Perimeter Playgrounds

The year after the opening of Heckscher Playground, Hermann Merkel, a consulting landscape architect for the Parks Department, wrote a report detailing the condition of the Park and making suggestions for restoration projects and programs of maintenance. He praised Heckscher Playground for improving the southern part of the Park by containing children’s play and therefore providing relief to nearby landscapes. Merkel also suggested additional playgrounds, which he believed would be helpful in accommodating large numbers of children in discrete areas. He proposed that these playgrounds be small, located close to Park entrances and drinking fountains, secluded from traffic, and situated in a manner that did not impede the overall sense of spaciousness within the Park.

The argument that separate spaces for children’s play would better serve children and protect the larger Park would influence the next, and most significant, phase of playground development. Merkel’s idea for a perimeter playground system was implemented under the administration of Park Commissioner Robert Moses (image 12). Planning began in 1934 and construction began in September 1935. Less than a year later, by June 1936, eighteen playgrounds were completed, located in landscapes just inside the Park’s perimeter wall. Moses presented the playground system as a way to accommodate children’s active play while protecting the Park from this same activity, suggesting an association between children and damage that led one journalist to refer to them as “little destroyers.”(7) The creation of these playgrounds also reflected Moses’ goal to modernize the New York City parks system, creating access to a variety of recreational activities. The impact on Central Park was significant. In addition to playgrounds, a new zoo, a skating rink, two new boathouses, restaurants, new ball fields, areas for adult games and recreation, various concessions, and public restrooms were built. While these new facilities and areas contributed to a more diversified Park experience, they also fragmented and urbanized the Park, and tended to relegate the landscape to a backdrop for Park activities and attractions instead of the primary focus of the Park experience.

The Moses administration was able to accomplish so much because it received substantial federal funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also because of the standardization of construction. All eighteen of the original Moses-era playgrounds in Central Park were built in less than one year (image 13). For the most part, these playgrounds were identical to others being built throughout the city, containing a standard assortment of equipment and materials: swings (for older and younger children), sand tables or -boxes, slides, play houses, seesaws, sprinklers, asphalt paving, wood-and-concrete benches, and granite-block edging. Their location in the Park followed Merkel’s suggestion: The playgrounds, which were typically oval shaped, were built in the perimeter landscapes. This made them accessible to surrounding neighborhoods and lowered the amount of disruption of the larger landscapes deeper into the Park. Some plantings were added inside and outside the playgrounds to help integrate them into the Park (image 14). The construction of substantial infrastructure to support the playgrounds, including drainage and water supply for drinking fountains and water-play sprinklers, accounted for much of the financial investment in their creation.

The manner in which these playgrounds were integrated into the Park can be seen in photographs of the playgrounds soon after they were opened; only low fences or benches separated them from the Park (image 15). Safety concerns led the administration to begin installing higher fences only a few years later, despite their aesthetic impact.(8) By 1940, seven-foot-high steel picket fences surrounded most of the playgrounds. These fences were locked at night, and many still exist today (image 16). High fencing caused the space and the activities contained therein to become more internally focused and disconnected from the rest of the Park.

During the Moses era, from the 1930s into the 1960s, additional changes to playground design were informed by safety concerns and maintenance considerations. Slides were redesigned in stainless steel instead of wood. Wooden swing seats were replaced with aluminum. (These were allegedly tested by gorillas in the Central Park Zoo to ensure their durability.)(9) The Department of Parks also spent many years attempting to develop a resilient safety surfacing—something that parents and civic groups had long advocated for—resulting in the widespread use of rubber ground covering beginning in the 1960s.(10)

Like the playgrounds of the Progressive Era, the Moses era playgrounds featured playground leaders who organized games and programs and helped safeguard the children (images 17 and 18). While not as directly connected to a program of reform, play leaders were still essential to management, programming, and safety of playgrounds. By the mid-1950s, however, funding for play leaders had been depleted. The playgrounds had also begun to deteriorate, and the absence of play leaders rendered them somewhat less successful (image 19).(11) Beyond the basic recreational value of equipment such as slides and swings, play leaders had provided a social and educational dimension that had always been intrinsic to the playground experience.

The last playground created during the Moses administration was a result of a controversy that has come to be known as the “Battle of Central Park.” Although Moses had established his career in part by building playgrounds, this one represented the waning of his influence and reputation. In 1956, a group of mothers who spent time with their children on a small knoll adjacent to the West 67th Street Playground discovered plans to transform the area into a parking lot for Tavern on the Green. The group contacted the press and created a petition, but before any response from the city was issued, construction began. Despite the criticism of the press, work continued, and at night to attract less attention. By the time the landscape was cleared of trees and other vegetation, Moses, who had once been celebrated as a defender of parks, was portrayed in the press as a destroyer (image 20). The mothers’ group eventually sued the Parks Department and won. While their concern and protest had been about the destruction of a park landscape, and its significance in conjunction with the existing nearby playground, the concession made by Moses and the Parks Department was to build a new playground on the site. This gesture reflects the Moses era expectation that spaces for children and their caregivers be conscribed as separate from the larger Park.(12)