Living in the concrete jungle and dreaming of getting married in a castle? Wales may have the greatest number of castles per square mile in the world, but you don’t have to go to the UK for this dream to come true. If you live in New York City, you have a castle right in your backyard—well, Central Park’s backyard: Belvedere Castle. In this post, we’ll be discussing the history of the Belvedere, its location in the park, a newly completed multi-million dollar renovation, and how to book.
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The History of Central Park
We wouldn’t have the world-renowned Central Park we have today if it wasn’t for Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1857, Vaux suggested that New York City hold a contest to design a large centralized park in the middle of the city. At the time, Olmsted was the Parks superintendent, and Vaux persuaded him to help create a design plan named “The Greensward Plan.” Their plan for a park with green spaces—as well as separated paths for carriages, horseback riders, and pedestrians—was a new concept. Vaux designed scenic bridges and underpasses that would alleviate collisions, which helped their joint plan win first place! Later that year, construction began, with most work being completed between 1860 and 1873. Today, the park is a whopping 840 acres and a gem in the heart of New York City.
The History of Belvedere Castle
Belvedere Castle was built from 1867 to 1869 and sits atop Vista Rock, which is the second-highest peak in the park. The terrace, pavilion, and miniature castle overlook the Great Lawn, Turtle Pond, and Delacorte Theater to the north, and the Ramble to the south. From the highest lookout, you have a bird’s-eye-view over the tree line to the towering buildings lining Central Park West, Fifth Avenue, and 59th Street. The castle is aptly named, as “Belvedere” means “beautiful view” in Italian.
The structure was designed as an open-air folly, to be purely ornamental and serve no purpose except for passerby enjoyment. However, in time, New York City had thought of a new purpose for the structure. Ever checked the weather in NYC and noticed Central Park is one of the listed locations? That’s because in 1919 the U.S. Weather Bureau transformed the castle into a weather station by adding scientific instruments such as anemometers, thermometers, and antennas. They also altered the original design by adding windows and doors to the previously open-air structure. Rainfall was also monitored just south of the castle.
Belvedere Castle was vacated in the early 1960s, and that began its fall from its heyday. Due to underuse, the castle fell into disrepair and unfortunately became victim to a disgusting display of vandalism.
In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was formed, and in 1983 they began a major restoration on Belvedere by removing graffiti and rebuilding the pavilions. Belvedere had its rebirth as it reopened as a visitor center and gift shop.
Then, in 2016, the Conservancy had a proposal for a $12 million renovation to the castle that would “address drainage, waterproofing, and climate control systems, along with deterioration that has occurred over the last 35 years.” Basically, the castle is going to be the most beautiful, perfect, and up-to-date it has ever been! In March 2018, those plans went into effect when Belvedere closed for a long overdue 15-month renovation. The castle just reopened to the public on Friday, June 28th, 2019, and it remains one of five visitor centers in the park.
During the work, contractors dug 400 feet deep into Vista Rock to add a minimally-visible, zero-emission, energy-efficient geothermal system for cooling and heating of the castle’s interior. Architects went back to Belvedere’s roots with a clear pane window design that evokes the original open-air look. This feature serves not only its function by keeping the new cooling and heating systems from working into overtime, but also its beauty because in the years prior to the renovation the windows were obnoxiously obstructed with bars and shutters.
Then all of the stonework was redone by rebuilding the walls enclosing the terraces; repaving the terraces with new bluestone pavers, appropriately positioning them in the historic and beautiful checkered design; and cleaning and repairing the interior stonework. A long-gone wooden tower that had originally (150 years ago) decorated the top of the pavilion on the northwest corner and balanced out the structure was also rebuilt. And for the first time in the castle’s history, it was illuminated. This is, by far, my favorite restoration, as it makes such a big impact on the evening look of the castle and allows visitors to see the castle from other vantage points within the park.
This video sums up perfectly the scope of work and detail that went into the restoration:
Video Credit: Central Park Conservancy
If you were interested in checking out this venue on a tour, the Central Park Conservancy hosts two public tours: the Belvedere: Beautiful View Tour and the Discovery Walks for Families: Turtle Pond Tree Walk.
Or, you can visit on your own in the Summer (June 7th to August 9th) from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, and Fall, Winter, and Spring from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Keep in mind that the castle is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Or, if you are reading this on a rainy day and just can’t wait to get out there, check out these 360-degree views by dragging the video below:
Video Credit: Central Park Conservancy
Being that this venue is located within a City of New York park, the castle is actually public space. Your certified wedding planner will need to apply for a Special Events permit with the NYC Parks Manhattan Borough Office if 20 or more people will be in attendance. The permit takes 30 days to process, so ensure that you are ahead of deadlines in case there are any hiccups.
As to not distract from the park’s already spectacular scenery, the permit prohibits decorations, although handheld chuppahs are allowed. It also prohibits amplified sound, but you can get around that with acoustic music which is acceptable. Applicants must apply online here. There is a $25 non-refundable application fee, payable by credit or debit card via the online application. NYC Parks has a handy one-pager on their website.
This venue can accommodate a ceremony but not a reception. Nevertheless, you could still have the most spectacular day with an early ceremony in the park. Follow that with a few hours of couple and family photos in the most scenic and historic park in NYC. Then you could make your way to one of the park’s few restaurants or venues that could host your reception (Tavern on the Green, the Loeb Boathouse, or the Central Park Zoo), or you could leave the park entirely and head to a local reception hall or hotel to meet guests.
The romantic beauty of Belvedere Castle is undeniable. The history of the castle and the rebirths it has gone through over the past 150 years are remarkable. The site changed from a park building to an official weather station, to an abandoned structure, to a welcome center and gift shop, and now (after its most recent renovation) it has been brought back to a modern state of its original prime. This site receives approximately one million visitors each year and plays matrimonial host to proposals and wedding ceremonies, bringing joy and wonder to all who experience it.
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