Gondolas on Central Park Lake

Gondolas in Central Park

New York is absolutely abuzz with activity in the summer time, particularly in Central Park. On any given day, there are so many things a person could do that it seems impossible to even know about all of your options. Perhaps that’s why when Liam Daniel Pierce told his friends that he was a gondolier in Central Park, they told him to go jump in The Lake. “When I tell old school New Yorkers about the gondola, they like to tell me that it FLAT OUT does not exist. But there have been gondolas there since the lake was dug out.”

A gondola in Central Park in 1894
A gondola in Central Park in 1894

It’s true. We have gondolas in Central Park. If you head over to the Loeb Boathouse, you can rent one for $45 for a half hour ride and you could find yourself being serenaded to a version of “That’s Amore” with personally customized lyrics.

One of Central Park’s architects was well known for his love of boats. Frederick Law Olmsted, who visited Venice with his sons to broaden their education in landscape architecture, would later bring gondolas to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1898.

Gondolas at the 1898 World's Fair in Chicago
Gondolas at the 1898 World’s Fair in Chicago

“[Olmsted] wanted the lagoons and canals strewn with waterfowl of all kinds and colors and traversed continually by small boats. Not just any boats, however: becoming boats. The subject became an obsession for him. His broad view of landscape architecture included anything that grew, flew, floated, or otherwise entered the scenery he created.” – Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

Central Park gondoliers in 1900
Central Park gondoliers in 1900

However, it was not Olmsted who suggested gondolas for Central Park and one must wonder if Venice or Central Park actually inspired his “becoming boats” in Chicago. Central Park’s Lake was first opened to the public in 1858 (before construction was even completed) and it was opened in the winter for people to ice skate on. Boats were first put on The Lake in 1860 but it wasn’t until 1862 that Central Park received its first gondola. The boat, an authentic Venetian gondola named Maiden City of the Sea was given to the park by park commissioner John A.C. Gray. It was some time till there was a gondolier to regularly charter the vessel but after that, the boat became a park favorite. It received enough usage that by the 1890s, another Venetian gondola replaced the original gift.

Central Park's Venetian Water Festival
Central Park’s Venetian Water Festival

As late as 1936, a “Venetian Water Carnival” was held on a yearly basis in the park. After live music and dancing at the Mall, people would find their way down to The Lake where, according to the Department of Parks, “Venetian peasants” took to brightly lit swan boats and gondolas to sing and play mandolins. The event also included an “Approach of the Doge,” a “Dance of the Nymphs,” a fireworks display, and even featured a 60 piece orchestra.

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The Blockhouse today

Central Park and The War of 1812

While Central Park wasn’t designed until 1857, it’s home to a pristinely preserved relic from America’s most confusing war. Tucked inside the park’s northern border, you can find a blockhouse built to stave off the British in The War of 1812.

Blockhouse Entrance
Blockhouse Entrance

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, America found themselves once again at odds with their former sovereign. Britain, fully engaged in a war with Napoleon Bonaparte of France, had disturbed America’s ability to trade with other European nations in an effort to help their own economy and hurt France’s. They were also capturing sailors on American ships and forcing them to fight in The Napoleonic War on Britain’s side. Meanwhile back in North America, Great Britain attempted to stop the United States’ expansion by working with Native Americans and former slaves to hold mid-western territory. America would then try to seize Canada as their own. Though the Americans were woefully unprepared for a fight, ultimately the Brits had overextended themselves and a treaty was signed. Neither America nor Great Britain could really declare a victory but there was certainly a clear loser in the war. The Native Americans lost significant territory and suffered many casualties.

During the war, New Yorkers build fortification in the New York Harbor assuming the British would attack them from the southern part of Manhattan, closest to where they lived. Instead, an attack came on the Long Island Sound at Stonington, Connecticut. New York responded by adding three blockhouses to the northern part of Manhattan.

Manhattan's fortifications for the War of 1812
Manhattan’s fortifications for the War of 1812

The British did not have time to invade Manhattan though. The war ended months after the attack on Connecticut. All of the other northern blockhouses would eventually disappear. However, Central Park’s designers decided to preserve the one within the park’s border, using it as an architectural accent, a ruin which they covered with vines. Their decision preserved a reminder of our nation’s first war, making it the oldest building in the park.

The Blockhouse covered in vines
The Blockhouse covered in vines

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