Friday, October 12, 2012

An Island of Tranquillity in Prospect Park

The newly recreated Music Island, seen from the shoreline of the lake in Prospect Park.
An Island of Tranquillity Is Reclaimed in Prospect Park -

“I claim this land in the name of the Prospect Park Alliance,” its president, Emily Lloyd, declared after setting foot for the first time on Music Island.

How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.

David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
Recreated ornamental railing along the esplanade.
In place of a helmet, Ms. Lloyd wore a soft straw hat. She didn’t plant a flag. Her troops consisted only of two landscape architects and a colleague from public relations. Still, the authority of her claim is not likely to be challenged.

For one thing, Music Island, about one-quarter of an acre in extent, is in Prospect Park, rising along the southeastern shore of the lake. For another, almost no one knows that Music Island even exists. Once again.

The first Music Island was a feature of the 19th-century park design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. It occupied a small cove that was bordered by a formal esplanade of carved granite posts and iron railings.

Musicians would row out to the island and play concerts for parkgoers. Romantic? Yes. Audible? Barely. Concerts were abandoned and the island was given over to ornamental plantings of red flowers.

In 1959, it was bulldozed into oblivion to accommodate the new Kate Wollman Memorial Rink. The cove in which it sat was filled with hundreds of pilings. The elegant shoreline esplanade was chopped to pieces and dumped into the cove as fill. On top, a 12-inch concrete-and-rebar slab was set on which the rink was built.

Tear Drop Island nearby was spared. But the channel grew so choked by a hard-packed weed called phragmites that land and island fused. “You could walk out to it,” said Christian Zimmerman, the vice president of the alliance for design and construction. “And sometimes, people did.”

By 2000, Wollman Rink was reaching the end of its days. It was clear that it would have to be reconstructed or replaced.

Tupper Thomas, Ms. Lloyd’s predecessor as alliance president, raised the notion of reviving the formal Olmsted and Vaux shoreline. By 2009, it was official: Music Island would be recreated — as a nature preserve, not a concert venue — under a redevelopment plan known as Lakeside. The centerpiece of Lakeside, a year-round recreational center with two rinks, is now under construction, though the project’s budget has ballooned and its timeline has grown. Wollman Rink was demolished in 2011. Lakeside is not expected to open until the 2013 skating season.

For now, the esplanade is closed to the public, and Music Island can be seen only through a chain-link construction fence. However, beginning Oct. 20, the esplanade will be open Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., permitting a much better view.

David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
Duck potato.
Music Island will have an enhanced name — Chaim Baier Music Island — honoring the father of Shelby White, a trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, which made a $10 million grant to finance the shoreline and island reclamation. Ms. White recalled the area from her childhood, Ms. Lloyd said, and believed it was important that it be restored.

To accomplish that, the cove was dammed in 2011. After the fish and turtles behind the dam were relocated, the water was pumped out. About 9,800 cubic yards of soil, phragmites and masonry rubble was removed from the cove and the nearby shoreline. (For comparison’s sake, a large rear-loading garbage truck carries up to 25 cubic yards.) That excavation restored Tear Drop Island’s discrete outline.

Then, 1,300 cubic yards of clean subsoil were brought to the site to create the rough shape of Music Island and two short points on either side. On top of this were deposited 2,000 cubic yards of topsoil and 330 cubic yards of granite boulders. That was when the sculptural work began.

Mr. Zimmerman, the alliance vice president, was the lead landscape architect, working with Crystal Gaudio, another landscape architect, and Joseph Izzo and his colleagues from Ravine Construction on Staten Island. Though they had a general idea of how the island would lay out, they waited until the soil was in place and the boulders were on site to shape its contours for greatest effect.

That meant asking construction contractors who usually work in broad strokes to take the time to flip a single boulder this way and that, to move it an inch to the left or a foot to the right. Rocks were positioned to afford the best sunning possibilities for the large turtle population. The workers seemed delighted to oblige.

“Everyone who has worked on this project would get seduced by it,” Ms. Lloyd said.

David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
A statue of Abraham Lincoln overlooks Music Island.
Trees and plants were brought in: bald cypress, black tupelo, duck potato, river birch, shadbush, sweetbay magnolia and winterberry, among others. “It’s balanced for habitat as well as to make people happy,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

In May, the pumps were turned off and stitches in the fabric dam were loosened. The waters of the lake embraced the new Music Island. The moment was bittersweet, however, as Mr. Izzo, 46, who worked devotedly on the job, had died two months earlier.

It was not until September that Ms. Lloyd first explored the island, stepping deftly over the small stream bed that bisects it. As she stood quietly surveying her new realm, it was clear that someone else had been seduced by Music Island.

A version of this article appeared in print on 10/04/2012, on page A31 of the NewYork edition with the headline: An Island of Tranquillity Is Returned to Prospect Park.

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