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100 Years of Weather Observations at Belvedere Castle in Central Park

100 Years of Weather Observations at Belvedere Castle in Central Park

By Christopher Stachelski, NWS Eastern Region Observing and Climate Services Program Leader (christopher.stachelski@noaa.gov)

Editor's Note: The information in this story was first presented by Christopher Stachelski before the American Meteorological Society (AMS) 100th Annual Meeting in January, 2020. 

New York City remains an anomaly of sorts, in that the primary long-term climate station is located not in an airport – but in a park. Outside of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlantic City, Charleston, and New Orleans, most other cities across the country lost their downtown or urban center weather stations to airports back in the 1940s and 1950s, when the Weather Bureau relocated most offices to airports to serve the growing needs of the aviation community. As these offices were moved, continuing a climatological record in the ‘city’ largely ceased, as finding suitable land for locating equipment or observers for taking these observations proved a challenge. As a result, the primary climate stations in most cities today are at airports, often miles from where the core of a city’s population lives or works.

Remarkably, on January 1, 2020 the official New York City station reached 100 years at its current location at Belvedere Castle in Central Park. Located about midway in Central Park, atop one of the highest points of land around, the whereabouts of Belvedere Castle are rather atypical when compared to the urbanized canyons of the rest of the city.   

Back in 1866, the annual report of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park discussed an intent to maintain a system of meteorological observations to obtain facts that would be of general scientific interest. In 1867, the Central Park Meteorological Department was created and took the first daily weather observations. These were published in the 1867 Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park as data collected at the “Central Park Observatory”.

Daniel Draper, the first and only director of the New York
Meteorological Observatory. 

By 1868, the Central Park Board of Commissioners made an application to the State of New York to establish a permanent meteorological observatory in Central Park to serve New York City. The first and only director of this New York Meteorological Observatory, Dr. Daniel Draper, was appointed on December 28. Observations officially were taken on the roof of the Arsenal Building on 5th Avenue in Central Park East. In 1868, the annual cost for the observatory was stated as $1005 in labor and $135.06 for materials.

On May 5, 1869, legislation was passed in New York State that authorized the erection and maintenance of a weather observatory in Central Park, along with the Museum of Natural History and an astronomical observatory. To this date, this remains the only known specific public meteorological observing site in the United States to be initiated by the act of legislation. Dr. Draper went on to design the equipment which allowed for self-registering devices that could determine daily values and thus begin the modern climatological record used to this date.

The story of what is now the National Weather Service in New York City does not begin until October 25, 1870, when the U.S. Signal Service established an office in Lower Manhattan. The office set up equipment to conduct surface observations and begin their own climatological record in what became known at the time as the official New York City Observation. Over time, due to obstructions from new skyscrapers the office moved to several other locations in Lower Manhattan to allow for better weather observations to be taken. Finally, the office moved to the Whitehall Building near Battery Park on May 1, 1911.

That same year on July 1, Dr. Draper submitted his resignation and retired from his position at Central Park. Faced with running a weather observatory it now no longer wished to fund, the City of New York turned to the Weather Bureau for help in running the Central Park Observatory. The Bureau felt that the consistency of the location was worth the upkeep, as its own records already had been subjected to several moves. In 1912, Forecaster James H. Scarr of the U.S. Weather Bureau was appointed the Acting Director of the New York Meteorological Observatory.  The following year, they recommended the Central Park site be moved to a location near Belvedere Castle to keep it away from obstructions at the Arsenal Building. In addition, the Arsenal Building had become largely abandoned and was in a state of disrepair threatening to damage the records.

In 1918, the Weather Bureau started to take readings of areas near Belvedere Castle, comparing them with those taken at the Arsenal for the sake of understanding any differences for climatology. By 1919, the Bureau selected what it felt was the best site to use near the Castle for recording temperature – an exposed rocky hill near the 79th Street Transverse with low shrubbery and distant trees that would provide better exposure and result in better temperature readings. Belvedere Castle’s roof was altered to be flat in order to better accommodate the wind equipment, and the formerly open structure had windows installed so it could be used as an office for the observers. 

On January 1, 1920 the Central Park observation officially moved to Belvedere Castle. Under an agreement with the City Of New York, the Weather Bureaubecame responsible for taking observations and maintaining  the  equipment and cable used for communications with the primary office. A staff of Weather Bureau Employees moved into the Castle using it as an office. In March 1922, a taxpayer suit was filed over the enclosure on the rock vista, referred to as a “pig sty” in the news, by some residents who claimed it was blighted and ruined the view there. The issue was settled quickly and more trees were planted around the enclosure to hide it better from view. 

During the 1940s, a staff of three observers worked at the Castle taking observations. In the 1950s, this was cut back, and the station was only manned for part of a day. On December 28, 1960, a significant change in Weather Bureau operations took place when, in order to better accommodate weather radar, the New York City office moved from the Whitehall Building in Lower Manhattan to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan.  The lack of space for weather observing equipment in Rockefeller Plaza resulted in the decision to make the Central Park observing site the official NYC observation and, on January 1, 1961 it became such. References from this point out for climatological records in New York City referenced the Park, not the Weather Bureau office in Lower Manhattan. In addition, the observation was automated, with the exception of sky cover and snowfall, and remoted to a display at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Snow observations were taken by staff from the Weather Bureau who made the trek through the snow to Central Park to measure it.

By the 1970s, much of New York City had decayed and become blighted and crime-filled. Graffiti was a common site in many areas, and even Belvedere Castle fell victim to tagging and vandalism since it was no longer occupied by any staff. Windows were busted out and vandals often broke in to steal wiring and, in some cases, weather equipment itself. In one case in 1977, an anemometer was stolen, and in another case equipment was stolen while a National Weather Service employee was working it. The National Weather Service worked with the City to secure the castle with barbed wire and steel doors and even looked into relocating the weather equipment to another area within Central Park. Finally, between 1981 and 1983, a renovation of Belvedere Castle was completed to restore it to its original glory. The roof was returned to a turret look, yet the wind equipment would remain on top.

On October 25, 1993, the National Weather Service’s New York City office left for Long Island as part of nationwide modernization and to better accommodate the new WSR-88D radar. Although a small unit of employees remained behind to continue operating the legacy WSR-57 radar and collect data for Central Park, the hours seemed numbered for the Central Park weather station. As observations nationwide were becoming converted to ASOS, a plan was floated within the National Weather Service to close the Central Park site. A major local uproar resulted in the site remaining open, and instead an ASOS would be installed at the station to continue the NYC record. In June 1995, the ASOS was installed; it was commissioned later that year on November 1. The final physical presence of National Weather Service staff in New York City ended on December 31, 1995 when the last observer was transferred to the Weather Service Office in Newark, New Jersey. The task of snow observations briefly fell to the Central Park Zoo, to be assumed in November of 2015 by the Central Park Conservancy, which remains the current snow observer today. From 2018 to 2019, Belvedere Castle underwent a $12 million, 15-month renovation to further restore the building.

Today, the old record books from Central Park remain on file at the current NWS New York location at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Electronic technicians from the office make the trip to the site to maintain the equipment in order to continue a climatological record that has stood for over a century. Today, the enclosure near Belvedere Castle houses all ASOS equipment in the same location that was first used as an observatory in 1920 – a rare feat in an agency where many things have changed over the years.