Sheep Meadow: A Slice of the English Countryside in Central Park

No, Central Park’s Sheep Meadow was not named to insult the thousands of lounging sunbathers who relax on its grass each summer. For decades, Sheep Meadow lived up to its name. A callback to Upper Manhattan’s rural beginnings, the meadow was home to 200 sheep from the early years of the park until the mid-1930s. While the sheep provided wool for the park’s commissioners and entertained visitors watching from the paths, their main purpose was to emphasize Central Park’s role as an area of quiet, uninterrupted green space in the heart of the city.

Sheep Grazing in Central Park

c/o The New York Public Library

When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a bid to design Central Park in 1858, the city insisted certain features were included in the plans. Among these requirements was a designated open space for military parades and exercises within the confines of the new park. Olmsted and Vaux felt that a military parade ground went against their vision for a serene park devoid of any large gatherings, but they were constricted by the city’s regulations. Before the debate over the space could begin, however, Olmsted and Vaux had to first successfully complete what became Central Park’s most expensive and difficult construction project.

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At a glance today, it is difficult to imagine how the open, grassy field could have posed such a challenge to the park’s constructors, but its creation required completely changing the area’s landscape.  Before Central Park existed, the location was home to massive rock formations surrounded by impassable swampland and a few homes of low-income families. Workers used dynamite to blast away the above-ground sections of rock before trucking in enough New Jersey topsoil to cover the entire 15-acre space with two feet of dirt. Finally, grass was planted on “The Parade” and the area began to resemble the open lawn we see today.

Throughout the following years, Olmsted and Vaux remained convinced that the military parade ground did not belong in Central Park. In 1864, the city finally agreed with the park’s architects and “The Parade” became “The Green.” Having always drawn influence from European gardens and landscapes, Olmsted and Vaux believed that sheep would turn the meadow into an English countryside scene that would be perfect for visitors to enjoy. That year, 200 Southdown sheep were brought to the meadow and immediately began to thrive. In 1871, an ornate sheepfold was built next to the meadow to house the sheep and their shepherd each night. Later joined by Dorset Sheep, the flock remained a Central Park fixture for 70 years.

History of Sheep Meadow Central Park

c/o Thaddeus Wilkerson [Public domain]

In 1934, parks commissioner and powerful city planner Robert Moses began to implement changes to Sheep Meadow. Moses envisioned a restaurant on the west side of Central Park and decided the sheepfold would perfectly suit its needs. Moses quickly evicted the sheep and shepherd to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and built Tavern on the Green inside the renovated sheepfold. The sheep were later moved to the Catskills, where they found a permanent home on a more appropriate farm.

Sheep Meadow became a public recreation area through the 1960s and 1970s, when massive concerts and demonstrations on the lawn seriously eroded the topsoil. The dusty, dirty field was finally restored to its original state by the Central Park Conservancy in 1980.  Since then, sports games and large events have been held on the Great Lawn, leaving Sheep Meadow reminiscent of a quiet, albeit livestock-free, pasture, just as Olmsted and Vaux envisioned in 1858.