Thursday, January 8, 2009

Central Park…and destiny with Ulysses T. Grant

Our last day in the “Big Apple”, and what a day! Gloriously heralded by a perfect morning; an azure and cloudless sky, glistening through bracing and crisp air. Today deserves nothing less than our immediate and energetic scrutiny.

Maria has decided to use today as her retreat, and seriously, little else. Michael and I, even though our leg muscles pleading for mercy after yesterday’s promenade through DC, don coats, gloves and….camera – and, strike on towards Central Park.

The city streets are virtually silent; devoid of the noises of traffic and humanity. Michael senses my amazement, to which he responds: “It is after all – Sunday, and most people either stay indoors or head for the hills – literally.” In reflection, New York is a city of diversities, and one forgets its expanse. Its evolution is as diversified through its varied nationalities, demography and architecture. Even as Michael and I stroll along East 63rd Street, I am still surprised at the varied architectural styles: Colonial, Art Deco and Gothic.

We burst upon 5th Avenue with Central Park opposite us. Michael suggests we commence our tour at the zoo, which is virtually the halfway mark. As we venture towards the steps which lead into the Park, there looms a commanding structure which was once the armoury of the Militia. This imposing Arsenal building built in 1812, is now the residence for the offices of the Park and Wildlife Conservation Society administration. A point of interest is that the Park was built around the arsenal, and not the arsenal within the park. Central Park is totally man made; including both “lakes”, and the rock formations which appear naturally shaped within the park’s undulating landscape.

From the Arsenal, one is greeted by the “Gates of the Children’s Zoo”, a structure of four arches which support the Delacorte Clock, designed by Paul Manship. This clock has to be seen to appreciate the engineering involved. It is mounted upon a plinth, with a carousel of brass animals at the base. The clock face is situated above the carousel with a protective awning crowned by a bell. On either side of the bell sits a brass monkey statue each holding a hammer. As the clock signals the hour the monkeys strike the bell and the carousel parades the animals which turn on their axis in unison.

Now the Central Park Zoo boasts an indoor rainforest, a “Leafcutter Ant” colony, a penguin house and Polar Bear pool. The zoo is an incubator for the preservation of some of the world’s endangered species: Tamarin monkeys, Wyoming Toads, Thick-billed Parrots and Red Pandas. Central Park is an amazing example of design and innovation. It’s winding, and at times undulating pathways take the visitor through a variety of vistas.

Strolling along the Literary Walk we realise it is a salute to famous writers and poets. This splendd promenade is punctuated by statues of famous authors and bards alike. We continue to amble and take notice of the various horse-drawn carriages conveying their passengers on a leisurely tour of the grounds. At this juncture, we decide to head towards the Museum Of Natural History on the other side of the Park. However not before we proceed to the “Bethesda Terrace” and the “Boathouse”.

“The Terrace”, created by Victor Prevost, is the entry onto the lake and the boathouse and is an architectural marvel of Edwardian influences, including mosaics and the fountain called “Angel of the Waters” designed by Emma Stebbins in 1873 – the first public sculpture commission for an American woman.
A pause and a coffee at the Boathouse, then onto the Museum of Natural History. When you rest at the Boathouse, you can imagine in your mind’s eye revellers in days gone by, dressed in their “Sunday” best, boating on the lake: stripped jackets, chapeaus, parasols and millinery in colours and other fashions of the day. Yes, people still go boating on the lake, however only during spring and summer when the lake’s surface is not frozen!

Leaving the "Boathouse", we follow the meandering path which passes a bicycle hire reserve. At the reserve is a green dump-bin, which is covered in dust and grit, and some enterprising passer-by has printed into the encrusted surface: 'YOU'RE A KNOB'.... I turn to Michael and suggest, maybe the author was an Aussie, as only an Aussie would use this form of humour?

As we proceed towards our other destination, we continue to marvel at the many statues we come across: ‘Christopher Columbus’, ‘Balto’ the husky, ‘Three Dancing Maidens’, ‘Simon Bolivar’ etc. However much to my dismay, I have missed Cleopatra’s Needle (obelisk) which is located at the northern end of the Park!

We leave Central Park and head towards the Museum Of Natural History – HANG ON… WAIT A MINUTE! Banners to our right; banners to our left… so much to see, and so little time to see it all…. but what’s that to our left? “GRANT and LEE”, the banner shouts – free exhibition on Generals Grant and Lee – the American Civil War.

“Well, what do you want to do?” asks Michael. I muse for a moment.“Which one do you want to see?” he continues.“We’ll see both!” I exclaim.“Right… I’ll meet you at the museum. I’ll go find out what time Grant and Lee finishes.” Michael says.

So, we rendezvous at the Museum, which allows us two and half hours before the Civil War exhibition closes at 5pm - then into Natural History we plunge.

All the museums we have seen so far have all been impressive, and this museum is no exception. On entering the main foyer, you are greeted by an array of dinosaur skeletons, amphibians, mammalian and reptilian specimens. The section on the dinosaurs was of particular interest as many of the exhibits are posed as you would have found them in their natural environment.

The section on the ‘Big Bang Theory’ was amazing, taking the visitor on a virtual tour of the evolution of the universe. The tour commences in a large sphere which represents the universe prior to galactic ferment. The visitor then follows a downward spiral walkway chronicling the formation of our known universe, to the advent of humankind. Time is short so we leave our natural history exploration for the American Civil War.

The conflict is exhibited at the Society of American History. The exhibition is targeted to the layperson and concentrates upon the influence by the two leaders – General of the Federal Forces, Ulysses S. Grant and the General of the Confederate Forces, Robert E. Lee. You are taken through the causes of this civil conflict which took 620,000 lives through to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the period of Reconstruction. Various articles carried or worn by both General’s were displayed, including uniforms and other regalia. However the most sobering exhibit was the original Terms of Surrender, handwritten in pencil by Grant, in the presence of Lee at the Appotomax Court House in 1864.

Prior to leaving the exhibition, we are made aware that Grant’s tomb is in New York, at the end 116th Street and opposite the Riverside Church. This is our last (and unplanned) visit for the day.

We catch the subway to 112th Street and walk the remaining distance with Grant’s tomb not too far. We are expecting find an elaborate grave however nothing prepares us for the mausoleum which confronts us. It is a symbol of gratitude from a nation beleaguered by war, and relieved by the foresight and tenacity of one man.

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