Was the Murray Hill Reservoir in Bryant Park?

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Newsletter Issue: 
24, Summer 2006
Southward view shows Murray Hill Reservoir

The short answer to the title question seems to be no, for most of the reservoir’s life, and then yes, for its last year. The Murray Hill Reservoir was the terminal, or distributing, reservoir of the original (“Old”) Croton Aqueduct. Egyptianate in style, it was built at Fifth Ave. and 42nd St. on the high ground known as Murray Hill in the countryside north of New York City, which extended from the Battery to about 23rd St. when the Aqueduct opened in 1842. (Manhattan’s street grid had been laid out on paper in the renowned “Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.”)

Today’s Bryant Park is bordered by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets. According to a citation in the property records of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, this plot was used as a potter’s field from 1823 until 1840, “when the easterly area was taken” for construction of the reservoir. The remainder, named Reservoir Square, officially became a public park in 1847. It was renamed in 1884 in honor of poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant. Fifty-six years later, a resolution passed by the Board of Aldermen on December 22, 1896, declared the [the] reservoir as a public park.” This seems to be the moment that Bryant Park came to occupy the full site between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, obviously prompted by the coming demolition of the reservoir (c.1898-1900).

In two December 1897 resolutions, the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment authorized removal of the reservoir and erection of the New York Public Library in its place. Parks Department records note “Only building granted for public library; no land assigned.” Thus, while the reservoir stood adjacent to Bryant Park, today’s great library building stands within it.

For five years the reservoir had an illustrious neighbor in the adjacent park, still named Reservoir Square: the cast-iron and glass Crystal Palace, housing the first world’s fair in the United States. Some period engravings of the structure show a massive stone wall off to the side—the western wall of the reservoir. The spectacular “palace” opened on July 14, 1853, and burned on October 5, 1858, said to have been destroyed entirely in 15 minutes. The fire damaged the reservoir, as reported by Myndert Van Schaick and Alfred Craven in the Croton Aqueduct Department’s 1858 Annual Report (quotation provided by Robert Kornfeld, Jr.):

“The fire which destroyed the Crystal Palace, injured the western wall of the Reservoir very considerably. Its face course, belt course and coping having been largely shelled off and cracked, must be removed and new work substituted. The whole of the wall must be re-dressed and its joints repointed, and as the coping and railing of the parapet wall have been removed, they must be replaced.”

The exposed stone wall visible at the lowest level of the New York Public Library South Court—the auditorium level—is not a remnant of the reservoir as is sometimes thought, according to a 2003 conversation with Ernest Batchelor, an architect at Davis, Brody & Assocs., the firm that carried out the South Court project. There is a visible remnant, but it is not in a part of the library the public can reach.