NEW YORK — The French have Versailles. The British, Buckingham Palace. And Spaniards, the Alhambra.
Not to be left out, New Yorkers have a castle of their own, too. Maybe not as grand or lavish or old. But still revered.
Belvedere Castle has risen above the meadows and woods of Central Park since 1872, like an aging sentry keeping watch over a swathe of Manhattan’s grandest and most coveted real estate. It was built not for royalty — there are no Belvedere aristocrats — but for anyone with the energy to climb up a rocky summit that is the second highest in the park.
Now, this fairy-tale lookout point has been restored to its original luster.
It reopened to the public recently after a $12 million, 15-month renovation by the Central Park Conservancy, which included rebuilding a wooden tower, replacing worn stones and opening up views that had been partially blocked by cloudy window panes and decorative grillwork.
The main selling point of the Belvedere — which means “beautiful view” in Italian — is its three layers of terraces, one higher than the next. The castle itself, totaling just 1,820 square feet, is really more of a mini castle. In fact, it did not even have doors or window panes in the beginning.
Built in the Romanesque Revival tradition, the castle was known in architecture as “a folly" — a building meant more for decoration than practical use. It was intended to draw people into the park for a closer look, and to give them a respite from urban life without actually having to leave the city, according to conservancy leaders.
Today, the mysterious stone castle with the turret still draws big crowds — about a million people a year. (Versailles, in contrast, gets nearly 10 million visitors a year.)
“American visitors are really intrigued with the notion of a castle in Central Park,” said Steve Cohen, 65, who volunteers as a park tour guide.
Still, he added, not everyone is as impressed with the castle as with the panoramic views. “Some Europeans who are used to castles say, ‘So this is it. … ’”
Paulo Kim, 24, who was recently visiting the city from Argentina with her husband, Damaris, said they had to check out the castle after spying it on a park map. “If there’s a city that has a castle in the park, it has to be New York,” she said. “Who else?”
Belvedere Castle has endured for more than a century even as the world around it changed. In 1919, it was turned into a weather station. Doors and window panes were installed. Meteorologists and their scientific instruments replaced parkgoers.
Then, in the 1960s, it was the meteorologists who were replaced by automated systems that no longer required them to be on site to take readings.
The castle was emptied and boarded up because there were no resources to take care of it.
In the 1970s, as the city was hit by a financial crisis and crime soared, squatters would break into the castle and set fires. Stones were kicked out of walls, leaving gaping holes. Graffiti was everywhere. Raccoons also made themselves at home.
The crumbling castle, once a crown jewel of the park, became a glaring symbol of the hard times facing New York.
“It was like the ruins of Rome,” recalled Adrian Benepe, a former city parks commissioner who at the time was an urban park ranger patrolling the park. “I despaired it would ever come back.”
But even at its worst, the little castle was not entirely forsaken. Tom Smith, 55, an actor in Midtown Manhattan, recalled that he used to climb on the castle with his college friends at night in the early 1980s. The city lay at their feet. “We loved it,” he said. “There were beautiful views.”
Not long after, the castle was rescued by the conservancy, a nonprofit group that restores and manages the park. Conservancy workers cleaned up the castle and opened it in 1983 with a visitor’s center and gift shop inside. Tours, exhibits and other public programs were added.
The castle looms over a favorite summer destination, the Delacorte Theater, home to Shakespeare in the Park productions. After all, what better backdrop for swordplay and palace intrigue?
“You’re looking at a castle onstage — and there’s a real one right there,” said Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president. “It adds drama and legitimacy to the production.”
The Belvedere also had its own drama. It once hosted an opening-night party for the musical “Hair” at the theater, only to have rain pour down. The paper goody bags — with yellow Bumble and bumble shampoo bottles inside — fell apart and hundreds of the bottles went rolling onto the floor and down the steps.
“I’ve never seen so much shampoo in my life — everywhere you looked,” Brewer recalled. “It was a Belvedere party to remember.”
The castle has become a beloved playground for generations of New York families. Many were introduced to the castle as the spooky home of the count on Sesame Street. “When I first started working here, I was like ‘Wow, this is where the count lived,’” said Robert Dixon, 48, a visitor services representative for the conservancy who grew up in Harlem.
For years, Dixon was stationed on the terrace at the top of the castle. Visitors jockeyed to take selfies. Couples got engaged. There were even a few guerrilla weddings — they are not allowed up there — with the bride and groom saying hurried vows.
Children clambered up the spiral staircase to see if there was a princess in the tower. “I tell them to be quiet, you don’t want to wake her,” Dixon said.
The latest renovation of the castle is the most extensive, and focuses on its roots as a lookout point, said Elizabeth W. Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the conservancy. Windows of crystal-clear glass now frame the views.
A wooden tower that was once part of the pavilion on the main terrace was rebuilt from historical drawings. The castle was modernized and made energy efficient; a geothermal cooling and heating system was installed by drilling 400 feet into its rocky base.
New lights were added to illuminate New York’s castle against a glittering skyline of skyscrapers.
“All I can say is you can light up Midtown as much as you want,” Smith said. “And nothing is going to compare to looking at the Belvedere at night.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.