Written By: Ben Cosgrove

New York’s Central Park has been around, in various incarnations, since the mid-1800s. In that time it has been hailed as a masterpiece of landscape design; served as a punchline in jokes about muggings and violent crime; provided the setting for key scenes in books, plays and movies; and remains, for New Yorkers and for countless visitors to Gotham, one of the world’s urban wonders 840 acres of tree-lined paths, public plazas, open fields, gardens, ponds, lakes, bridges, arches, performance spaces, a castle on a hill, a quite charming zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Here, LIFE.com celebrates Frederick Law Olmsted’s and Calvert Vaux’s best-loved and most-frequented creation with a series of photos from 1961.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Dancers in Central Park, 1961.

Dancers in Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Unicyclist in Central Park, 1961.

Unicyclist in Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Warming up before a soccer match, Central Park, 1961.

Warming up before a soccer match, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene in Central Park, 1961.

Central Park 1961

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A painter finds a secluded spot, Central Park, 1961.

A painter in a secluded spot, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Central Park's Bethesda Fountain, 1961.

Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Rowers on the Lake in Central Park, 1961.

Rowers on the Lake in Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Fishing in Central Park, 1961.

Fishing in Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sunbathers cool their feet, Central Park, 1961.

Sunbathers cooling their feet, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene near the Boat House, Central Park, 1961.

Scene near the Boat House, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Model sailboats in Conservatory Pond, Central Park, 1961.

Model sailboats in Conservatory Pond, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A memorable boat launching.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Dogs in a fountain, Central Park, 1961.

Dogs in a fountain, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Chess players, Central Park, 1961.

Chess players, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Water fountain, Central Park, 1961.

Water fountain, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In a wonderland for climbers a bronze Alice got cluttered by children who’d scrambled over the Mad Hatter and other Lewis Carroll creatures.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Newly graduated students strolling past folks dancing ring-around-a-rosy.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Out for a morning ride.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene in Central Park, 1961.

Central Park 1961

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Elephants in Central Park, 1961.

Elephants in Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Seals in Central Park, 1961.

Seals in Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Kodiak bears, Central Park, 1961.

Kodiak bears, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Couple on a bench, Central Park, 1961.

Couple on a bench, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A young woman is helped down from a horse-drawn carriage, Central Park, 1961.

Coming down from a horse-drawn carriage, Central Park, 1961.

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Scene in Central Park, 1961.

Central Park 1961

Leonard McCombe The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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