Central Park has a charming little zoo near 65th Street, just off of Fifth Avenue. I love the sea lions who zoom around their tank with effortless grace, flying out of the water and splatting precisely onto boulders when their caretakers appear with big buckets of fish. The zoo is also home to penguins, polar bears, snow leopards, monkeys and other exotica.
But my favorite animals in the Park aren’t in the zoo. Central Park is prime property for finding all kinds of fauna; they just happen to be in the form of sculpture, some in prominent spots, others tucked into corners. Here’s a little tour.
These three bronze bears, creatively titled “Group of Bears,” protect a small playground near Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. Kids love climbing onto them and rubbing their bronze fur. They were sculpted by Paul Manship, cast in 1960 and unveiled in 1990, a gift from Samuel Friedman in memory of his wife, Pat. I like them because they have a soft, rounded, teddy bearish quality, yet at the same time are realistic enough to seem fierce.
This dog with his bow hunting companion are foraging just northeast of the Carousel. The sculpture, by John Quincy Adams Ward, is called “The Indian Hunter” and made the artist’s reputation. It’s not hard to understand why. Both figures have an amazing energy, radiating the intensity of their focus, every perfectly defined muscle and tuft of fur engrossed by the hunt. It was placed in 1869, the first sculpture by an American to be sited in the Park.
“The Falconer” sits high on a stone outcropping on the south side of the 72nd Street transverse road, just west of Bethesda Terrace. It’s the work of the British sculptor George Blackall Simonds and was dedicated in 1875. The Falconer has been a popular target for mischief. It almost fell over in 1937 before it was shored up, its falcon was replaced in 1957 and after further abuse, the sculpture was removed all together. In 1982, it returned with a new arm and yet another falcon, then was repatinated in 1995. Whew! That’s one beloved statue. It reminds me of the real hawks and other raptors who live in the Park and sometimes silently swoop by.
This is the famous Balto, who helped run a diphtheria vaccine to Nome, Alaska through a raging blizzard. The story goes like this: in January 1925, Alaskan doctors were worried that a diptheria epidemic was going to spread to the children in Nome, and had to find a way to get the medicine from Anchorage, nearly a thousand miles away. Because trains didn’t run that far north and the only available airplane had a frozen engine, more than 20 teams of sled dogs were coordinated to make the trip in treacherous conditions. Balto lead the final team, and became a national hero.
His sculpture, by animal sculptor Frederick Roth, is slightly larger than life size and was installed in Central Park less than a year later. Little kids love to climb onto his back for their photo. His ears, tongue, tail and back are bright and shiny thanks to their attention.
These beautifully formed birds are part of the stairway at Bethesda Terrace. There are dozens of animals carved into the stonework of the Terrace, many found in the panels and pillars flanking the stairs.
The decorative elements for the Terrace, which depict seasonal and wildlife motifs, were designed by English-born Jacob Wrey Mould and carved from soft sandstone. As you can see above and below, the stone is heavily weathered in areas; the Central Park Conservancy actually has a sculptor who cares for the carvings. What a cool job! You can see in the photo below where the snout of the deer has been repaired.
In some of the stone pillars, carvings represent the passing day. The crowing rooster symbolizes morning while the owl, who has a little stone bat flying out to his right, symbolizes night.
Just south of the Terrace, if you walk towards the Sheep Meadow, you’ll pass these two huge eagles squabbling over an unlucky goat. This is the bronze “Eagles and Prey,” designed and created by Christophe Fratin, cast in 1850 and placed in 1863, making it the oldest known sculpture in any New York City park. The detail on the birds is incredible; every single feather is perfectly defined, giving the birds a spirit of power and strength. You can practically hear the wind whistling as they beat their huge wings.
This plump eagle is part of a monument just north of the sculpture above. I couldn’t find any information about him, but I like his stoic demeanor and carefully rendered feet.
This beautiful, whimsical bear is just north of the Zoo. Created by the same artist who sculpted Balto and named “Honey Bear,” he dances on his hind legs as he licks at the invisible bees buzzing around his ears.
My favorite part of this sculpture? Honey Bear is part of a fountain! A basin sits beneath him, perfect little frogs spewing water at his feet.
Here we are at the famous Alice in Wonderland statue, next to the Conservatory Water at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Of course, Alice is from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic story, and here she sits on a giant mushroom next to the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and the Dormouse, inviting children to climb on up, which they enthusiastically do, polishing the surface smooth.
The bronze sculpture is eleven feet tall, commissioned by George Delacorte and designed by Jose de Creeft in 1959, based on John Tenniel’s Victorian illustrations from the first edition of the book. Alice’s face is based on Creeft’s daughter, Donna. The Mad Hatter is a caricature of Delacorte.
Such beautiful surface texture. The most playful part of the work is its placement within plaques on the surrounding terrace, inscribed with lines from a grab bag of Carroll’s fanciful poems. The finest is “The Jabberwocky,” a fantastic poem of linguistic acrobatics. “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: all mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe.” Try getting that past auto-correct!
Just a few steps away from Alice is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” This adorable sculpture, which, correct me if I’m wrong, doesn’t look anything like the baby swan he’s supposed to be, is also rubbed bright and shiny by happy hands. The sculpture marks the spot for children’s story telling hour on summer Saturday mornings. Yes, I’ve gone. It’s great!
We’ll finish up with my all-time favorite, the sculpture that inspired this blog, a gorgeous life-size bronze cougar called “Still Hunt.” Sculpted by the famous American artist Edward Kemeys, she sits on a high rock outcropping on the west side of the East River drive as it ascends Cedar Hill, tucked against the foliage, so realistic that she startles unsuspecting runners puffing their way northward. She was placed in 1883, her sinuous tail stolen in 1974. Happily, the tail was replaced in 1988 and she continues to stare down from her perch.
So the next time you’re walking through the park, take a look around. A bronze animal just might be watching you!