Offering breathtaking views of both the Central Park Lake and woods, the Bethesda Terrace, located at 72nd Street Cross Drive, is an architectural marvel. The terrace was one of the very first structures to have been built in Central Park; its construction began in 1859, continued throughout the Civil War, and was completed in 1863.
The structure's layout consists of both an upper and a lower terrace, which are connected by two grand staircases and a smaller one leading directly to the Mall. The entire terrace is constructed primarily of New Brunswick sandstone, paved with Roman brick, and boasts granite steps and landings. While the upper terrace flanks 72nd street and is responsible for the amazing views witnessed by tourists every year, the lower terrace connects to the Mall and features the majestic Bethesda Fountain.
When designing the terrace, both Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux agreed that nature, rather than architecture, was to be of paramount importance in their plan. They 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. It was meant to be an escape from the often stressful and busy urban life of the typical city-dweller.
Jacob Wrey Mould, the designer of the Bethesda Fountain, supported Olmsted and Vaux's emphasis on nature with his designs of the decorative elements of the terrace, created according to Vaux's own original ideas and concept. Mould's carvings depict such things as the times of day and the four seasons. His designs also present images of birds that can be found in the area, as well as seasonal plants that are grown within the terrace.
The Bethesda Terrace has experienced many changes throughout the decades. In the 1960's its function aligned with its creators' intention as a place of social gathering and it even featured a restaurant. In the 1970's however, the terrace was used primarily for drug-trafficking before it was restored by the Central Park Conservancy in the early 1980's. Since then, very few minor changes and restorations have occurred, including the addition of ornamental poles topped by medieval banners in the vista, and the replacement of many older tiles located in the steps of the terrace in 2007. Today, it the Bethesda Terrace is known for its spectacular views, people-watching opportunities, and frequent appearances by talented street performers.
— Jesse M. Wheeler