From Grand Army Plaza to the Great Lawn, Belvedere Castle to the Shakespeare Garden, Sheep Meadow to the Rambles, few know Central Park as well as Sara Cedar Miller, who has worked as the official historian and photographer for the Central Park Conservancy for the past 19 years. “There is so much of the park that people just don’t know about,” she marvels. And Miller’s new 256-page tome, “Central Park, An American Masterpiece,” proves it.
Accompanied by a rich historical account of the park’s past, Miller’s photos — 60 of which will be exhibited at the Hermès boutique on Madison Avenue — turn from pretty to poignant. Images of wheat carved into a set of stone steps during the Civil War aren’t mere decoration. The motif pays homage to a crop that made New York City wealthy and symbolized peace and plenty. An idyllic view of the Cascades points to landscape paintings that inspired park designers Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.
“If I could time-travel, I’d like to visit the 1860s,” says Miller. “The park was just about to be finished and I have a lot of questions about that time. There are conversations I’d love to overhear about the planning of Bethesda Terrace.”
Certainly, Miller would like to know the story behind a mysterious cluster of five-pointed stars she recently found carved into the back of a panel on the Western side of the Terrace. Miller imagines the symbol to be the work of “a renegade stone carver,” making his mark during the Civil War. But the meaning of his graffiti has since been lost.
Of course, the park is constantly changing, and contemporary mysteries unfold there every day.
“One day in the winter, someone put a pair of red wool socks on one of the nymphs dancing around the Untermeyer Fountain,” says Miller.
Another day, she came across a tiny nest that robins had built, tucked between the statues of Romeo and Juliet. At Strawberry Fields, she often finds the unusual offerings left behind by John Lennon fans, including a box of strawberries fresh from the deli.
As a historian, however, Miller’s job is to teach those who love the Park not only about its natural beauty, but its unnatural origins. “People think that they just put up a wall around the park and this is what Manhattan used to look like,” she says. “What they don’t realize is that there are miles of pipes and valves underground that all have to be maintained. Most people don’t know that the lake is like a bathtub — you can turn it on and off.”