How to Enjoy Brooklyn’s Prospect Park

The Boathouse in Prospect Park, viewed from the Lullwater Bridge.

As most people know, space is a prized commodity in New York City, and that includes green space. When people think about places in the city to relax, Central Park often comes to mind.

But where does Prospect Park, the 585-acre recreational oasis in Brooklyn, fit in?

Like Central Park, Prospect Park was designed by the architectural team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. But Prospect Park, which opened in 1867, is remarkable in its own right. The park is accessible year-round, but truly shines in the summer.

David P. Colley, the author of “Prospect Park: Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn Masterpiece,” wrote that “Olmsted and Vaux understood that the natural world seldom displays itself in the ideal, and they set out to construct an impression of nature at its most harmonious and sublime.”

Here is a guide, from West Drive to Prospect Park Lake to the Boathouse, with paths, meadows and trails in between.

Like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, in the middle of a busy traffic circle at Grand Army Plaza, is a testament to the architectural aspirations of the 19th century. The arch, which was built to honor soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War, was dedicated in 1892 and dominates the surrounding area leading to Prospect Park. Within Grand Army Plaza, there are two works from different periods of the 20th century: the John F. Kennedy Memorial, a bust of the 35th president of the United States; and the Bailey Fountain, a large Art Deco sculptural water fountain. (The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, a farmer’s market, is held each Saturday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the northwest corner of Prospect Park.)

After passing four eagle-topped columns at the main Prospect Park entrance, the convergence of bikers, joggers and pedestrians at West Drive comes into view. West Drive has been car-free since 2015 and the entire park became car-free earlier this year, which creates a less hurried environment throughout the park. The tree canopy over much of West Drive, with sunlight filtering through the leaves, makes this a favorite part of the park.

Veer west and walk slightly outside of the park grounds to reach Prospect Park West, one of the most sought-after residential streets in the city, and a gateway to the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. With a mix of brownstones, co-op buildings, neo-Italian Renaissance homes and rowhouses, the street offers a range of architecture reflective of its development in the early 20th century. Within the boundaries of the park at 95 Prospect Park West is the Litchfield Villa, an Italianate mansion constructed between 1854 and 1857 on what was then a private estate. Built by the influential architect Alexander Jackson Davis for the Brooklyn financier Edwin Clark Litchfield, the building now houses offices for the Prospect Park Alliance, the nonprofit group that partners with the City of New York to maintain and promote the park.

Back on the main grounds, the expansive Long Meadow cuts through much of the northern end of the park. On any given summer day, there are people sunbathing on the lawn, enjoying a picnic or participating in a yoga session. At nearby Nellie’s Lawn is the Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, where children can climb storm-damaged trees and play hide-and-seek. Farther south are the Long Meadow Ballfields, where there are always baseball games to watch.

At the Prospect Park Bandshell, the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary with 31 events, including performances by the saxophonist Branford Marsalis and actor-director Roger Guenveur Smith (June 29), the sitar player Anoushka Shankar (July 20) and the electronica band BadBadNotGood (Aug. 2).

At the southern end of the park, the 55-acre Prospect Park Lake defines the landscape. Ducks are frequent guests in the lake and along the shoreline. On one recent weekday afternoon, with kayakers in the distance and the gentle sound of the water hitting the shoreline, I may have been in the quietest place in Brooklyn.

The small brick building at the bottom of a steep hill is a rarity, one of the last surviving structures designed by Olmsted and Vaux as a part of the original park plan. Built as the Well and Boiler House, it provided the park’s water supply in its earlier years before the park began using water from the city. After sitting dormant for decades, the building, with a portico marked by colors and stripes, was recently renovated and reopened as the first composting restroom in a New York City park.

On the opposite side of the park close to East Drive is the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center at Lakeside. The center, which opened in 2013, has a large rink that is open to roller skaters in the spring and summer, and ice skaters in the fall and winter, along with a splash pad sprinkler playground, the casual Bluestone Cafe and an outdoor dining space, a bike rental area and the main launching point for boating in Prospect Park Lake. One recent afternoon, I heard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” by Diana Ross and the Supremes, blaring from the roller rink speakers, a big welcome sign for this fan of soul music. (During various times of the year, the rink is also configured for figure skating and ice hockey.)

Overlooking the placid Lullwater, a waterway that flows into Prospect Park Lake, the stately Audubon Center at the Boathouse is one of the most impressive spaces in the park. Built in 1905, the boathouse, with its graceful arches and Guastavino ceiling tiles, is on the eastern side of the park. By 1964, after years of deterioration, the building was close to being demolished, saved only after community protests. It was awarded landmark status by the city in 1968 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Today, the renovated boathouse serves as an urban Audubon Center, with programs aimed at learning about nature, in a partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and Audubon New York.

Throughout Prospect Park, there are arches that date to the earliest years of the park’s existence. The Cleft Ridge Span, an intricate 1872 arch with an interior composed of Béton Coignet, a mix of cement, lime, sand and water, is an alluring spot near the Boathouse. The 1860s-era Endale Arch, which leads visitors to an expansive view of the Great Meadow, is a great place to take in the vibrancy of the park. The Meadowport Arch, constructed with limestone and completed in 1870, has a charming double entrance.

Closer to Flatbush Avenue, the park has a lot of fun activities for children and their families. The Prospect Park Carousel, dating to 1912, was originally in Coney Island and has been in the park since 1952. A few yards away, the Lefferts Historic House, a Dutch colonial farmhouse built circa 1783, now operates as a museum, where visitors can learn more about life in Brooklyn during the 19th century. The low-key, 12-acre Prospect Park Zoo (tickets range from $5 to $8) features everything from alpacas to dart frogs to California sea lions.

Like a spoke on a wheel, the Eastern Parkway, also designed by Olmsted and Vaux, extends from Grand Army Plaza. Best known as one of the world’s first parkways, it is also home to two of Brooklyn’s most popular attractions: the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The museum, currently hosting a well-received exhibit exploring the life of the singer David Bowie, has an art collection featuring roughly 1.5 million works. Founded in 1910, the botanic garden has more than 12,000 plant varieties, and includes the bucolic Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.

Prospect Park is well-served by the New York City subway system with a number of nearby stations: Grand Army Plaza (No. 2 and 3 trains), Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum (No. 2 and 3 trains), Prospect Park (B, Q and Franklin Avenue Shuttle trains), Parkside Avenue (Q train), 15th Street-Prospect Park (F and G trains) and Fort Hamilton Parkway (F and G trains). The No. 4 and 5 trains stop at the Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum stations on weekends. Those arriving by commuter train from Long Island or John F. Kennedy International Airport can take the Long Island Rail Road from Jamaica to nearby Atlantic Terminal, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues and Hanson Place.

Follow John L. Dorman on Twitter: @jon425.

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