In 1686, when the area was still a wilderness, New York's colonial governor, Thomas Dongan, designated the area now known as Bryant Park as a public space. George Washington's troops crossed the area while retreating from the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Beginning in 1823, Bryant Park was designated a potter's field (a graveyard for the poor) and remained so until 1840, when thousands of bodies were moved to Wards Island.
The first park at this site opened in 1847 as Reservoir Square. It was named after its neighbor, the Croton Distributing Reservoir. In 1853, the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations with the New York Crystal Palace, featuring thousands of exhibitors, took place in the park. The square was used for military drills during the American Civil War, and was the site of some of the New York City draft riots of July 1863, when the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street was burned down. The Crystal Palace]], also known as the Great Exhibition Hall, burned down in 1858.
In 1884, Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park, to honor the New York Evening Post editor and abolitionist William Cullen Bryant. In 1899, the Reservoir structure was removed and construction of the New York Public Library building began. Terrace gardens, public facilities, and kiosks were added to the park.
The construction of the Sixth Avenue Elevated railway in 1878 cast both literal and metaphorical shadows over the park, and by the 1930s, the park was suffering from neglect and was considered disreputable. The park was redesigned in 1933–4 as a Great Depression public works project under the leadership of Robert Moses. The new park featured a great lawn, and added hedges and later an iron fence to separate the park from the surrounding city streets. The park was temporarily degraded in the late 1930s by the tearing down of the El and the construction of the New York City Subway's underground Sixth Avenue line.
On October 15, 1969, a rally attended by 40,000 people was held in Bryant Park as part of the nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Speakers at that event were John Lindsay, Eugene McCarthy, William Sloane Coffin, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, Ben Gazzara, Helen Hayes, Rod McKuen, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach; among the musical performers were Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Broadway cast of the musical Hair. Tony Conrad captured the event live from the window of his 42nd Street apartment and published the recording on the album Bryant Park Moratorium Rally.
By the 1970s, Bryant Park had been taken over by drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless and was considered a no-go area by ordinary citizens and visitors. From 1979 to 1983, a coordinated program of amenities, including book and flower markets, cafes, landscape improvements, and entertainment activities, was initiated by a parks advocacy group called the Parks Council and immediately brought new life to the park—an effort continued over the succeeding years by The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, which had been founded in 1980 by a group of prominent New Yorkers, including members of the Rockefeller family, to improve conditions in the park. In 1988, a privately funded re-design and restoration was begun by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation under the leadership of Dan Biederman, with the goal of opening up the park to the streets and encouraging activity within it. The re-design was drafted by Hanna/Olin Ltd. and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates.
The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was founded in 1980 by Dan Biederman and Andrew Heiskell, chairman of Time Inc. and the New York Public Library. The BPRC immediately brought significant changes that made the park once again a place that people wanted to visit. Biederman, a proponent of the "Broken Windows Theory" expounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a seminal 1982 article in Atlantic Monthly, instituted a rigorous program to clean the park, remove graffiti and repair the broken physical plant. BPRC also created a private security staff to confront unlawful behavior immediately.
After initial successes, BPRC closed the park in 1988 to undertake a four-year project to build new park entrances with increased visibility from the street, to enhance the formal French garden design – with a lush redesign by Lynden Miller – and to improve and repair paths and lighting. BPRC’s plan also included restoring of the park’s monuments, and renovating its long-closed restrooms, and building two restaurant pavilions and four concession kiosks. In the effort, Biederman worked with William H. Whyte, an American sociologist and a distinguished observer of public space. Whyte’s influence led them to implement two decisions essential to making the park the successful public space that it is. First, they insisted on placing movable chairs in the park, as per Whyte's long-standing belief that movable chairs give people a sense of empowerment, allowing them to sit wherever and in whatever orientation they desire. The second decision was to lower the park itself, because Bryant Park had been elevated from the street and isolated by tall hedges prior to the 1988 redesign, a design conducive to illegal activity. The 1988 renovation lowered the park to nearly street level and tore out the hedges. The park's restrooms, which had been closed for 35 years, were renovated as well.
After a four-year effort, the park reopened in 1992 to widespread acclaim. Deemed "a triumph for many" by The New York Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger, the renovation was lauded not only for its architectural excellence, but also for adhering to Whyte's vision. According to Goldberger, Biederman "understood that the problem of Bryant Park was its perception as an enclosure cut off from the city; he knew that, paradoxically, people feel safer when not cut off from the city, and that they feel safer in the kind of public space they think they have some control over." The renovation was lauded as "The Best Example of Urban Renewal" by the magazine New York, and was described by Time as a "small miracle". Many awards followed, including a Design Merit Award from Landscape Architecture Magazine, which noted that the park was "colorful and comfortable....and safe". In 1996, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) honored BPC with an Award for Excellence. ULI remarked that the renovation "turned a disaster into an asset, dramatically improved the neighborhood, and pushed up office rents and occupancy rates." BPRC was renamed the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC) in 2009.
Bryant Park is one of the signature examples of New York City's revival in the 1990s. With a low crime rate, the park is filled with office workers on sunny weekdays, city visitors on the weekends, and revelers during the holidays. Daily attendance counts often exceed 800 people per acre, making it the most densely occupied urban park in the world. A New York Times article in 1995 referred to the park as the "Town Square of Midtown" and an "office oasis" frequented by midtown office workers. The park has been extolled for its relative calmness and cleanness.
With security largely in the hands of the BPC, corporate control of the park has meant that amenities catering to white-collar professionals have been encouraged, while those that might cater to a broader urban public have been notably absent. In the early 2000s, the BPC added a custom-built carousel and revived the tradition of an open-air library, The Reading Room, which also hosts literary events. The Bryant Park Grill and Bryant Park Cafe have become popular after-work spots, and food and drink are served at four park operated concessionary kiosks. In the 40th Street plaza of the park, there is a station called Bryant Park Games where visitors can play an array of games, including Chinese chess and quoits. In the summer of 2002, the park launched the free Bryant Park Wireless Network, making the park the first in New York City to offer free Wi-Fi access to visitors; improvements in 2008 significantly increased the number of users who could log on at a given time. The Pond, a free-admission ice skating rink, opened in the park in 2005. The park's widely praised public restrooms provide New Yorkers with luxurious public facilities open to everyone, a rare commodity in the city; a subsequent renovation solidified their status as, in the words of then-New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, "the gold standard for park comfort stations."
The dramatic rise in real estate values in the area around the Bryant Park, as well as new construction in adjacent areas, is a consequence of the park's improvements. Increasingly, buildings and businesses in the park's vicinity are also referring to the park in their names. These trends, first noted in 2003, is shown by the new Bank of America Tower skyscraper, which is also called "One Bryant Park", at the northwest corner of the park as well as the growing trend of Bryant Park vanity addresses including 3,4,5, and 7 Bryant Park. It is also shown by the decision of the National Public Radio, located just south of the park, to name a now defunct talk show the "Bryant Park Project" upon the show's 2007 launch. Such enthusiasm to appropriate the Bryant Park name would have been nonexistent in the 1980s, when the area was described as "the Wild West".
The BPC was initially supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, but then became funded by assessments on property and businesses adjacent to the park, and by revenue generated from events held at the park. BPC is the largest U.S. effort to provide private management, with private funding, to a public park.
Although Bryant Park is a public park, BPC accepts no public funds, and operates the park on assessments on surrounding property within the Business Improvement District, fees from concessionaires, and revenues generated by public events. The number of events at the park has grown significantly, and this has caused some consternation by people who fear that the park will be dominated by private entities and will thus be inaccessible to the public. Dan Biederman, who co-founded the organization with Andrew Heiskell, and the BPC itself strongly believe that a crowded park is a successful one, and that a full slate of events is essential in drawing people to the park. They also believe that the revenue paid by sponsors of events is necessary to keep the park well-maintained.
To address fears of the park being lost to the public, BPC insists that all events are free and open to the public, the exceptions being the New York Fashion Week shows that formerly took over the park in the winter and late summer. Biederman often publicly expressed his frustration that the fashion shows, which were not under BPC's control, took over the park for two weeks twice yearly until February 2010. "They pay us a million dollars. It's a million dollars I would happily do without," he told the Los Angeles Times. BPC was particularly frustrated that the fashion shows dominated the park during two crucial times: in late summer, when the weather is perfect for park visitors; and in early February, necessitating the early closure of the park's popular free-admission ice-skating rink.Benito Juárez (2002)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1932)
José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva (1954; dedicated 1955)
Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain (1913)
William Cullen Bryant Memorial (1911)
William Earl Dodge (1885)
One of the park's most impressive features is a large lawn that is the longest expanse of grass in Manhattan south of Central Park. Besides serving as a "lunchroom" for midtown office workers and a place of respite for tired pedestrians, the lawn also serves as the seating area for some of the park's major events, such as the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, Broadway in Bryant Park, and Square Dance. The lawn's season runs from February until October, when it is closed to make way for Bank of America Winter Village, the park's winter iteration. During the lawn's season, it is open on most days, closing only for regular maintenance, to drain after a heavy rain, or to recover after high-impact events.
Along the northern and southern sides of the park are twin promenades bordered by London plane trees (platanus acerifolia). This is the same species found at the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, and contributes a great deal to the park's European feel. These trees can grow up to 120 feet in height.
The original Reading Room began in August 1935, in response to Depression Era job losses. Started as an initiative by the New York Public Library, the Reading Room provided out-of-work men a place to interact and share ideas without having to pay money or show any identification. Books from the library and donations of magazines and trade publications from publishers made the open-air library a great success. The tradition of Reading Rooms came to a halt in 1944 due to the job boom resulting from World War II.
The Reading Room at Bryant Park was reopened in 2003, and HSBC was its first sponsor. Oxford University Press, Scholastic Corporation, Mitchell’s NY, Condé Nast Publications, Time Inc., Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., and Rodale, Inc. have donated the books and publications at since its conception in 2003. In addition to the complimentary reading materials, in 2004 programming was added to Reading Room’s content. The Reading Room is now a literary destination that features readings and book sales by contemporary writers and poets plus book-related special events such as book clubs, writers workshops and storytelling for kids.
Modeled on Europe's Christkindlmarkt, in 2002 Bryant Park introduced the Holiday Shops in an effort to liven up the park space during the winter. Initially slow to gain traction, the Holiday Shops became a fixture of the Manhattan holiday scene in 2005 by expanding into an all-encompassing seasonal destination with the addition of New York’s only free-admission ice skating rink, a 50’ Norway Spruce tree, as well as a standalone signature dining and event space.
Sponsored by Bank of America, Winter Village has transformed the park into a year-round destination. In September 2016, Bryant Park announced a new operator for Winter Village’s signature concession, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), who will operate Public Fare, a fine-casual eatery. In addition, the Holiday Shops which grew from 80 stores in 2002 to over 125 in 2015, will be revamped by Urbanspace, NYC’s preeminent market makers, to offer a selection of local and homemade goods and a food market featuring some of the city’s hottest restaurants.
Numerous events are hosted on the Great Lawn at Bryant Park. The Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, begun in the early nineties and now sponsored by HBO, brings a very large crowd into the park on Monday evenings during the summer. Various free musical performances are sponsored by corporations during the warm weather months, including Broadway in Bryant Park, sponsored by iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Media + Entertainment) and featuring performers from current Broadway musicals, integrated with content provided by event sponsors.
Since 2005, the Great Lawn has also hosted programs with local professional sports teams and events like the New York Yankees, and the New York Rangers. The park has a chess concession on the terrace along the 40th Street side that offers free table-top game lending and game socials. There is also a court for practitioners of Pétanque, the French game of boules. Also popular are free classes in juggling, yoga, tai chi and knitting. In the summer of 2009, the Bryant Park corporation added two ping pong tables to the North West corner of the park.
Since its restoration, Bryant Park has become a favored setting for film and television productions.
Films:The final scene of the Howard Stern film Private Parts (1997), featuring the band AC/DC performing in the park, was shot in July 1996.
At the beginning of Ghostbusters (1984), Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis come running out of the library building.
Chris Rock used the park to watch women in I Think I Love My Wife (2007).
The film Sex and the City (2008) staged multiple scenes at front of the New York Public Library and at the park's carousel.
In the summer of 2009, the movie Morning Glory (2010), starring Harrison Ford and Rachel McAdams, shot several scenes in Bryant Park.
Television:During an episode of Hana Yori Dango Returns, the lead female character Makino runs past Bryant Park as she chases a bag snatcher.
Law & Order is among the television series that uses the park for scenes.
The final three designers on the fashion design TV show Project Runway would show their final collections when Fashion Week was held in Bryant Park.
In September 2013, the US TV program The Face held a runway shoot in the park.