One of the prettiest places to visit in Central Park is Bethesda Terrace. When the park was designed, the Terrace was intended as a place where people could congregate, a spot to see and be seen. It is still considered the heart of the park.
The Terrace divides into an upper and a lower level, with flanking staircases connecting the two. I was shooting the carvings in the east staircase’s balustrades here, but you can see the Terrace below with its fountain on the right. Beyond is the Lake and the woods of the Ramble.
It’s a great spot for a pinhole photo. Here we are looking south from the Terrace into the entrance of the Arcade.
What’s the Arcade, you ask? It’s the passageway under 72nd Street from the street level to the terrace. A wide central staircase descends from above and takes you down into its shadowy depths. The Arcade is amazing.
Handcrafted art surrounds you.
Bethesda Terrace and the Arcade were one of the first structures built in Central Park, begun in 1860. One of the most beautiful features of the Arcade, which is easy to miss if you’re distracted by the murals and the gorgeous architecture, is its spectacular Minton Tile ceiling. The ceiling, designed by the British architect and designer Jacob Wrey Mould, who also designed the Terrace’s decorative carvings, was installed in 1869.
The ceiling is made up of 15,000 encaustic tiles produced by England’s famed Minton Tile Company. Encaustic tiles are made by pressing individual colored clays into tiles before firing them, instead of painting on colors with glaze. Each tile is handmade. The Arcade is the only place in the world where Minton tiles are used to decorate a ceiling.
The ceiling is divided into 49 panels, each containing 324 tiles featuring floral motifs and geometrical forms. There are only two panel designs; the difference is found in the center tile, which is either a small rosette or a large pinwheel.
How much do 15,000 tiles weigh? Oh, about 50 tons. After a hundred years, the ceiling began to fail and in 1987, the tiles were removed. Happily, the ceiling was fully restored in 2007.
In 1991, the walls of the Arcade were painted in 24 trompe l’oeil panels of Botticino marble designed to look like inlays and bas-reliefs. The compositions were inspired by the original ornamental designs of the Terrace’s staircase panels and from sketches completed by one of the Park’s architects, Calvert Vaux.
The artist who completed this work, which is now sadly deteriorating, is Lucretia Moroni, who studied under Lorenzo Mongiardino, one of the most famous decorative painters in the world. The panel below is a flat surface. Many of these murals were vandalized by graffiti artists in 2009 and subsequently cleaned, which may have weakened the paint.
What I like best about the Arcade is how well it fulfills its intention. It was designed to act as a counterpoint to the open, bright, bustling terrace outside, to serve as a quiet, ornate space. And it does. Its confines create a hushed, dim gallery, a burst of colorful art above and all around, with quiet corners full of visual surprises. It’s like briefly diving underwater, an unexpected reprieve before once again entering the busy park that surrounds it.