Bethesda Terrace, in New York City’s Central Park, Offers Lessons in Design and Color
If you’re strolling north up the Mall in Central Park and notice the flash of cameras or the glow of set lights, you know you’re approaching one of the most photographed, and most filmed, locations in all of New York City: Bethesda Terrace. On any given day, you’ll see harried production assistants, not to mention stylists and makeup artists, wading through the mobs of wedding photographers and selfie takers, all in search of the perfect shot. Given the sheer number of movies and TV shows in which Bethesda Terrace has been featured—Godspell, Elf, CSI: NY, among many, many others—there must be reasons why this iconic spot is so photogenic.
Designers, just like photographers and cinematographers, know that composition is all about following a few general principles. As we’ll see, Bethesda Terrace so perfectly adheres to these principles that it offers worthwhile lessons to even the most veteran designer.
The Red Brick Road
Bethesda Terrace’s lower terrace was constructed with Roman brick, which was laid on edge and arranged in a herringbone pattern. This design sounds simple enough, but why is it so striking? The answer has to do with contrasts.
Like much of New York City’s remaining late-19th-century architecture, Bethesda Terrace has sandstone as its dominant stone. Sandstone is a wonderful material because it is solid and durable, and yet its porous nature allows for it to beautifully weather with each passing season. This weathering provides the variety of gray, olive, and even mustard tones that are pervasive in New York City.
What does sandstone have to do with brick? In the case of Bethesda Terrace, all the sandstone makes the contrasting Roman brick pop. Utilizing contrasting colors is one of the most basic design principles, and Bethesda Terrace illustrates this powerful effect beautifully.
Find a Focus
Back in school, if you weren’t focused, your eyes began to wander—to the window, to your crush, to the doodles in your notebook. Wandering eyes are not only the enemy of learning, but they’re also the enemy of successful design. In this battle for attention, designers must choose a focal point to serve as a resting place for every eye in the room.
The Bethesda Fountain, the focal point of Bethesda Terrace, provides a great example of how to attract viewers’ attention. This is because it is topped by Angel of the Waters, an 8-foot-tall bronze statue designed by Emma Stebbins, the first woman ever to receive a major sculptural commission in New York City. Below Angel of the Waters are four smaller sculptures of cherubs, and, in reference to the biblical Pool of Bethesda, each is designated as one of the four healing powers of water: purity, temperance, health, and peace.
While beautiful, these sculptural elements alone would not achieve an eye-catching effect. What makes the fountain such a focal point is a more natural element: water, particularly moving water. When water descends from the upper basin of the fountain, below the Angel of the Waters, the movement sends water cascading down the basin and around the cherubs.
The lesson here is to create a focal point through movement. The human eye is naturally attracted to movement—perhaps a result of eons of evading wild beasts—and pairing light and dark tones helps create a dynamic space. Remember, the general rule of color is that dark and cool colors recede, while lighter and warmer colors appear to move forward.
Light and Shadows
The story of Bethesda Terrace, like the story of New York City, is one of redemption. Bethesda Terrace was unveiled in 1863—the Bethesda Fountain debuted a decade later—but by the 1970s, this centerpiece of Frederick Olmsted’s vision had fallen into disrepair.
In particular need of refurbishment were the ceramic tiles that lined the ceiling of the lower terrace’s passageway, known as the Arcade. The British company Minton’s had handcrafted each of the 15,876 tiles back in 1869, and when the tiles arrived from across the sea, they were arranged into 49 distinct panels. The tiles showcased Middle Eastern–inspired motifs and featured shades of moss, ocher, cobalt, and cream. In the early 1980s, these Victorian-era tiles were in such bad shape that the Central Park Conservancy simply removed them in hopes of one day raising enough money to restore them to their former glory.
Finally, in 2007, that hope became a reality. Fourteen thousand of the original tiles were refurbished, and those that were too damaged or that had been lost were replaced by the successor to Minton’s. In addition to the refurbished and replaced tiles, the Arcade ceiling received a new metal framework, new spotlights, and a new skylight made of cast iron and bullet glass.
This $7 million restoration has allowed visitors once again to experience the lesson offered by the Arcade: that in design, shadows can be just as important as light. When crafting a palette inspired by grandeur, we chose Blueberry 26-16 and Black Magic 31-16 for the deeper, darker hues of the tiles. Amour 2-16 represents the reddish elements in the tile design, with Winter Sky 24-4 as a nod to the opalescent, solid tiles. As a sandstone-like base, Toasted Wheat 7-26 rounds out our collection.
One of the more amazing aspects of walking through the Arcade is how different the experience is depending on the light. On a hot summer day, the cobalt and moss tiles feel refreshing because more light means more shadows, and shadows work as a cooling agent by hiding warm colors while highlighting cool colors. On a snowy winter day, however, the warm ocher and cream tiles attract what little light there is and are then able to reflect it because of the paucity of shadows.
Visiting Bethesda Terrace, night or day, in any kind of weather, is well worth the trip because it’s a wonderful example of how complex monuments of design can teach us all such simple lessons.