Central Park Reservoir

What should become of the Central Park Reservoir? A major source of water in Manhattan for more than a century, the reservoir was decommissioned in 1993 (and renamed for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis the following year). Having lost its intended infrastructural function, it lives on as an aesthetic artifact of the 19th century. 


But is the Central Park Reservoir worthy of aesthetically-motivated preservation? What would Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux have thought of the specific form of this body of water, divorced from its original use? Their design for the park’s other water bodies provides an insight. The Harlem Meer, the Lake, the Pond, the Pool, and the Turtle Pond all have serpentine forms and gnarled edges, maximizing the length of the shoreline and affording many prime, water-front locations for park-goers to rest in. This technique was common in the design of 19th century picturesque landscapes, and earlier models of Anglo-Chinese and East Asian gardens from which this tradition derived. This ethos lives on in contemporary landscape architecture, where highly articulated shorelines have been employed both as recreational features and productive ecological interfaces. 


This proposal for a transformed Central Park Reservoir advances a perspective of history as a process of continuity, as opposed to the disjunctive assumptions of contemporary preservation ideology. The articulated edges, varied bathymetry, and occupiable archipelagoes of the proposal respond to both ecological imperatives and recreational desires. The longest axial view down the lake is retained, and the existing shoreline is preserved in key locations near the granite pumphouses, but the design maintains a formal and geometric distance from the 19th century original. Suspension bridges create new bicycle connections between the east and west sides, while smaller pedestrian paths open access to a wider recreational landscape.  This transformation of the Central Park Reservoir is a multi-faceted urban improvement in the 19th century sense of the phrase – a concept that remains serviceable today.