Designed by Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) and erected in 1869, Belvedere Castle is one of Central Park’s gems. It sits atop an outcrop of Manhattan schist 130 feet high called Vista Rock. The schist was formed some 450 million years ago when the tectonic plates holding the east coast of North America and the floor of the Atlantic Ocean collided. According to nycgovparks.org, the strength, durability, and close proximity of Manhattan schist to the Earth’s surface can be credited for enabling our skyscrapers to stand. Belvedere is hardly a giant; nonetheless, it still enjoys the same supportive bedrock as the likes of the Empire State Building.
Cooler still, if you were to follow the castle’s lone spire to its pinnacle, you would find specialized instruments constantly recording our temperature and wind speed. Since 1919, the United States Weather Bureau has used all the data collected at Belvedere as New York City’s official readings. But that probably wouldn’t have happened without meteorologist Daniel Draper (1841-1931). In 1869, the State Legislature passed a law that permitted a weather observatory to open in the Arsenal building at 5th Avenue and 64th Street. Draper was appointed its first director. For years after, however, he advocated that the operation be moved to Belvedere’s tower.
In an interview with the New York Times dated November 29, 1884, Draper told the paper that he envied the Belvedere’s stone walls because they were fireproof. Fireproof? Well, his office in the Arsenal wasn’t, so he was looking for a place to safeguard the 15 years’ worth of measurements he’d accumulated:
These records are valuable [he explained], and more so than is generally supposed. A week does not pass but that Prof. Draper answers inquiries in regard to the temperature or direction of the wind three or four years ago.
Judges from across the city apparently called on him when they needed to verify a previous day’s reading in court:
Several cases amounting to thousands of dollars have depended in their ultimate decision upon Prof. Draper’s silent but certainly unbiased witnesses…. In a recent divorce case, weather played an important part, and it was not until [he] was consulted that the matter was decided.
The Parks Commissioners — there was one per borough then — supported Draper’s plan, but they couldn’t find the $16,000 in their budget needed to facilitate his transition to Belvedere. Until the funds could be found, however, the Times noted that all he could do was wait:
The Professor looked longingly over toward the reservoir, with his eye on ‘the Belvedere,’ the gray stone building by its side, which is now unoccupied, and wished that he could change it into an observatory.
Sadly, Draper wasn’t around to see his wish come true. After 41 years of weather service, he retired in 1911 — eight years shy of the move to Belvedere.
Photo by Rick Stachura. September 27, 2015.
Belvedere Castle, Central Park. Looking toward its tower some 50 feet up.
(This story was first published to my old Tumblr site on October 16, 2015.)