History of Theodore Roosevelt Park

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Theodore Roosevelt Park surrounds the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Its name honors Theodore Roosevelt, who served as New York City police commissioner, governor of New York State, vice president under William McKinley, and following McKinley’s assassination, the youngest man to serve as president of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt, Environmentalist

Best known as the aggressive politician who advised the nation to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the only native of New York City to sit in the Oval Office was also a scholar of natural history and a devoted environmentalist. As president, he was instrumental in the creation of the National Zoo, the formation of 51 national bird sanctuaries, and the preservation of 18 natural wonders, including the Grand Canyon. The Harvard graduate and Nobel laureate (peace prize, 1906) wrote three dozen books, ranging in subject from Charles Dickens to African big game hunting. The museum contains specimens that Roosevelt shot and collected during his family’s visit to Egypt in 1872.

Theodore Roosevelt Park Origins

In 1807, the city of New York mapped Theodore Roosevelt Park’s location as a public park, but did not officially own it until it was acquired by condemnation in 1839. The park was later assigned to the Board of Commissioners of Central Park (a pre-1870 precursor to the Department of Parks), and was annexed to Central Park. Before the American Museum of Natural History was built, planners considered using the site for a zoo or a botanical garden. The museum, founded in 1869, was temporarily housed in what is now the parks department headquarters, the Arsenal at 64th Street and 5th Avenue in Central Park. The museum later moved to the Upper West Side.

In the late 1860s, financiers abandoned a museum project, only months after it began, on the site that later housed Tavern on the Green. Molds of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals remain buried there to this day. Construction for the American Museum of Natural History began on the current site in 1874, under the direction of Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, and the museum opened in 1877.

In 1929, New York State obtained access to the land facing Central Park West for a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial. In 1936, many public officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, gathered to dedicate the indoor portions of the monument. In 1940, the state added a bronze statue by sculptor James Earle Fraser intended to depict a bold, progressive Roosevelt symbolically uniting the races of America. Distinguished architect John Russell Pope designed the neoclassical granite pedestal. The park was known as Manhattan Square until 1958, when a local law renamed it “Theodore Roosevelt Park.” Neighborhood residents have traditionally referred to the park as “Museum Park” or “Dinosaur Park.” The New York City Parks Department maintains the park with help from the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Park.

Shared by Upper West Side Neighbors and Museum of Natural History Visitors

Since 1990, the dog run has been a boon to the community. It is one of the largest dog runs in New York City’s parks. The renovation of the park areas adjacent to 81st Street and Columbus Avenue in 2000 included the relocation of the dog run, improvement of the drainage and irrigation systems, the renovation of the lawn and paths, and the addition of new benches and fencing. The dog run, once called Teddy’s Dog Run, was renamed Bull Moose Dog Run after Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. Today, Theodore Roosevelt Park pays tribute to a dedicated conservationist and serves as a place of rest and relaxation for local residents and museum visitors alike.