NEW YORK — When Elizabeth Barlow was appointed administrator of Central Park four years ago, the 843 acres in the center of Manhattan were suffering from a half-century of abuse and neglect. Entire plant species had died out. Lawns and meadows had been trampled to dust by overuse. Bridges were in bad repair, and original historic buildings had been vandalized or destroyed. Erosion had filled lakes and ponds with silt.
The world-renowned gem of city parks, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and carved out of barren wasteland and pestiferous swamps 108 years ago, seemed on its way back to wilderness.
Today, working with the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, which was formed in 1980 to raise funds from the private sector, and with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Mrs. Barlow sees the park in the early stages of what could become a $100 million, 10-year restoration.
The restoration master plan, based on surveys of the park's topography, architectural features, trees and other vegetation, utility and security systems , and modes of use, will be finished within a few months.
Projects already completed include the renovation of the original dairy for use as a visitors' center, restoration of the Bethesda and Cherry Hill Fountains to their former magnificence, resodding of the Sheep Meadow, remodeling of an original building into a security forces command center, and the training of a corps of horticultural interns to work in the park.
Twenty-eight projects currently under way include renovation of Wollman skating rink and the Belvedere Castle, lighting improvement through installation of 750 new lamp heads, and renewing of ball fields and playgrounds.
"In 1975, when it looked like the city was financially strapped," Mrs. Barlow recalled during an interview in her Central Park office, "I had the opportunity to work as executive director with an embryonic little organization called the Central Park Task Force. At that time I wrote an article for New York magazine about my work and received such a tremendous response of mail -- and money -- that I knew New Yorkers had an enormous affection for Central Park.
"I saw that someone needed to be optimistic about its future and about the fact that New Yorkers could save it. The more I talked, the more my conviction grew that the job could be done. When I was appointed administrtor by the parks commissioner, I began to implement some of my ideas and help the park to a comeback."
She has watched the groundswell of public concern grow each year. Interested individuals, foundations, corporations, and funds have contributed more than $6 million to the Central Park Conservancy, to be used for park surveys, plans, and projects. The Conservancy will continue to raise funds for the multi-million dollar renovation project coming up. Up to this point, both the city budget and Conservancy funds have been used for all projects.
Mrs. Barlow reminds New Yorkers that Central Park is one of the city's great nurturing institutions. The great park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a masterpiece of landscape art that many consider to be one of the most important cultural contributions of 19th-century America.
"There is some flak from park users as changes are made," Mrs. Barlow admits, "and I find I have to mollify and keep the peace. But most people are delighted with the progress they see and tell us so."
"We talk about change -- a 10-year plan of restoration and rebuilding," she continues, "but a dynamic park that gets about 15 million visits a year from people needs constant renewal. Central Park is the most democratic space in New York City -- the city's playground. It will never be finished. Just take a look at the thounsands who come here to ride horseback, bicycle, stroll, jog, picnic, row boats, play games, or visit the zoos. And take a look at those who come just to listen to outdoor concerts or hear Shakespeare, or enjoy a ride around the park in a horse-drawn hansom carriage."
Mrs. Barlow is an administrator with a breadth of personal resources to match the resources of Central Park. She grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and has a degree in art history from Wellesley College and a master's degree in city planning from Yale University. She has worked as an open space consultant and a free-lance journalist and has written several books.
But for now she is totally absorbed in her paark and its recent improvements -- removing this year 20,000 square feet of graffiti from walls, walks, and statutes; installing new maps to help people locate themselves; and increasing safety in the park.
The refurbished old-fashioned carousel in the middle of the park, delighting youngsters and adults alike, seems to stand as her symbol "that we are here and we care."