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Central Park, Built for and With the Help of Horses, Will Again Offer Them a Home

Central Park, Built for and With the Help of Horses, Will Again Offer Them a Home

The New York Times 5/3/2011

By SARAH MASLIN NIR

Central Park is laced with bridle paths and dotted with pastures, and its plants were once fertilized with manure. But though carriage horses trot through it, police horses occasionally patrol it, and wooden steeds gallop around the carousel, horses have not called the park home for more than 100 years.

This summer, they will return.

The Central Park Conservancy has, since last year, been overseeing the construction of a stable in the park, and it is now set to welcome its first two residents.

The red-brick, five-stall barn cost about $700,000 to build and will house horses ridden by the parks department’s seven Mounted Parks Enforcement Patrol officers, as well as volunteers. It is tucked away on the edge of a small parking lot on the southern side of the Central Park Zoo, just off Fifth Avenue.

“We just thought it was really important to keep an equine presence in Central Park,” said Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the parks department, who said it was his idea to build the barn. Mounted officers are effective at crowd control, and their high visibility may be a deterrent to crime, he added.

“The park was built with bridle paths,” Mr. Benepe added. “It’s historically part of what happens in Central Park, and has over the past 150 years.”

Mr. Benepe said this might be a first step to a more expansive vision; the department announced on Tuesday that it was accepting proposals for a privately run riding center in the park.

Up until four years ago, the patrol horses lived at the Claremont Riding Academy, a block and a half outside the park on West 89th Street. But the academy, which was also home to horses that could be used by the public, closed in 2007. The parks department’s horses were sent to another borough, and the overall number of horses in the park was significantly reduced.

Two will now be stationed in the new stable: draft horses named Monty and Pete, both geldings.

They will be ridden by both the patrol officers and volunteers in the Parks Enforcement Patrol Mounted Auxiliary Unit, who are trained in park protocol and rotate patrol duty. The auxiliary officers do not have police power, their mounts functioning more like four-legged (or is that six?) park docents. The volunteers give directions, tell people to clean up after or leash their dogs and keep cyclists in the bike lanes.

“They’re peace officers,” said Nancy Hodin, vice president of the board of the auxiliary unit, who used to patrol several times a month. “I missed seeing them. I’m a firm believer that all the great parks in the world should have horses. I think it’s important to have them back in because it’s just another sign that the city cares about the park.”

The patrol horses for Central Park moved to the Riverdale Equestrian Center in the Bronx. Since then, they have mostly patrolled Van Cortlandt Park, occasionally taking a trailer ride into Manhattan for high-volume park events like the ING New York City Marathon.

The horses’ eviction from Claremont helped pay for their new home. When Paul Novograd, the longtime proprietor of the academy, bought it from the city in the late 1990s, the contract stipulated that he provide free housing for the park’s horses until 2008, the parks department said. When he closed the building in 2007, Mr. Novograd and the new owners agreed to pay $400,000 to the city. That money went toward the new barn.

“I think it’s great,” Mr. Novograd said. “It was part of the original Olmsted design to have all these beautiful bridle paths,” he added, referring to Frederick Law Olmsted, who, with Calvert Vaux, designed the park in the 19th century.

The auxiliary group raised an additional $100,000, and $200,000 came from the city’s capital fund, Mr. Benepe, the parks commissioner, said. The Central Park Conservancy donated the design services of Christopher Nolan, its vice president of planning, design and construction. Site excavation began in October, after reviews by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to make sure the designs were in keeping with the circa-1930 aesthetic of the buildings at the zoo.

“We tried to find an area of the park where you aren’t taking something away, that would be secure,” Mr. Benepe said of the site, a parking lot near the zoo’s utility garage. “The zoo seemed the perfect place because they’re already caring for all the animals.” And, he added, “it’s no more smelly than any of the other animals there.”

Horses were once essential in the park.

“The park was built with horses,” said Sara Cedar Miller, the historian for the Central Park Conservancy. “In 1857, when they started clearing the park, the only way to get around was by horse and carriage,” or on horseback, she said. “They actually brought in the soil, manure, plants — everything was transported by horses.”

And, she said, horse-drawn omnibuses ferried visitors to bus stops like the Ladies’ Pavilion.

The work and police horses lived at what is now the Police Department’s Central Park Precinct, on the 86th Street park transverse, as well as, perhaps, near the North Meadow at 97th Street, Ms. Cedar Miller said.

Though she could not pin down exactly when the last horse was stabled in the park, she said they were gradually phased out in the early 1900s as automobiles gained traction.

No horses for the public will be kept in the new barn. But Mr. Benepe is accepting proposals for every urban horseperson’s dream, with the North Meadow as a potential spot. The deadline for submissions is June 13.