Belvedere Castle Reopens After Renovation, And It’s Got A New Glow

All lit up at night.

By Michael McDowell

Belvedere Castle is lit.

After a 15-month, $12 million renovation by the Central Park Conservancy, the landmark folly, which is located atop Vista Rock near West 79th Street, reopened on June 28.

Summer hours at the lookout tower are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and for those who may wish to eavesdrop on Shakespeare in the Park, monitor the nocturnal activities of Turtle Pond’s amphibians, or reenact Macbeth, the main plaza adjacent the tower is open until 1 a.m., when the Park closes. Admission is free, but it’s recommended visitors arrive early to beat the crowds, as the Park’s only castle attracts about a million people each year.

Not a bad view.

There’s more.

“We are adding a very special new element: this building will be lit,” said Conservancy president Betsy Smith.

“The most beautiful place to see it, actually, is on the other side of Turtle Pond,” she added, with a nod toward the pool below. “It will be a magnificent nighttime venue for New Yorkers. All I can say is that you can light up Midtown as much as you want, but nothing will compare to the Belvedere at night.”

The Rag, out for a gambol on a sultry summer evening, dropped by Turtle Pond; across the water, the Belvedere, aglow amidst lush vegetation, was a magical sight.

“It was meant to look like a medieval castle,” said Conservancy historian Marie Warsh. “Down there is the Ramble; visitors would be drawn through the Ramble, and that’s more dense—it’s a woodland, a Catskill-like environment. Visitors would then walk up here, and have this reward of a view, and would see the castle up close, but I think it was more about an alluring object in the distance.”

Originally envisioned as an ornamental architectural folly, Central Park co-designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed a terrace that included a miniature castle in 1858. Construction began in 1867, and the Belvedere opened to visitors in 1872. At that time, it was visible from Bethesda Terrace, and the castle’s tower offered panoramic views over what was then Croton Reservoir (now the Great Lawn).

In 1919, the U.S. Weather Service stormed the castle, which was subsequently closed to visitors. Meteorologists were quartered inside until 1969, when systems were automated, but to this day when forecasters quote the weather in Central Park, they refer to measurements taken at a castle-adjacent station.

Following decades of neglect, the Conservancy first renovated the Belvedere in 1983, which allowed the public to access the monument after a lengthy closure.

A moody summer morning provided an enigmatic setting for a recent tour of the Belvedere prior to its formal opening. The Conservancy’s extensive restoration is immediately apparent—and attractive.

The renovation included major structural work, a restoration of the wood pavilions on the main plaza, repair and restoration of exterior and interior stonework, replacement of stonework on the terrace, and the addition of a geothermal heating and cooling system. An accessible route to the castle will be completed in the fall or winter; currently, the terrace is reachable by several flights of stairs. The entire project was funded by The Thompson Family Foundation, which was also responsible for the rehabilitation of Park Avenue Armory.

Inside the castle, longtime Belvedere volunteer Diann DeFebbe explained why a stone spiral staircase is oriented so one must ascend in a clockwise direction.

“Right-handed property owners were able to stand at the top of the stairs and defend their property,” she said, which forced right-handed swordsman advancing from below to make use of their weaker arm (or locate a left-handed knight).

A few visitors take the medieval theme to heart.

“Some people, adults as well as children, enjoy coming here dressed as their favorite castle character, and it is a hoot,” DeFebbe laughed.

Is it haunted?

“No,” she shook her head. “Never. No ghost stories.”

Not even the occasional supernatural occurrence?

“None whatsoever,” she assured.

At the top of the aforementioned spiral staircase: breathtaking views of Central Park, as well as the castles of Central Park West, and landmarks like the Guggenheim, and the Met.

Robert Dixon, a visitor’s services representative who has spent years at the Belvedere, and has worked with the Conservancy for nearly a decade, motioned to the castle’s turret, where weather equipment was once housed.

“I tell the kids when they come through here that the princess is up there sleeping,” he winked.

Kids also ask about the Smurfs, as scenes from a 2011 release were filmed at Belvedere. Smurfs and princesses, however, were not on hand during the Rag’s visit.

“Some people sneak up here and have weddings,” Dixon said. They’ll be well-dressed, and often accompanied by an officiant. These guerrilla ceremonies are strictly verboten, however, but when have prohibitions ever discouraged an enterprising New Yorker? The most intrepid bring guests, some of whom smuggle rose petals to scatter.

Back on the terrace, the Rag asked the Conservancy’s chief landscape architect, Chris Nolan, about design elements a casual observer might overlook.

The Belvedere’s historic open-air design is evoked in novel clear pane glass windows and doors, he said, which seek to recapture what was originally envisioned as a free, unenclosed view.

But some of the success of a restoration is to be found in its subtlety.

“I often know that we’ve done our work well when people don’t know what we did,” he concluded.

HISTORY, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 3 comments | permalink
    1. lynn says:

      No mention of the dragon? I took a group of kids there regularly in the late 80’s, early 90’s, and an employee had them all convinced there was a dragon sleeping downstairs in the cellar. No matter what time of the day it was he was always sleeping. 😉

    2. Rita says:

      My friends use walkers can they get around.

    3. Carol M says:

      The castle will be ADA accessible in a few months. They are working on a ramp that will be compliant with ADA standards.It will provide access from the East Drive.