Today, the Parks Department is trying to protect the grass by limiting the Great Lawn's use. The issue has been taken to court by groups seeking to use the lawn for large events, but the Parks Department has usually won.
Although integral to the lives of many New Yorkers and definitive in many ways of Central Park, the Great Lawn was not included in the Greensward Plan; it is the single largest landscape feature in the Park that was not part of Olmsted and Vaux's original design. One hundred and fifty years ago it was a 33-acre rectangular receiving reservoir holding 180 million gallons of drinking water piped in from the Croton River in Westchester County. The reservoir predated Central Park and required Olmsted and Vaux to design this pastoral and naturalistic landscape around its hard-edged rectangular shape.
The Croton Reservoir (completed in 1842) was adjacent to a receiving reservoir, irregular in outline, which is now named the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. A 1917 plan for a new water tunnel retained the original reservoir — but rendered the Croton Reservoir obsolete. An extensive public debate over its use ensued, with suggestions ranging from sunken gardens to sports stadiums. Starting in 1931, the City filled in the Croton Reservoir using, among other material, stones from the building of Rockefeller Center. A 13-acre oval lawn took the Reservoir's place with a small pond at its southern end and two playgrounds at the northern end. In the 1950s eight ballfields were added. Within time the Great Lawn, as it was called, became the venue for some of the City's biggest outdoor events including the Paul Simon concert, Disney's June 1995 preview of the movie "Pocahontas," and a papal mass in October 1995 with Pope John Paul II.
Heavy use of this popular and central site took its toll. By the 1970s the Great Lawn was called the "Great Dustbowl," with winds whipping up dry dirt from its compacted surface. A major renovation in 1996-98 rescued the Great Lawn from New York's tough love. Working within the engineering constraints of the old Croton Reservoir, which had been filled but not removed, the Central Park Conservancy completed a complex renovation. Much of the hard work is out of sight: new drainage and irrigation systems, specially engineered soil and grass. But the gardeners assigned to take care of the new Great Lawn are evidence of a commitment to keep it great.
Today there are benches everywhere for spectators — of both people and sports. At the northeast corner, under a canopy of London plane trees, are four half-courts for basketball and two volleyball courts; an 1/8 mile track surrounds the courts.
16 August 1930, New York Times, pg. 6:
But park-lovers are looking forward to the time when Central Park will again come into its own with the addition of a great lawn such as has never been possible until now, and this is what the landscape architects have foreseen and what their plan provides for.
27 February 1931, New York Times, "Central Park Plans," pg. 20:
The Society of Landscape Architects is, in effect, adding a greatly needed stretch of meadow-like lawn and making it as useful to the public as is the great lawn in Prospect Park.
4 March 1931, New York Times, pg. 29:
LAWN PLAN CHOSEN
FOR PARK RESERVOIR
Plans for the disposition of the great tract of land in the heart of Central Park left by draining the lower reservoir have finally been settled, it was ascertained yesterday, the Park Department having adopted a modification of the scheme put forward by the New York chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
By this decision the barren area which now is a basin of mud, huge rocks and waste land, enclosed by the thick stone walls which held in the waters of the reservoir, will become a garden spot, possessing both beauty and utility, fitting harmoniously into the scheme of the park as a whole.
The main feature of the reservoir area will be the Great Lawn, an oval tract about 1,150 feet long and 170 feet wide, with its longest dimension running north and south. As the name implies, it is to be a green meadow, not a playground, as suggested by some. It will not be sunken far below the level of the surrounding land, as originally planned by the landscaping architects, this scheme having been abandoned because of the expense.
In the centre, the lawn will be only 2 feet below the rest of the park land, and will slope gradually down from the north and to the southern extremity, a drop of 16 feet in all. Running around the entire oval tract will be a pedestrian path, 20 feet wide, paved with asphalt or cement.