With new illumination, the restored Belvedere Castle becomes a nighttime attraction in Central Park
By Samantha Schwirck
Once upon a time, the designers of Manhattan’s Central Park imagined a miniature castle looking out over what would become the park’s sprawling 55-acre Great Lawn. That dream became a reality just three years later in 1869 with the completion of Belvedere Castle, a hybrid Gothic- and Romanesque-style tower whose name fittingly translates to “beautiful view” in Italian. Built without doors or windows, the castle was intended to be a decorative viewing platform, but was later used by the National Weather Service to collect meteorological data and, most recently, to house a visitor center and gift shop.
A period of neglect and deterioration following the Weather Service’s relocation in the 1960s prompted two restoration projects, both spearheaded by the Central Park Conservancy. The first focused on removing graffiti and rebuilding pavilions, enabling the Belvedere to reopen to the public in 1983. The second—a $12-million restoration that kicked off in 2016— went a step further by revamping interior and exterior illumination, extending views of the historic castle through the night.
Indeed, there is much to highlight about the restored Belvedere, including new, clear-pane windows that evoke the original open-air design; a zero-emission, energy-efficient geothermal system for cooling and heating the interior; and new waterproofing and drainage systems. The project also involved rebuilding the walls repointing the exterior and interior stonework; paving the terraces with new bluestone pavers; and reconstructing a decorative wood tower.
For lighting designers Michael Hennes and Renata Gallo (Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design, New York City), illuminating the meticulously restored features while respecting the castle’s historic value brought distinct challenges. “We wanted to let the structures shine without making the light fixtures themselves into focal points,” Hennes says. “The biggest challenge was lighting the façade. The building is a true castle with solid stone walls, so considering the walls and the castle’s landmarked status, attaching any fixtures to the building was not an option.” Additionally, the stone construction did not permit an easy way to run power, further limiting the option of adding lighting directly to the structure.
Consequently, the team chose to floodlight the castle, which literally created a rocky road to success. “Because the castle is built onto a schist outcropping [an exposed rocky surface], we were limited on where floodlights could be placed,” Hennes says. “At most of the mounting locations, we also had to contend with dense foliage.”
To avoid shadowing by the plants, the team attached the floodlights to poles raised above the obstructing foliage. The fixtures use 3000K LED lamps to bring out the warmth of the stone surfaces, and varied beam spreads and aiming options were coordinated to achieve uniformity. “We used multiple fixtures at some locations to allow us to get the even light coverage,” Hennes explains. “In the end we worked with four pole locations around the castle, and each of those sat at a different elevation, so we had to balance the lighting so that it would appear consistent around the building.”
The floodlights also contain a snoot accessory to minimize glare. “These allowed us to evenly floodlight the castle without bringing attention to the fixtures, which appear quiet in the landscape,” Hennes adds.
Across the central plaza, the open-air wood pavilion contrasts the solid stone castle, with indirect light reflecting off the ceiling to illuminate interior details while keeping sources concealed. Numerous solutions were considered for lighting on the plaza itself; however, the final decision was driven by preservation research revealing poles had existed there as early as 1900. The same pole and post luminaires used throughout Central Park were specified, with 3000K sources to blend in with the rest of the site’s new lighting.
“All of the fixtures are LED so that minimizes energy consumption and maximizes life over other traditional light sources,” Hennes says. “In addition, LEDs are dimmable, so we were able to link them to a dimming system which allowed us to fine-tune the brightness of the lighting composition.” For the plaza fixtures, the system (Lutron LCP) ensures light levels are comfortable without overpowering illumination of adjacent structures. “It [the system] was a cost-effective solution providing preset light level scenes that could be automatically controlled by an astronomical time clock,” Hennes adds.
Inside the castle, low-voltage cable systems with 3000K LED lamps replaced existing glary, wall-mounted fixtures with bulky surface conduits. The louvered fixtures’ minimal appearance allows the architecture to remain the primary focus. The interior lighting consumes 78% less energy than mandated by ASHRAE/IES 90.1-2013; while the exterior clocks in 49% under the same standard. With new illumination that ushers the site into the 21st century and provides a renewed sense of place for the historic destination, Belvedere Castle now has its very own happily ever after.