History of the Park

The 191 acres of land which form the original area of the Park (from 72nd – 125th Street) were undeveloped prior to the Hudson River Railroad, built in 1846 to connect New York City to Albany. The first proposal to convert the riverside precipice into a park was contained in a pamphlet written by William R. Martin, a parks commissioner, in 1865. Riverside Park was acquired and designed in several stages. In 1866, a bill introduced into the Legislature by commissioner Andrew Green was approved, and the first segment of park was acquired through condemnation in 1872. Frederick Law Olmsted prepared the conceptual plan for the new park and road, Riverside Drive. Subsequently, a series of designers set out to devise the new landscape, incorporating Olmsted’s idea of a park with a tree-lined drive curving around the valleys and rock outcroppings and overlooking the river. From 1875 to 1910, architects and horticulturalists such as Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons laid out the stretch of park between 72nd and 125th Streets according to the English gardening ideal, creating the appearance that the Park was an extension of the Hudson River Valley.


With the beginning of the City Beautiful Movement in the early twentieth century, the landscape evolved. The Park began to serve as a repository for monuments and sculptures exalting the city’s heroes, and its border was extended north to 155th Street. F. Stuart Williamson designed the extension with its decorative viaduct, castle-like retaining walls and grand entry ensembles. In 1937, during Robert Moses’ administration, the Park underwent another growth phase, with the addition of 132 acres of land along the entire expanse of the Park. In planning the new area, landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke and architect Clinton Loyd focused on the recreational needs of the city. After more than a half century of development, a park combining nineteenth and twentieth century landscape ideals was created. Its beauty was recognized in 1980, when the section from 72nd to 125th Street was designated a scenic landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.


In 1985 Donald Trump purchased the abandoned Penn Central railyard between 59th and 72nd Streets with the intention of building the city’s tallest skyscraper. Many objections were raised to this plan, but finally in 1991, Trump gained the City’s approval for his project by agreeing to build several smaller buildings and a 21.5 acre public park. Thus, Trump Place and Riverside Park South were born. Designed by Thomas Balsley & Associates, the first of six phases of the new park broke ground in November 1998. In April 2001, Phase I of Riverside Park South, a 7-acre section from 72nd to 68th Street was officially opened to the public. This section of the new park includes a soccer field, basketball courts, handball courts and a recreational pier. Pier I, at 70th Street in the Park, was originally part of the railyard and was reconstructed to its original length of 795 feet, but where it was once wide enough to fit four parallel railroad tracks, it has been narrowed considerably and is now only about 55 feet at its widest part. Most piers are perpendicular to the shore, but Pier I was built at a 55E angle to the shore to facilitate the transfer of rail cars from their tracks to a waiting barge.


Phase II of Riverside Park South stretches along the river from 70th Street down to 65th Street, south of the pier. The design of Phase II includes two plazas, at 66th Street and at 68th Street, and a natural riprap shoreline. The park hosted a big Caribbean-themed celebration and family event as a grand opening for this new section in early June of 2003. Phase III is another waterfront section of the Park that starts at 65th Street and continues down to about 62nd Street. It was opened in August of 2006 to the sound of train whistles, in honor of the site’s former use as a railyard. Phase IV, the southernmost waterfront section of the Park, opened in 2007. One of the unique features of this section is a train locomotive — a literal reminder of the site’s history as a former train yard. No. 25, is a 60-year-old, 95-ton engine that most recently labored on the Brooklyn waterfront. Now in its retirement, it is the centerpiece of a plaza at 62nd Street, and a play destination for young and old alike.