Bowling Green Park – small public park in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan – is deeply rooted in New York City history. Legend has it — though historians give the legend almost no credence — that Indian tribal leaders used the land for meetings and to negotiate the sale of Manhattan to Peter Minuit in 1626. Built in 1733, originally including a bowling green, it is the oldest public park in New York City and is surrounded by its original 18th-century fence.
During the days of New Amsterdam, this was the site of the first public well, dug in 1658 and would remain the only well within the city until 1677, long after the Dutch were replaced by the British. The park has long been a center of activity in the city going back to the days of New Amsterdam, when it served as a parade field and cattle market, where people would sell and buy livestock for their farms.
In 1675, the Common Council designated the “plaine afore the forte” for an annual market of “graine, cattle and other produce of the country”. In 1733, the Common Council leased a portion of the parade grounds to three prominent neighboring landlords for a peppercorn a year, upon their promise to create a park that would be “the delight of the Inhabitants of the City”. The improvements were to include a “bowling green” with “walks therein”.
In fact, bowling was played in America from the early 1600’s and lawn bowling was especially popular before the Revolutionary War. It was considered to be the “Sport of Kings”, played by notables like George Washington, George Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney.
Where the king fell
Notwithstanding a name that connotes tranquil recreation, the green has not always been free of conflict. On August 21, 1770, the British government erected a 4,000 pound (1,800 kg) gilded lead equestrian statue of King George III. The King was dressed in Roman garb in the style of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. The statue had been commissioned in 1766, along with a statue of William Pitt as a celebration of victory after the Seven Years’ War. With the rapid deterioration of relations with the mother country after 1770, the statue became a magnet for the Bowling Green protests.
In 1773, the city passed an anti-graffiti and anti-desecration law to counter vandalism against the monument. On July 9, 1776, after the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, angry residents pulled down a gilded statue. The equestrian statue was dragged up Broadway, taken to Connecticut, melted down and recast as ammunition. The statue’s head was to have been paraded about town on pike-staffs, but was recovered by Loyalists and sent to England. Eight pieces of the lead statue are preserved in the New-York Historical Society. One in the Museum of the City of New York as well as one in Connecticut. New York’s oldest fence which once protected a king is still there though, and on closer inspection still bears the scars of that day of violence in 1776.
Following the Revolution, the remains of the fort facing Bowling Green were demolished in 1790 and part of the rubble used to extend Battery Park to the west. In its place a grand Government House was built, suitable, it was hoped, for a President’s House, with a four-columned portico facing across Bowling Green and up Broadway. Governor John Jay later inhabited it. When the state capital was moved to Albany, the building served as a boarding house and then the custom house before being demolished in 1815.
Elegant townhouses were built around the park, which remained largely the private domain of the residents, though now some of the Tory patricians of New York were replaced by Republican ones; leading New York merchants, led by Abraham Kennedy, in a mansion at 1 Broadway that had a 56-foot facade under a central pediment and a front towards the Battery Parade, as the new piece of open ground was called. The Hon. John Watts, whose summer place was Rose Hill; Chancellor Robert Livingston at no. 5, Stephen Whitney at no. 7, and John Stevens all constructed brick residences in Federal style facing Bowling Green.
The Alexander Macomb House, the second Presidential Mansion, stood north of the park at 39-41 Broadway. President George Washington occupied it from February 23 to August 30, 1790, before the U.S. capital moved to Philadelphia. By 1850, however, with the opening of Lafayette Street, then of Washington Square Park and Fifth Avenue, the general northward migration of residences in Manhattan led to the conversion of the residences into the shipping offices, resulting in full public access to the park.
Rebirth of Bowling Green Park
The park was disrupted by the construction of the I.R.T. subway, which opened in 1904, but was repaired for the 1939 World’s Fair. The park suffered neglect after World War II, but was restored by the city in the 1970s and is now one of the most heavily traveled plazas in the city. The Bowling Green Fence and Park were listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
In 1982, the Irish Institute of New York installed a plaque in Bowling Green park commemorating an important religious liberty challenge which occurred in Manhattan. In 1989, the sculpture Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica was installed at the northern tip of the park by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation after it had been confiscated by the police following its illegal installation on Wall Street. The sculpture has become one of the beloved and recognizable landmarks of the Financial District.
In March 2017, Bowling Green was co-named Evacuation Day Plaza, which was marked by the erection of an illuminated street sign, commemorating the location of a pivotal event in the American Revolutionary War that ended a brutal 7-year occupation by British troops.
Today Bowling Green still holds its place in history as the first public park in the City. Where once King George III looked up towards Broadway as his subjects played the gentle game of Crown Bowls in the park, there is now a fountain. Surrounded by the imposing buildings of the Alexander Hamilton customs house, the old Standard Oil headquarters and the shipping offices of Cunard and the Panama-Pacific Ocean liners, it’s a popular spot for tourists.
A glowing page from history!
On a day in early summer I met a very old man standing where Broadway begins, and there was something so kindly in his manner that I ventured to stop and see why he gazed so long at a slab of bronze fastened to the wall of the house at No. 1 Broadway. It was a tablet placed there by one of the patriotic societies to mark the place on Bowling Green where the statue of King George III. had stood in Revolutionary days. There must have been something sympathetic in my manner, for the old gentleman beamed as I stood beside him and read the inscribed words.
“You, too, study the tablets, I see,” said he. “It is one of the best ways really to understand history. Books seem dry when we can visit real scenes, and by reminders like this,” pointing with his cane, “recall what has happened on the self-same spot.”
When I hinted that I was interested in all that had an old-time flavor, he told me that he was seeking out the city’s tablets, and would be glad to have me accompany him. And so I did.
“Before we start,” said he, “let me tell you how I study. Forgetting the lofty buildings that rise above me, the modern vehicles, and the rush of busy life, I try to imagine what the town was like at the time of which this tablet tells. I see a village filled with soldiers of the Continental Army and all astir with the news that a new nation has been formed. I hear a faraway shout — it comes from the Common, where George Washington is reading the Declaration of Independence to the soldiers. The shouts grow louder and louder, for the townspeople have reached the City Hall in Wall Street and are tearing to tatters the picture of King George that hangs there. Louder still grow the shouts, for the citizens (quite a mob now) are coming nearer. They are upon us; they throng the Bowling Green; they tear down the iron railing around King George’s statue; they batter off the heads of the royal family from the posts. Now one man has climbed up the base that supports the leaden horse and its royal master; others throw him a rope which he puts about the horse’s neck. There is a cry that rises above the general din, a straining at the rope, and the horse and rider fall to the ground and are dragged away. Surely,” he exclaimed, “that is a glowing page from history!”
“Indeed it is,” I answered.
From When old New York was young, Charles Hemstreet, 1902.
Are you interested in history of Mulberry Street? Click here.