Like all the landscapes in Central Park, this beautiful 15 acre lawn known as Sheep Meadow is man-made. The Greensward Plan of 1858, the winning entry in the design competition for Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), featured broad open lawns, known in nineteenth-century terminology as greensward. Sheep Meadow was naturally rocky and swampy, and the designers converted the terrain into a smooth meadow by blasting the rock outcrops and adding two feet of new surface soil. Sheep Meadow was the most costly construction undertaken in the new park.
The original stipulations of the design competition required that Central Park include a parade ground for military reviews, drills, and practice. Reluctantly, Olmsted and Vaux included such a feature in the plan that they submitted. However, since military use conflicted with the vision of a quiet and serene atmosphere, the park commissioners later decided to eliminate the parade ground. The name of the meadow was changed from “the Parade” to “the Green,” and visitors were usually not allowed to walk on it. Instead, they were to view and appreciate the vast green expanse from the paths.
Sheep Meadow takes its name from the flock of Southdown and Dorset sheep that were kept on the meadow from 1864 until 1934. Olmsted and Vaux believed that the sheep enhanced the Romantic English quality of the park. The animals served a practical purpose as well—they trimmed the grass and fertilized the lawn. In 1871, Jacob Wrey Mould (1825-1886) designed an elaborate sheepfold to house both the flock and its shepherd. Twice a day, the shepherd stopped traffic on the west drive so that the flock could travel to and from the meadow. In the 1910s and 1920s, the flock shared space with a variety of folk-dancing festivals, children’s pageants, and patriotic celebrations. In 1934, when the sheep were transferred to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the sheepfold was converted into Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that has grown in size and popularity over the years.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, thousands of people were attracted to Sheep Meadow for large-scale concerts. The first landing on the moon was televised to a large crowd in the meadow on July 20, 1969. These events and lack of maintenance severely eroded the lawn. Sheep Meadow was the first area in Central Park to be restored.
Since the completion of the restoration in 1981, Sheep Meadow has been cared for by the Central Park Conservancy, which installed a new irrigation system in 2001. The unique partnership between the Central Park Conservancy and City of New York/Parks & Recreation ensures that the meadow will remain the pastoral lawn that Olmsted and Vaux had originally envisioned and designed.
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