“I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.”

Lavinia Goodell, July 30, 1863

When warm sunny days arrive, people enjoy visiting their local parks. Lavinia Goodell was no different. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lavinia, who was living in Brooklyn, visited New York’s Central Park for the first time with her parents and was thoroughly enchanted with it.

She wrote to her sister, Maria:

I have been up to the Central Park twice since I wrote you. Last week, Wednesday, Father and mother and I went – just us three. We started in the morning, carried a lunch, and staid all day.

We had a splendid time, talked much of you and the children, and wished you were with us. You must go when you come. It is a beautiful place – beautiful as art and nature can make it. All sorts of taste – that for the wild and picturesque, and that for the smoother and more cultivated scenery may be gratified. There are lakes, with graceful swans sailing hither and thither, and beautiful little boats, which look some like the “Gondolas” of Venice, freighted with happy voyagers. There are wild, winding walks which come suddenly upon little rural houses, glens, and caves (there is but one cave tho’, strictly speaking) and bridges in all styles. Then there is a “mall” about as large as Boston Common (they say), perfectly flat and smooth, with grass of a beautiful green and kept cut at about the right height, trees, broad walks, and in the center a temple for music. There are deer and peacocks, birds of various colored plumage, eagles, and even a young bear, chained of course! The carriage drives and walks are broad, hard, and handsome. workmen are constantly employed to keep the Park in order. It is half a mile wide and two and a half or three long. I think it the “redeeming feature” of New York. But you have perhaps heard descriptions of the Central Park, ere this, and my crude and hasty outline doesn’t pretend to do it justice. You must go! I went again, yesterday, with Mr. Weigand, who hired a carriage, and we drove all around, and saw the sights without getting fatigued int he least. “Our folks” were so tired out when they got home that Father has become disgusted with “going a pleasuring” and I fear will not soon again be persuaded in “pursuit of happiness.”

The first area of Central Park had opened to the public in the winter of 1858. The park was too far uptown to be within easy walking distance for the city’s working class population, and trainfare was too costly for many workers, so in the 1860s the park was largely the playground of the wealthy. In the afternoons the park’s paths were crowded with the luxurious carriages that were the status symbol of the day. The Goodells were not wealthy, so they traipsed around the park on foot, exhausting Lavinia’s parents, who were around 70 years old. Lavinia’s friend Mr. Weigand was apparently sufficiently well heeled to be able to splurge for a carriage.

Central Park remained a special place for Lavinia for the rest of her life. In the summer of 1878, while she was in the east recuperating after a dangerous surgery to remove an ovarian tumor, she reported to Maria that her spirits had been cheered by another visit to the park:

I suppose I overdid last week. I had been gaining so fast for a week or so before that I felt pretty encouraged. Tuesday Cleveland (Lavinia’s uncle, J. Cleveland Cady, was an architect who designed many important buildings, including the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York – now destroyed – and the Boone Tavern Hotel in Berea, Kentucky, which remains in business) took me riding in Central Park. It was delightful, and I was out 2 1/2 hours. The carriage ride over the pavements to the park was hard for me, but after I got there I enjoyed it. Went to bed the minute I returned, but felt rested the next day.

Nearly 160 years after Lavinia’s first visit, Central Park remains a treasured landmark and refuge for New Yorkers and visitors alike. NK

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell letters to Maria Frost (July 30, 1863; June 19, 1878) https://www.ny.com/articles/centralpark.html

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