Past and Present: Institute Park

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

If the original plans for Prospect Park had been implemented, the land where the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanic Gardens, Mount Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Public Library now stand would have been part of Prospect Park. The original plans for the park were drawn up in 1861 by Egbert L. Viele, a well-respected civil engineer who had been the chief engineer of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park. He felt that Mount Prospect, the second tallest natural elevation in Brooklyn, then the site of Brooklyn’s city reservoir, should be included in the new Prospect Park. Including this land would protect the reservoir, and highlight a vista that would enable the viewer to see most of Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan, New Jersey and Staten Island. This view had been invaluable for George Washington’s troops in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

But including Mount Prospect would also mean including busy Flatbush Avenue within the borders of the park, and after the Civil War, city fathers enlisted Olmsted and Vaux to revisit the park design, and Viele’s plan was scuttled for the boundaries we now know in Prospect Park. As most good students of Brooklyn know, Olmsted and Vaux broke ground in 1866, and created one of the most beautiful urban parks in the world.

That left a huge chunk of unused land obtained for Viele’s park. Some of the land was sold, creating much of Prospect Heights, but the land around the reservoir was kept in city hands. When plans were made for the expansion of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, this site was perfect for the grand new museum, designed by McKim, Mead & White, which broke ground in 1895. When Brooklyn became part of Greater New York, in 1898, the remainder of the land around the Institute and the reservoir became a city-owned park called Institute Park.

The land for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden had been reserved by the NY State Legislature in 1897, but the Garden was not established until 1910. Our archive photograph is a postcard from 1909 showing a bucolic waterway in Institute Park. Since the details in the background are too fuzzy to give a better idea of where this shot was taken, I’m going to go out on a pretty thick limb here and say that this is a shot of the Mt Prospect Reservoir, with the vague whiteness of the Institute in the background. That would put today’s viewer somewhere near the back yard of the Brooklyn Library.

The Institute, now called the Brooklyn Museum, the Botanic Garden, and later, the Central Branch of the Library all coexisted with the Mt. Prospect Reservoir into the 20th century. By 1940, New York City was getting all of its water from upstate reservoirs, and the Mt. Prospect Reservoir was deemed outdated and unnecessary. The reservoir was filled in, and the land given over to the Department of Parks and Recreation, which created Mt. Prospect Park. Today, it is possible to stand where the reservoir once was and look over at the edge of the Botanic Garden, to the Museum beyond. It’s still a great view. GMAP

Postcard postmarked 1909.

One Comment

  • Brenda from Flatbush

    So many old postcards and photos show what must’ve been an iconic tower over the reservoir, yet today no one knows it was there. If someone came forward in a time machine and looked around Grand Army Plaza up towards the BBG, I think the first thing they’d ask would be, “Where’s the tower!?”