ARCHITECTURAL TILES, GLASS AND ORNAMENTATION IN NEW YORK

A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Heart of the Park: Bethesda Terrace and its suspended Minton Tile ceiling

The Minton tile ceiling and some of the decorated side panels in Bethesda Terrace Arcade. (Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)

The Greensward Plan was created in 1858 by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmsted to improve and expand Central Park. “British architect Jacob Wrey Mould worked closely with them both designing many notable features including Belvedere Castle, a great number of bridges and Bethesda Terrace - the formal architectural centrepiece of Central Park.” (Danny Callaghan “Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, New York”, November 13, 2015; http://www.tile-source.com/blog/2015/11/13/minton-tile-ceiling-bethesda-terrace-central-park-new-yorkOlmsted and Vaux “proposed that the terrace would be known as the ‘heart of the park,’ and Vaux was once quoted as having said, ‘Nature first, second, and third – architecture after a while.’ The two creators' vision consisted of a place where people could experience nature while holding social gatherings, a place to see and be seen while mingling with like-minded people.” (http://www.centralpark.com/guide/attractions/bethesda-terrace.htmlAs with many of their parks, this area was meant to be a place where people would go to relieve the stresses of daily urban living.


The Bethesda Terrace construction site, 1862. (Public domain, photographer: Victor Prevost)

“Olmsted began working with Calvert Vaux on Vaux's ideas for Central Park in 1857, and in April 1858, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux submitted the Greensward Plan, one of 33 submissions being considered, to the board. The plan...was notable for the way it combined formal and naturalistic settings with architectural flourishes like Bethesda Terrace and the ornate bridges that circulated traffic through the park.



An 1859 topological view of Central Park showing the transverse, carriage traffic roads.


“Perhaps most importantly, Olmsted and Vaux's plan for the park created ways for pedestrians and carriages to enjoy the park without disturbing each other. The design's transverse roads, considered revolutionary, allowed vehicular traffic to cut through the park without substantively detracting from the park experience.” (https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/olmsted-parks)



Exterior of Bethesda Terrace's Arcade, 2016. The tiles are in the arcade underpass between the stairways. 

“The premise of the Greensward plan was that Central Park should express an overarching aesthetic motive. ...The goal of Vaux's entire professional career had been to arrange ‘useful and necessary forms’ to ‘suggest the pleasant ideas of harmonious proportion, fitness, and agreeable variety to the eye.’ Olmsted, who admired the harmonious composition of English parks, found spontaneous manners as well as eclectic design distasteful. The partners envisioned the future Central Park as a unified work of landscape art.” (http://www.centralparkhistory.com/timeline/timeline_1850_greensward.html)


“Olmsted and Vaux suggested that the park be divided into two sections; the Upper Park, which was characterized by bold and sweeping slopes, grand scale gardening, and the Reservoir; and the Lower Park, which was characterized by a much more varied landscape including a long and rocky hillside. ...The Greensward Plan also outlined various other elements of the Park such as the Ramble, the Victorian inspired [Mould] Bandstand,...and the Esplanade.” (http://josiecentralpark04.tripod.com/centralparkanevolution/id4.html)


Part of The Ramble. (Photo © www.aviewoncities.com)



Replica of the 1862 Mould Bandstand in Central Park (1862-1928). “one of the most exotic structures ever to be built in the park—or in all of Manhattan for that matter: the Musician's Pagoda on the Mall, known fondly to generations of New Yorkers as ‘the Old Bandstand.’ Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s designer and first Superintendent—and someone not usually given to such flights of fancy—originally envisioned a floating pagoda-cum-music pavilion moored in the Lake off Bethesda Terrace. Detailed plans for the floating pagoda were drawn up in 1862 by his assistant Jacob Wrey Mould but Olmsted then settled upon a prominent site on the Mall promenade at the northern end of the famed elm alley, the park's great open-air ‘cathedral.’ (http://architecturalwatercolors.blogspot.com/2011/04/old-bandstand-central-park.html)



The Esplanade. (Stereo view photograph courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "The Esplanade, Central Park." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-f028-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

Bethesda Terrace consists of the Bethesda Fountain, the two grand stairways leading to an upper level, and the tiled underpass or arcade. The Terrace’s two levels are ”united by [the] two grand staircases and a lesser one that passes under Terrace Drive to provide passage southward to the Elkan Naumburg bandshell and The Mall, of which this is the architectural culmination, the theatrical set-piece at the center of the park. The upper terrace flanks the 72nd Street Cross Drive and the lower terrace provides a podium for viewing the Lake. The mustard-olive colored carved stone is New Brunswick sandstone, with a harder stone for cappings, with granite steps and landings, and herringbone paving of Roman brick laid on edge.”


“Bethesda Fountain is the central feature on the lower level of the terrace, constructed in 1859-64, which is enclosed within two elliptical balustrades.


Lower Bethesda Terrace and Fountain looking toward the lake. (Photo by Ingfbruno - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29652013)

“The pool is centered by a fountain sculpture designed by Emma Stebbins in 1868 and unveiled in 1873.





“Stebbins was the first woman to receive a public commission for a major work of art in New York City. The bronze, eight-foot statue depicts a female winged angel touching down upon the top of the fountain, where water spouts and cascades into an upper basin and into the surrounding pool. It was the only statue in the park called for in the original design. Beneath her are four four-foot cherubs representing Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace. Also called the Angel of the Waters, the statue refers to the Gospel of John, Chapter 5 where there is a description of an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda, giving it healing powers. In Central Park the referent is the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842, providing the city for the first time with a dependable supply of pure water: thus the angel carries a lily in one hand, representing purity, and with the other hand she blesses the water below.


“The base of the fountain was designed by the architect of all the original built features of Central Park, Calvert Vaux, with sculptural details, as usual, by Jacob Wrey Mould.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethesda_Terrace_and_Fountain)



Facing the fountain across a plaza is the arcade with the Minton tile ceiling, carved interior wall panels, and carved balustrades and exterior panels. The balustrades and exterior panels were restored in the 1980s.



Two carved panels of birds.



The loggia and side panels in the arcade.

The arcade also once had an encaustic tile floor made by the Minton company, but “[the] original floor tiles failed within 35 years due to damp conditions and damage from a ruptured sewerage pipe serving new ‘rest rooms’ installed either side of the Arcade rear steps (according to records). [...F]ragments of the original tiles have been found beneath the existing floor. It is believed that the original floor was simply broken up and used as part of the base for the new quarry tile and granite block floor laid in 1911. (Danny Callaghan, “Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, New York”, Glazed Expressions,  the Magazine of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, Issue No. 71, 2013, p. 17)



Original Bethesda Arcade encaustic floor tiles. (Photo courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy)

The Bethesda Terrace ceiling is the only known suspended tile ceiling made by the Minton Company. “The Minton tile ceiling design is made up of 15,876 individual encaustic tiles.* These are divided [among] 49 panels. ...Each panel is made up of 324 tiles.” (Danny Calaghan, p. 16) 


*[“Encaustic ceramic tile, developed in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks for the floors of churches and cathedrals, is made by laying colored clays into the body of the tile to a depth of approximately 1/8" (this differs from the more common but less durable method, where the decorative pattern is created with colored surface glazes). The skill of manufacturing encaustic tile was lost in the sixteenth century with the Reformation but was revived in England in the 1840s by Herbert Minton.” (Peter Champe and Mark Rabinowitz, “Restoring the Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace Arcade, Central Park, New York City”, APT Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 2/3, 1999, p. 12)  Minton’s "‘encaustic’ process [for the ceiling tiles] entailed the use of a plaster mold with a pattern in relief at the bottom. A thin layer of good quality clay called Engobe, about 1/4" thick, was pressed into the mold: then a thicker layer of coarse clay containing grog (a burnt-earth product) was added, about 1/2” thick, and a second layer of Engobe was applied. The clay sandwich formed a laminated structure, 1" thick. Different colored slip clays were poured onto the face of the tile filling the indentations left by the plaster mold's relief pattern. After coloring, the tiles were then placed in a bottle oven to be fired. The tile, when removed, was glazed and then refired. The clay tiles are set in a roman cement (natural cement with a marly-lime body). A phosphor-bronze dovetail bolt, centered in the back of the tile, attaches the tile to the cast-iron support plate. The dovetail bolt penetrates the 1" thick tile to a depth of 1/2". The slot for the bolt was formed by a wood plug which burns out during the firing of the tile...” (Jean Parker Murphy and Kate Burns Ottavino, “The Rehabilitation of Bethesda Terrace: The Terrace Bridge and Landscape, Central Park, NewYork”, Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1986, p. 37)]



The two types of tile panels and detailed views of the center elements. (Photos courtesy of Michael Padwee)


The construction of the paneled ceiling was unique at the time: “Each panel of 324 tiles secured to an iron plate measures 8' 6" square and weighs approximately 1 ton.



One of the 8’6” square tile panels after its removal for cleaning and restoration. (Photo courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy)

“Elegant, pierced cast-iron ribs reinforce the iron panels.



An iron panel with cast iron ribs. (Photo courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy)

“The tiles are of three sizes: four 3" by 3" tiles define the corners; 64 3" by 6" tiles make up the edges; and 256 6" by 6" tiles form the center of each panel. Each 1"-thick tile is set in a bedding layer of mortar and mechanically attached to its iron back plate by a bronze dovetail bolt, which is slotted into the back of the tile, secured with a turn, and fixed in place with mortar.



Three original 6” encaustic Minton tiles taken from the Bethesda Arcade ceiling, and a 6” Minton tile back with the central, wedge-shaped indentation with brass tile clip. (Photos courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy)


“...The panels rest on the removable lip of the decorative cast-iron beams that grid the ceiling. Forming the perimeter of the panels is a frame of 1" by 2" wrought-iron bar, which bears the weight of the panels.” (Peter Champe and Mark Rabinowitz, “Restoring the Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace Arcade, Central Park, New York City”, APT Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 2/3, 1999, p. 12)



Details of ceiling panel corners


The overall design of the tile panels “borrows from Islamic tile work in its use of repeated abstract floral motifs[...and] is composed of seven colors: buff, brown, green, yellow ochre, white, blue, and black. There are two panel designs, which differ only in their central medallion: 25 panels bear a small central medallion and 24 a large one.” (Champe and Rabinowitz, p. 12) 

The tile ceiling was removed and stored in 1983 because of safety considerations. Over the decades vibrations from the overhead roadway traffic and water and road-salt seepage caused, “...significant corrosion and deterioration of the iron panels. The corrosion exerted enormous pressure against the backs of the tiles, effectively pulling the attachment bolts out and fracturing [some of] the ceramic [tile bodies].


“In 1989 the Conservancy commissioned a feasibility study for the restoration of the tile ceiling. The resulting recommendations called for disassembly of the panels, removal of bolts, bedding and grouting mortar, and replacement of all damaged tiles.” Then, in 1997, the Central Park Conservancy received funding to develop a restoration plan, and one was developed that kept the panels intact during the restoration. “Each panel, rather than each tile, would become the basic restoration unit, effectively reducing the number of elements from 16,000 to 49.” Thus, the individual tiles would remain relationally intact during the restoration. (Champe and Rabinowitz, p. 12)



Removing the old grout from the tiles. Restoration of the tile panels was very labor intensive. (Photo courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy)




After the individual tiles are cleaned, broken tiles are replaced and new stainless steel clips are set into the tiles, the tiles are placed upside down in a reverse mortar setting bed and covered with a special self-leveling mortar mixture. (Photo courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy) 


Many of the tiles were cracked or broken and would have to be replaced: “Approximately 10% of the tiles have been lost, structurally damaged, or have suffered damage to more than one-quarter of their design layer... .” (Champe and Rabinowitz, p. 14) The Central Park Conservancy turned to Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society member David Malkin* to replace these tiles. Malkin grew up and worked in the tile potteries of Stoke-on-Trent in England, and, when approached, was the head of Tile Source, Inc. in the United States. Malkin was asked to supply the reproduction encaustic tiles needed, and he engaged the reorganized Maw & Co. in Burselm, Stoke-on-Trent to make the tiles. (Danny Callaghan, “Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, New York”, Glazed Expressions,  the Magazine of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, Issue No. 71, 2013, p. 17) 


*[David Malkin has another connection to a local Minton encaustic tile installation in Brooklyn--the “tile rug” in the Litchfield Villa vestibule in Prospect Park. In 2008 the Minton tile floor, which had been poorly maintained, was restored. Historian, Francis Morrone, wrote: “Inside, in work completed earlier this year, [...the team of architect Ralph Carmosino] revived the villa's lost or sullied features. And the gorgeous Minton tile floor was beautifully restored. In encaustic tiles, color and pattern are embedded in the clay, rather than applied to the surface, thus answering to moralistic Victorian architects' ‘truth to materials’ philosophy, which — what with stuccoed façades and marbleized wood — hardly informed Litchfield Villa, where the tiles were used solely for their beauty, not their morality.” (Francis Morrone, “New Life for Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park”, The New York Sun, May 19, 2008; http://www.nysun.com/arts/new-life-for-litchfield-villa-in-prospect-park/76619/The Minton tiles were restored by David Malkin of Tile Source, Inc. The original Minton tiles were chosen for the Litchfield Mansion from Minton design books, which were available in New York. “These [tiles] are identical to some of the floors in the U.S. Capitol. Similar tiles can also be found at the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, California,...and in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.” (Leaflet: “A Little News from the Friends of Central, Prospect, Cadwalader, Fort Greene, Druid Hill and Branch Brook Parks”, Summer 2001 edition)



The Litchfield Villa “tile rug”.


Malkin not only restored the original Minton tiles, but made encaustic tile replicas of the originals to replace any damaged tiles.]

There were many steps to complete before the ceiling restoration was completed, and the Champe and Rabinowitz article referenced above is probably the best description available.



The final step: reattaching a tile panel to the Bethesda Arcade ceiling using a hydraulic fork lift with four small hydraulic lifts under the four corners of the panel. (Photo courtesy of Danny Callaghan with special thanks to Matt Reiley, Associate Director of Conservation & Preservation, Central Park Conservancy)


And, this is the result:



The Minton tile ceiling and some of the decorated side panels in Bethesda Terrace Arcade looking toward Bethesda Fountain. (By Francisco Diez from New Jersey, USA - Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, NYCUploaded by Ekabhishek, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9776649


*****

I would like to thank Danny Callaghan for his help and for permission to use his photos. Please visit Danny's website: http://ceramiccitystories.postach.io

A 360º panoramic view of the Bethesda Arcade may be accessed at: http://www.360cities.net/image/bethesda-arcade-minton-tile-ceiling 



*****


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