Central Park’s secret sanctuary for the soul

After 80 years, a hidden garden inside New York’s Central Park has opened its gates. Want to peek inside?

The Hallet Nature Sanctuary in Central Park, New York City. Photo courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

This summer, New Yorkers will get a new place to restore their souls. No, not a new church or synagogue, but an outdoor sanctuary, long hidden in the heart of the city. For decades, Central Park’s Promontory, four acres of Manhattan’s much-visited park, lay forgotten, off limits to the public. But now the Promontory will open again, giving busy city-dwellers a chance find some serenity in a place they’ve often visited but probably never noticed.

Back in 1934, NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses closed the section of the park to create a bird sanctuary. It was a worthy goal, except it turned out that the trees and plant life were non-native and all wrong for the birds and the woodlands. And so, the gates went up, and groundskeepers left the Promontory to its own devices. Beyond the branch-hewn gates that kept park-goers out, weeds and invasive plants grew wild, overtaking the trails that had once passed through this woodland peninsula stretching into The Pond.

Neglected, it grew wild and woolly and became home to birds, coyotes, and a few folks without anywhere else to go.

Though the Promontory got a new name in 1986—the Hallett Nature Sanctuary—its existence, for the most part, remained secret. That is, until 2001, when the Central Park Conservancy’s Woodlands Initiative, “a $40 million project that involved revitalizing areas of the 843-acre park,” took an interest in the Promontory. And so began a 15-year restoration project that attacked the weeds, vines, and invasive species and solicited funds to create a tranquil space.

Hallet Nature Sanctuary Entrance

Entrance of The Hallet Nature Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

One of the donors, Sima Ghadamian, whose apartment overlooks the Promontory, was inspired to give to the cause after longing for a place of respite after a friend died of leukemia. Ghadamian told the New York Times, “I thought, ‘I’m having such a hard time, and I have a support system with family and friends. I thought, ‘How hard it is to be in New York and not have that, not have a place someone could go.’”

She realized the Promontory was supposed to be that place. Ghadamian and her husband’s donations created pathways and benches, thus creating a “cozy” sanctuary within the sanctuary. Now, Ghadamian says, “It’s exactly how I think Frederick Olmsted wanted it.”

Early visitors to the garden seem to echo that, loving what they have seen and experienced. Joseph Ornstein called the Promontory “a little pocket of serenity”—which is exactly what Ghadamian and the Conservatory project hoped for.

Lisa Kozlowski, the senior zone gardener, said, “I’m hoping folks will come here as one of the three natural areas of the park that we’re currently restoring and find solitude, find peace, but also take a look at it—the environment here, the plants, the wildlife.”

Hallet Nature Sanctuary Rustic Overlook

A sitting area at the Hallet Nature Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Central Park Conservancy

Of course, finding peace and communing with nature go hand in hand, which is what makes projects like this so exciting. New York, which is notoriously crowded and full of hurried, overworked people, now has four “new” acres open to the public. That’s four more acres of space that will entice us to catch our breath as we connect with nature around us.

But really, any time we can encounter beauty—no matter how small or how fleeting—we are given a gift, a gift that often remains “unopened” simply because we neglect to notice it. Just as the now-revealed Promontory bids us to come find our peace, so does all of the natural world—whether it’s in Central Park, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes, the vast deserts, or our own bit of backyard. If we can take a moment to notice the beauty that surrounds us, we will find the tranquility we’re looking for.

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira

Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at carynrivadeneira.com.

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