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Belvedere Castle:

Follies, Forecasts, Feathers & Flowers

By Todd Larson


My childhood romps through Central Park often took me up to the summit of Vista Rock‌


‌where craggy, decrepit old Belvedere Castle ominously hulked over me‌


…convincing me that Count Dracula dwelt therein (and partially right I was — it was used as the castle of The Count on Sesame Street)…


…but its weather-beaten door was always barred to me, dashing all my hopes and dreams of meeting the venerable vampire in the flesh.


Now revamped as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory, the castle has opened its door, inviting the public in to see not bats in the belfry‌

‌but birds in the Belvedere.


The Observatory’s collections of natural history artifacts such as bird feathers and skeletons, along with microscopes and telescopes, introduce young ones to the scientific method by which naturalists observe their world, draw conclusions about its inner workings, and share their insights with the community.


Always naturecentered in its own right, Belvedere Castle was built in 1871 of gray granite and the park’s native schist — a layered crystalline rock unique to Manhattan — as a natural outgrowth of Vista Rock, the park’s second-highest natural elevation.


Sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould and architect Calvert Vaux conceived the towered, arched edifice as a Romanesque-Gothic folly providing a romantic overlook onto Central Park’s picturesque scenery, including Turtle Pond, the Ramble, and the reservoir (now the Great Lawn) — hence its name, Belvedere, an Italian word meaning “beautiful view.”


Originally built as a shell with open windows, terrace pavilions, and portals topped by Mould’s bronze sculptures of bat-winged cockatrices, the castle was enclosed when it became the headquarters of New York’s Weather Bureau Station in 1919.


To accommodate meteorological equipment, the tower’s conical slate roof with copper cresting and flagstaff was replaced by “more martial ghostwalk battlements,” as M.M. Graff put it in her 1982 book The Men Who Made Central Park. Weather data and readings have been taken at Belvedere for local weather reports ever since. So whenever TV or radio meteorologists announce, “The temperature in Central Park is…”, that figure comes from the castle in the air.


But when the Weather Bureau Station relocated to Rockefeller Center in the late 1960s, Belvedere Castle was closed to the public and besieged by decay and vandalism, sporting neon-streaked graffiti on its crumbling walls and sprouting weeds in its eroding mortar. The mighty fortress was on the brink of collapse when the Central Park Conservancy rescued this damsel in distress in 1983. Its restoration included reconstruction of the original tower roof and colorful wood terrace pavilions from their extant foundations.


Drac may have flown the coop, but its eeriness lingers: every Halloween, the cockatrices signify it as the “Spooks at Belvedere� haunted castle.


Friendlier winged creatures also frequent the castle. Belvedere’s terraces are pristine places to watch more than 200 species of birds. Let’s meet a few of our feathered friends…


Blackbird

Belvedere’s Birds

Grebe

Hooded Merganser

Kestrel

Gray Catbird

Heron

Hooded Warbler

Osprey

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

White-Throated Sparrow


Belvedere’s Beasts

This springtime gathering of turtles after a long winter’s hibernation is one among many natural sights in and around Turtle Pond, which include reptiles, amphibians, crickets, dragonflies, and shoreline plants such as…


Belvedere’s Buds & Bulbs

Blue-Flag Iris

Bulrush

Lizard’s Tail

Turtlehead


Thank you for watching! For more information on Belvedere Castle, please visit:

www.centralpark2000.com/database/belvedere_castle.html www.centralpark.com/pages/attractions/belvedere-castle.html www.centralparknyc.org/site/PageNavigator/virtualpark_thegreatlawn_belvederecastle

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