Upper West Side painter Robert Beck reflects on an unusual part of Manhattan, even for a park.
By Robert Beck
The door was slightly open on the Kerbs Boathouse, so I stuck my head inside. Rows of wooden tables holding radio-controlled model sailboats—some modest, some quite large—filled the room. A man welcomed me and gave me the history of the pond and the building. It made sense to have a place to store boats when you think how difficult it would be to get your five-by-five-foot sailboat into the back seat of a cab without breaking something. After I adjusted to the novelty of the moment, I asked if I could paint in there. He said yes.
The sailboat pond has the unusual name of Conservatory Water. The story goes that Fredrick Olmstead’s plans called for a Conservatory on that spot—a large greenhouse and garden. It included a grand staircase from the East Side, where the mansions were, but the scheme ran into budgetary difficulties. The pond was created in its place and called Conservatory Water, which sounds like a utility note scribbled on the revised layout that nobody questioned.
Sailboats might seem an incongruous hobby to have in the city, but I think there are many unrequited favorite pastimes in Manhattan. What better place to take a beloved sailboat. I think of Central Park not so much frozen in time as frozen in temperament. An exercise in restraint. I suspect there is a reason why the park was constructed six years after the first installation of the elevator—kind of a pushback against the age of steel.
On a bluff overlooking the Sailboat Pond is the Waldo M Hutchins Bench, a 27-foot-long, white granite, gently-curved pew where one can take a load off and gaze into the park. Hutchins was a man deserving remembrance and thanks for his efforts in making the park what it is: a retrospective island in the center of this aggressive city, dedicated, among other things, to appreciating real value, taking care of what you have, and yes, to restraint. Knowing when to stop. Like when the Park Commission voted down the proposal to create a grand promenade between the major museums on either side after the reservoir was removed. A very unlike New York decision: to take a step back. An inscription along the Hutchins bench, which doubles as a sundial, reads ne diruatur Fuga temporum; “Let it not be destroyed by the passage of time.” Definitely a sailboat spirit.
Robert is losing his Upper West Side studio. Maybe you can help him find another. “The Upper West Side is my place,” he says. His needs are modest, if a bit unusual. Read about it here. You can reach Robert at https://www.robertbeck.net/.