Central Park Masonry Arch Restoration Program

American Institute for Conservation, Objects Group, Norfolk, VA, 1995

Author: Mark Rabinowitz

In the 1980’s, the Central Park Conservancy began the project of restoring the 33 masonry arches that are an important functional and decorative component of Central Park. These structures were designed by Calvert Vaux with the assistance of Jacob Wrey Mould to carry the carriage road over cross drives, pedestrian paths, bridal trials and water bodies. The separation of traffic into independent systems for different uses is one of the recognized innovations of the Parks landmark design. Twelve (12) of the masonry arches have been substantially rebuilt under this program. Along with improvements in the adjacent landscapes, the installation of a waterproofing system and the replacement or re-creation of historic fabric have been the primary goals of each restoration. The fact that we have been able to return to what is essentially the same project scope for each arch over a dozen years has provided us with a unique opportunity to learn from our mistakes and refine our restoration designs and methods. In addition the training and development of the Historic Preservation Crews, our in-house work force, has been a major secondary benefit of this process. This paper will describe our restoration designs and improvements and the training program.

The masonry arches, together with the cast-iron and rustic wood bridges and the Park’s decorative and functional architecture, constitute a cohesive collection of Victorian design of unparalleled beauty. Most arches were built during the first construction campaign, between 1859 and 1863. Additional structures were added, (and removed) as the city grew and uses of the park changed. Vaux integrated the vocabulary of Gothic Revival and Rustic styles into the overall landscape conceptions, fulfilling not only the functional needs of the separation of traffic that is one of the innovations of the design of Central Park but providing an architectural counterpoint to the character of the landscape designs. The arches frame views and their masses and traceries establish human scale and presence in the dells and vales of the park. Vaux established a hierarchy of structural types that related both to the arches’ functions; transverse road, carriage drive, bridal trails or pedestrian paths, and to the landscape types, formal, pastoral or picturesque.