Palace burned down in 1858, the park became a public square, and was the site of deadly race riots during the Civil War. In the 1880s, the city honored longtime New York Evening Post editor and staunch abolitionist William Cullen Bryant by renaming the park.
Fashion Week as we know it began here. In 1993, partly to revitalize the park after decades of neglect, the city hosted a white-tented collection of fashion shows from American designers. What became NYFW was held in the park until 2010, when it relocated to Lincoln Center.
Made with a bed of books. Park renovations timed with a library expansion in the 1980s mean that the entire park rests on top of the New York Public Library’s main stacks.
Had Wi-Fi before your house did. Bryant Park has had free wifi since 2002—the first park to do so in NYC.
Designed with a European flare. You’re not imagining it: Bryant Park is supposed to look like a European city park. Orderly paths and a central fountain contribute to the Old World vibes, as do the London Plane trees, also seen in the Tuileries Gardens.
Largest swathe of green south of Central Park. Sun-seekers, rejoice. Bryant Park is the largest expanse of grass below 59th Street, making it prime real estate for picnics in the summer and, come winter, ice-skating.