Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Evolution of Bowling Green Park in New York City

When the Dutch & later the English settled at the southern tip of Manhattan in the 17th century, a communal pasture existed south of Collect Pond known as the "Flats," which was also where locals gathered to witness public executions, some of the most highly anticipated entertainment events of the period. The Flats would become City Hall Park.  Bowling Green served as the community market place & parade ground. It still survives, in continuous use for almost 400 years.

In 1686, New York Governor Thomas Dongan issued an early city charter officially placing all "waste, vacant, unpatented and unappropriated lands" in municipal care, under the jurisdiction of the Common Council.  These "unappropriated lands" included the outdoor marketplaces & public commons that later became the first city parks. In addition to Bowling Green & City Hall Park, land called the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, served as an open area for the batteries of cannon protecting the city at water's edge. 

These early publicly-owned parks were centers of early New York life. Bowling Green sits at the beginning Broadway, the main trade trail that extended north through Manhattan & the Bronx. Broadway also serves as City Hall Park's western boundary.  

Bowling Green Park became the first officially-sanctioned town park in the British colonies, when it was established as an official park by the Common Council on March 12, 1733. The English fenced in & leased this green plot to several citizens for use as a “bowling green.”  In 1733, the Common Council leased a portion of the parade grounds to 3 prominent neighboring landlords for a peppercorn a year, upon their promise to create a park where the improvements would include a "bowling green" with "walks therein." The surrounding streets were not paved with cobblestones until 1744.

Bowling Green actually was an early public-private partnership — it was leased the property to John Chambers, Peter Bayard, & Peter Jay, who were responsible for improving the park with grass, trees, a bowling green, walks, and a wooden fence "for the Beauty and Ornament of the Said Street as well as for the Recreation & Delight of the Inhabitants of this City."

As the revolutionary spirit began to grow, playing a game of bowls in the park became less important than gathering there to debate British colonial politics. In 1765, New Yorkers protested the Stamp Act at City Hall Park, where a year later local patriots erected the colonies' first wooden "Liberty Pole," an ancient Roman symbol of freedom, blatantly featuring the word "liberty."

Unknown artist. A statue of King George III in Bowling Green being toppled on July 9, 1776

Before the outbreak of hostilities between the mother country and its colonies, a metal statue of King George III astride a horse had been erected in Bowling Green. The gilded lead statue of King George III, commissioned by grateful New York City merchants after the repeal of the Stamp Act, was one of the first statues placed in a colonial city park when it was placed in the center of Bowling Green Park in 1770. In 1771, a surviving wrought iron fence was erected around the irregular oval of the Bowling Green to protect the park & its royal monument, which was destined to fall at the hands of the patriots in July of 1776.  Five days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, horse and rider were dragged from the pedestal and broken to bits. The metal was melted to create, according to one account, 42,000 bullets for the patriots to use against the British.

Popular print of the Statue of George III being toppled in the Bowling Green

Following the Revolution, the remains of the fort facing Bowling Green were demolished in 1790 and part of the rubble used to extend Battery Park to the west. In its place a grand Government House was built, suitable, it was hoped, for a President's House, with a four-columned portico facing across Bowling Green and up Broadway.

Bowling Green in New York City, 1826

David Johnson, Bowling Green in New York City, 1868