Belvedere Castle is a castle in Central Park in Manhattan, New York City. It contains exhibit rooms and an observation deck, and since 1919, the castle has also been the location of the official Central Park weather station.
Belvedere Castle was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the late 1800s. An architectural hybrid of Gothic and Romanesque styles, Vaux's design called for a more weighty Manhattan schist and granite structure with a corner tower with conical cap, with the existing lookout over parapet walls between them.[note 1] To reduce costs it was revised in November 1870, and completed under the new Tammany Hall regime as an open painted-wood pavilion.
Belvedere Castle was originally built as a shell with open doorway and window openings. Starting in 1919, it housed the New York Meteorological Observatory, which had been taken over by the United States Weather Bureau in 1912. The current weather station in Central Park, an Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), is located immediately south of the castle, though wind equipment is still located on the main tower. The two fanciful wooden pavilions deteriorated without painting and upkeep and were removed before 1900.
The Observatory contains family-friendly displays that demonstrate the process by which naturalists observe their world and share their scientific discoveries about it. The displays, which include telescopes, microscopes, skeletons and feathers, are designed to expose children to fundamentals of the scientific method in natural observation. Other Observatory exhibits include a plywood tree with papier-mâché reproductions of birds often seen in Central Park, encouraging people to watch for these birds from the precipice of the castle, which has become one of New York's most popular birdwatching sites. Free family and community programs hosted at Belvedere Castle include "On A Wing" birding programs, stargazing, astronomy talks, storytimes with the Princess of Belvedere Castle, and the "Spooks at Belvedere" haunted castle event every Halloween.
The new castle faced a rectangular receiving reservoir; today, it overlooks the Great Lawn,[note 2] an oval of turf with eight baseball diamonds, loosely defined by plantings of trees in clumps in the manner of the English landscape garden, and, at the foot of Vista Rock, the Turtle Pond, redesigned in 1997 as a naturalistic planting, in which no single vantage-point reveals the water's full extent. Sunken concrete shelving at varying depths provide ideal water depths for shoreline plants such as lizard's tail, bullrush, turtlehead, and blueflag iris. The success of habitat for birds, insects, amphibians, and reptiles is embodied in sightings of species of dragonfly not previously sighted in Central Park.
Built as a Victorian folly in 1869, the castle caps Vista Rock, an outcropping of schist and the park's second-highest natural elevation.[note 3] Constructed of Manhattan schist quarried in the park and dressed with gray granite, it tops the natural-looking woodlands of The Ramble, as seen from the formal Bethesda Terrace. The natural rock was tunneled through for the innovative sunken transverse roadway that still carries commercial and other traffic unobtrusively through the Park. In 1867, one of the designers of Central Park, Calvert Vaux, decided to develop this area by building Belvedere Castle on the top of the rock, overlooking the Croton reservoir, site of the Great Lawn.
Belvedere means 'beautiful view' or 'panoramic view' in Italian and the castle provides impressive views across Central Park and New York City. It was designed as an additional feature of the Central Park "Greensward" plan by the architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould after they, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, were reappointed to oversee the park's construction in 1865. As the plantings matured, the castle has disappeared from its original intended viewpoint. Its turret is the highest point in the park.
The site, which overlooks the Lower Reservoir, already held a fire tower under the control of the Croton Aqueduct board. In 1867, the board transferred the site to the Park, and the fire tower was demolished. After the New York Meteorological Observatory automated its equipment and moved its offices to Rockefeller Center in the 1960s, Belvedere Castle was closed to the public and became an object of much vandalism, neglect and deterioration. The Central Park Conservancy launched a restoration effort and reopened the structure on May 1, 1983, as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory. Soon after its restoration, the building was used as a filming location for Merchant-Ivory's 1984 film The Bostonians, starring Christopher Reeve and Vanessa Redgrave. Its facade has been used for exterior shots of the castle where Count von Count lived on the children's television series Sesame Street. In 1995, the Conservancy's Historic Preservation Crew replaced the painted wooden loggia of the castle, working from Vaux's designs, on the granite piers and walls that had survived.