Secrets of Prospect Park

Text by Andrew Rosenberg, Photographs by Yael Malka

Brooklyn’s prime green space, Prospect Park, receives as many as 10 million visitors in a normal year—which the past year surely was not. But the park remained very much in use over that time, serving as a refuge for New Yorkers eager to escape their homes. Now that NYC has reopened, it’s as lively as ever, its wide-open spaces and tree-lined paths offering picnic spots, sporting activities and natural retreats.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and opened in the 1860s, Prospect Park has had plenty of time for its 585 acres to be explored. Still, you might be surprised at what’s there beyond well-known attractions like the Long Meadow, the bandshell, the skating rink and Smorgasburg. Take a look at what we’ve uncovered.

The places below run (very roughly) from north to south; see the park map at the bottom of the article for their locations.

Endale Arch

Northern section of park
You may move from Grand Army Plaza to the Long Meadow via this recently restored gateway. It’s worth going out of your way to pass through it if you’re anywhere near—after, of course, admiring the stony exterior. The walkway dates back to the opening of the park, and the refurbishment has made it as grand as it must have seemed when visitors used to enter by carriage.

Vale of Cashmere

Vale of Cashmere

Northeast section of the park, down a path from East Drive
As you sit on a bench by the overgrown pond in the peaceful Vale of Cashmere, you might ponder how this sunken treasure came to be—as well as why its name sounds like a lost Led Zeppelin song (it actually comes from a Thomas Moore poem). The Vale began as a pool, garden and play space created by Olmsted and Vaux early on in the park’s life, and the fountain and balustrade were added in the 1890s by the architectural design firm McKim, Mead and White. The surrounding trees made the place less accessible, and it eventually became abandoned. It is now in the midst of rehabilitation, but a walk around the water and along the paths in the nearby forested area—humming with the sound of birds—is as peaceful as can be.

Zucker Natural Exploration Area

Zucker Natural Exploration Area

Northeast section of the park, just south of the Vale of Cashmere
The Vale of Cashmere may no longer have its 1800s playground equipment, but families can take advantage of the unusual features of the nearby Zucker Natural Exploration Area. Hewed out of fallen trees and leftover stumps created by Hurricane Sandy, this natural playground is great for imaginative kids for whom a regular old swing set just won’t do.

Battle Pass Historic Marker

Revolutionary War Sites

The Battle of Brooklyn (or Long Island, as the fight is sometimes known) took place partly on the land that holds Prospect Park. A number of sites in the park honor important moments in the engagement, including the Dongan Oak Marker, where a white oak that indicated the border between Flatbush and Brooklyn stood; the Battle Pass Historic Marker, where Continental Army members fought off the Hessians; and the Maryland Monument, a column attesting to the courage of those in the Maryland 400, whose stand allowed Washington’s forces to safely flee.

Litchfield Villa

Litchfield Villa

Just in from Prospect Park West, between 4th and 5th streets
Up a small hill and slightly obscured in summer by ivy and tree coverage, Litchfield Villa is hidden in plain sight (as is the small, sunken Third Street Playground, just to its side). More important, the fanciful Italianate home, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis back in the 1850s, provides insight into NYC’s architectural progress and is a fascinating contrast to Lefferts Historic House on the east side of the park, a colonial-era building that is eons simpler in structure. Note the villa’s columns, with their agricultural-themed detailing.

Pallas’s Cat at Prospect Park Zoo

450 Flatbush Ave., northeast section of park
The Pallas’s cat, native to Central Asia’s steppes, is the only member of its genus—and is ridiculously cute, as this video can attest. The zoo, no secret place to Brooklyn parents, is one of a few in the States working to breed the cats and preserve the species. While you’re there, check out another under-the-radar feature: bas-reliefs on the buildings, based on stories from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. There are also roaming peacocks that sometimes wander beyond the zoo’s purview.

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Camperdown Elm

Camperdown Elm

Mid-park
Of the 30,000-some trees in Prospect Park, perhaps none stands out as much as the Camperdown Elm. The tree, planted in 1872, has a thick, knobby base that splinters into what look like two separate trunks—each of which sprouts its own fantastical, contorted branches. It’s a plant with personality, like something out of Dr. Seuss. The elm is ringed by a fence with an explanatory sign, letting you know that cables now help support its limbs.

Dog walker and dogs on Center Drive, at foot of Lookout Hill

Lookout Hill

Mid-park
Enter the park at 16th Street (and Prospect Park Southwest), cross West Drive and find the set of steps just off to the right that heads up into the woods. These take you to a series of paths running along the highest point in the park, Lookout Hill. From the ridge, nearly 180 feet above sea level, you can look south to the lake and beyond—with much of South Brooklyn in your sight lines.

Quaker Cemetery

Mid-park
Accessible from a path opposite Lookout Hill’s steps or from the bridle path at the southern end of the Long Meadow ball fields, the Friends Quaker Cemetery predates the construction of Prospect Park. There’s an upper and lower section of burial plots, both of which can only be seen through fencing. Most accounts like to note that Hollywood star Montgomery Clift, who was living in Manhattan before his premature death, is among those buried here.

Wellhouse

Wellhouse

Southwestern section of park, north of the lake
Head in from Vanderbilt Playground toward the lake and take a left on the curving path around the water to reach the squat redbrick Wellhouse, the last building left from Olmsted and Vaux’s initial design. The site that once pumped water to the park’s waterways now serves as a rest station with composting toilets—though you can still see the wall and outline where the old pump was.

Turtles at Prospect Park

Wildlife at Prospect Park Lake

Southern section of park
Going back to those free-range fowl (see Prospect Park Zoo entry above), wildlife abounds in the park, especially around the lake. Bird-watchers circle its shores, binoculars in hand—indeed, there were multiple sightings of bald eagles this past winter. Ducks populate the water and sometimes edge up on the land. And at the southern end of the lake, an inordinate number of turtles sun themselves on the rocks. Think of the whole area as an unofficial annex of the zoo.

Drummer's Grove

Music History and Sites

Bandshell is near 9th Street entrance, other spots mostly in southeast section of park
Celebrate Brooklyn—a summer musical series that began in 1979 with a show by the International Afrikan American Ballet and Sondra Nix—at Prospect Park Bandshell is a popular park draw, but lesser-known music history (and present-day sounds) fills the park. The Drummer’s Grove, at the southeast corner, is a gathering spot for a percussionists’ circle. The Concert Grove, which once served as a setting for performances, features a recently restored Pavilion and nearby statues of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Edvard Grieg and Carl Maria von Weber. Musicians frequently play near the Prospect Park West entrances at 9th Street and Bartel Pritchard Square. And during the pandemic, one band showed up daily to put on concerts at the boathouse.

Peristyle

Peristyle

Southern border of park, on Parkside Avenue
In 1905, McKim, Mead and White added this colonnade to the park. The columned terra-cotta walkway, which has a Guastavino tiled ceiling, is an exemplar of classical design and was originally designated the “Croquet Shelter”—though this was not a part of the park where that garden game was played. You may, however, occasionally see folks doing group fitness activities inside.


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