The pond is surrounded by several landscaped hills, resulting in a somewhat manicured park landscape, planned in deferential reference to the estate plantings of the owners of the mansions that once lined this stretch of Fifth Avenue.
Conservatory Water is named for another estate-garden feature, a glass-house for tropical plants, to be entered from Fifth Avenue by a grand stair. The garden had been proposed in the Greensward Plan of 1857, during a design competition for Central Park where the Greensward Plan ultimately won out. Several other proposals submitted during the competition did not include a formal garden. The two principal designers of the Greensward Plan, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, instead suggested building a conservatory on the site of the proposed formal garden, with a "hard-edged" reflecting pool in the middle. Only the reflecting pool was constructed, though.:146
A naturalistic pond displaying water lilies was excavated. The steep bank towards Fifth Avenue was densely planted with shrubs and trees, including birch—for quick cover—and copper beech. Samuel Parsons, Calvert Vaux's assistant and partner, who was named Superintendent of Plantings, described the effect in his Landscape Gardening (1891):
The general shape of this pond was oval, with winding, irregular shores, bounded by a high bank on the east side and a great willow drooping over the north end. Rocks were disposed in the immediate banks, so as to suggest a natural formation, rather than an artificial pond. The bottom, scarcely three feet deep, was cemented tight as a cup, and the water flowed gently in at one end, and out at the other, and so through a basin and into the sewer. Eighteen inches of soil was made rich with manure and deposited over the bottom.
The water was supplied from the Ramble and Lake, the site of the historic Saw Kill, which once flowed through here on its way to the East River. Hardy water lilies, both European and American, were naturalized in the bottom mud and tender ones, planted in boxes, were wintered over in the park's conservatory, now the site of Conservatory Garden.
Later the naturalistic waterlily pond was reshaped as a model boat pond similar to that in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. The formally shaped shallow basin set in a molded curb of "Atlantic Blue" granite is home water to a flotilla of model sailboats, made familiar in the pages of E.B. White's Stuart Little (1945) and recreated in the popular 1999 film.:146
The shore of Conservatory Water contains the Kerbs Memorial Boathouse, where patrons can rent and navigate model boats. The 1954 boathouse, in picnic Georgian taste, houses resident model sailboats as well as the radio-controlled model yachts of the Central Park Model Yacht Club.
The waters of Conservatory Water shelter a seasonal population of unusual minute freshwater jellyfish, Craspedacusta sowerbyi. In the sculptured Beaux-Arts pediment of an upper-floor window of 927 Fifth Avenue, overlooking Conservatory Water, the Red-tailed Hawk named "Pale Male" set up a nest, under the binocular watch of the Park's numerous bird-watchers.
Bronze sculptural groups set in small terraces fronting the Water commemorate Alice in Wonderland (by José de Creeft, 1959) and Hans Christian Andersen (by Georg John Lober, 1955). These were built by NYC Parks commissioner Robert Moses in the 1950s as part of the park's "Children's District". Another statue, that of the fictional Mary Poppins, was not constructed.:146
To the south lies the slope of Pilgrim Hill, surveyed by John Quincy Adams Ward's bronze of The Pilgrim set among Prunus serrulata and other specimen trees, notably a globose European Hornbeam and nine species of oak, all set in rolling lawn. Discreetly sited near the top of Pilgrim Hill is the white granite exedra seat commemorating Waldo Hutchins (1822–1891), a member of the original Board of Commissioners for Central Park. It was executed by the Piccirilli Brothers in 1932, with a sundial featuring a bronze sculpture by Paul Manship. Incised in the bench and paving are arced lines representing shadows on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.
Pug Hill is located to the northwest of the Alice and Wonderland statue and was a popular place for the city's pug owners to socialize in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s. At times, there were so many pugs present that they were described as a fawn and black whirlpool moving through the grass. However, Pug Hill gatherings were ended due to heavy NYC Parks enforcement. In 2006, Pug Hill was the inspiration for an eponymous book.
- Elizabeth Barlow Rogers et al. Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration plan, (MIT Press) 1987, p 124.
- Miller, Sara (2003). Central Park : an American masterpiece. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers in association with the Central Park Conservancy. ISBN 978-0-8109-3946-2. OCLC 50773395.
- Parsons, Landscape Gardening: Notes and Suggestions on Lawns and Lawn Planting..., (1891:251f).
- The former route of Saw-Kill is identified in G. E. Hill and G. E. Waring Jr, "Old wells and watercourses on the isle of Manhattan, part I" in M. W. Goodwin et al., eds., 1897. Historic New York: Being the First Series of the Half Moon Papers, quoted in Eric Sanderson 2009. Mannahatta: a natural history of New York City p. 254.
- The granite curb replaced crumbling concrete in 2000. (Central Park Conservancy 1998-2002 Archived 2006-10-11 at the Wayback Machine).
- "Conservatory Water". The Official Website of Central Park NYC. Central Park Conservancy. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
- "Jeanne E. Kerbs : NYC Parks". Central Park Monuments. June 26, 1939. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
- Yazigi, Monique P. (1997-06-01). "While the Pugs Eat the Caviar, Owners Bond". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-26.
- "Pets: Every Dog Has Its Day". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2017-04-26.
- Smerd, Jeremy (2006-05-07). "When the Smoking Gun Looks a Lot Like a Leash". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-26.
- Pace, Alison (2006). pug hill. New York, NY: Penguin. ISBN 0425209717.