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A Vanished Vista: the Changing Landscape of Prospect Park's Vale of Cashmere

Mar 23, 2012 10:15 AM | 4 comments

Brooklynology is pleased to welcome guest blogger Garry R. Osgood. Garry is a software developer and web designer, who potters as a recreational historian of things Brooklyn.

In March 1893, Frederick Law Olmsted's friend and colleague Daniel Burnham said of him, "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views." And what better example of this artistry could one find than the vista in the northern reaches of Prospect Park overlooking a glacial kettle, not more than a few minutes' walk from the doorstep of Brooklyn's Central Library.

The Lake. Robert N. Dennis Collection, courtesy of The New York Public Library

The land in the northern end of Prospect Park was shaped by ice age forces. About 17,000 years ago the receding Wisconsin glacier left huge chunks of ice, which slowly melted, causing the soil above to collapse and giving rise to a landscape of dramatic character. Geologists call such formations kettles and in the northern quadrant of the park, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had a beaut: one with a drop along its northern rim of almost sixty feet. To them, the kettle must have been a gift from landscape heaven.

The Children's Shelter. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Olmsted and Vaux had designated this portion of the park as an area for children. They fashioned a small pool with a convoluted shoreline, and along the kettle's  northern rim they erected a rustic arbor overlooking the view.  A playground had been established in the higher ground to the east and a path descended down a series of steps to what was then the Children's Playground Pool. One can only imagine what it must have been like in those early days--because even as the architects were adding their finishing touches, change was on its relentless march.

Fountain, Vale of Cashmere. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Thirty years on, the architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White was placing its stamp upon Grand Army Plaza, erecting granite fencing, neoclassical columns and gazebos  in place of older rustic  shelters. Park Commissioner Frank Squire had the firm re-work the Children's Playground Pool, which was soon ringed with granite balustrades. Frederick MacMonnies donated a fountain, to complete a Beaux-Arts set piece.  The locale had been renamed "The Vale of Cashmere" by the wife of Brooklyn Mayor Alfred C. Chapin. She has been inspired by Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance." The aged Olmsted detested the name, but a younger generation now held sway and so it stuck.


City of New York, Department of Parks Report, 1903.

And the view? Now muted. Trees, non-existent in the late 1860s, became well-rooted on the east and west rims  of the kettle. The distant view had become largely obscured by their crowns, so that the middle-ground, the Vale itself, became the focus of one's attention rather than a panorama of the whole wide park. None of this was terrible. The park grounds were still well-groomed--just to guiding principles of a different order.

Lily pond, Rose Garden near Vale of Cashmere, c. 1900. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Sadly, much of the twentieth century fell hard on the Vale. The 1898 consolidation of Brooklyn into New York City left Brooklyn's premier park as just some other big park in an outer borough.  Interwar graft diverted much money meant for parks. "By the 1930s," the New York Times observed, "generations of Parks Department officials had lived well and got rich by diverting maintenance funds and the park showed the result of half a century of abuse and neglect."

Photograph: © Garry R. Osgood

And so vanished the vista. Not in a year or a decade, but eventually it was gone. A stroller through the arbor's precinct today might, if struck by some curious diligence, push away the leaves and dirt along the shoulder of the path to discover, at regular intervals, plugs of asphalt, barely distinguishable from the surrounding pavement. These seal off the post holes of the now vanished arbor, the only surviving markers of a different kind of beauty.  

Garry R. Osgood.



3/26/2012 12:43:14 PM #

One of the most magical, if horribly neglected, corners of  the Park. Of course that neglect is good for the animal life, especially this time of year as bird migration begins.


3/26/2012 3:26:31 PM #

Thank you for this history!  I wandered into the Vale a number of years ago and spent a wonderful afternoon imagining times gone by.  It remains my favorite part of the park.


4/5/2012 3:15:33 PM #

Would love to see some history on the bridle path


11/26/2012 11:58:12 PM #

When I lived out there years ago, I used to love to sit in the Vale and watch the ducks gliding by the fountain.  It was beautifully restored and a relaxing place to sit.  I was there yesterday and it is completely destroyed.  Trees hacked down,  the benches broken, the pond drained.  Really a depressing sight.