The Greenhouses and Their Enemies

Central Park Greenhouses near McGowan's Pass, circa 1901

Like most late-19th Century improvements to Central Park, the new greenhouses had their foes. Almost as soon as they were announced, captious critics denounced them and called upon civic-minded burghers to firebomb them; or at least, to plot their destruction.

In the case of the greenhouses, this took a long time. They were finally razed in 1937 and replaced with an open-air “conservatory garden” connected by neither steps nor catwalk to the hill and East Drive up above. By the mid-1930s the spoilsports had also torn down The Central Park Casino (replacing it with a playground no one went to). And of course Mount St. Vincent’s Hotel (aka McGown’s Pass Tavern) was also gone by now. That joyously genteel roadhouse; that fabulously baroque pile of carpenter-gothic nonsense; that steady friend to the horseman, to the Sunday carriage-driver, to the gilded youth racing in their sleighs: the bluenoses and “Reform” goo-goos managed to abolish that lovely creation two decades earlier. Probably the only lasting achievement of “Boy Mayor” John Purroy Mitchel, certainly his most memorable (apart from killing himself during flight training a few months after leaving office).

How could anyone hate a greenhouse? you might well ask. With great vitriol! is the answer, as witnessed by a New York Times editorial from March 1898. Just a few snippets:

The Park and the Greenhouse
The proposal to erect a huge greenhouse near McGown’s Pass Tavern in Central Park is inconsiderate, superfluous, and absurd.*** There is no room anywhere in the Park for a greenhouse 250 feet one way and 270 the other by 50 feet high. *** One of the most offensive and injurious erections now in the Park is the towering Summer hotel which occupies a commanding site in the immediate neighborhood of the proposed greenhouses. A proposal for removing that would be much more to the purpose than a proposition to add to it what, in its place and with its surroundings, would necessarily be another monstrosity.

The editorialist then rants that there is no need for greenhouses in Central Park, as someone is about to build a Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Mr. Calvert Vaux, the writer authoritatively insists, would not have approved.

Move on to October 1899. Again in the Times, a letter-writer, “L.P.,” complains about recent erroneous reports that the greenhouses are complete and awaiting visitors ready to “avail themselves of the privilege of seeing the beautiful tropical plants and trees they may contain.”

Partly deceived and partly curious, I went over there two or three days ago, quite a long distance, on my wheel, as far as the Tavern, and then, near the dilapidated remains of the old greenhouse, I inquired the way of a workman and walked down long, steep paths, until at last the glass vision burst upon my sight…

The ground is all plowed up and wet, the greenhouses far from finished. A pleasant “man with a hose” informs our whimsical correspondent that the greenhouses will not be ready before November. “L.P.” finally makes his or her meandering way to the point of the narrative, which is that the flowers in the Park are being neglected while work continues on the mysterious and unpopular greenhouses.

The Parks Department took note of all this sniffiness about the new greenhouses. In their 1901 report they tell us, defensively, that flowers are better than ever:

There were very beautiful floral displays in the parks during the early part of May and June. A number of narcissuses and daffodils were introduced in the fall of 1900, all of which flowered beautifully, forming one continuous mass of flowers on the east side along the drive from Eight-sixth to One Hundred and Second street, and north of McGowan’s Pass Tavern to the bridge near the Harlem Meer, as well as throughout the Ramble and north of the South Drive near Fifty-ninth street…

McGowan’s Pass Tavern, says the Parks Department. Even they weren’t having any of this “McGown’s” nonsense.

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