In the era of the New Deal, federally sponsored public works projects led to the creation of parkways, beaches, zoos, golf courses, and hundreds of playgrounds in New York City. At the center of this work was Robert Moses, chairmen of the New York Park Association’s Metropolitan Conference on Parks, who, in 1934, was appointed by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia as sole commissioner of the Department of Parks for New York City.
The scale of the parks operation under Moses is almost unimaginable by today’s standards. Some 1800 designers and engineers drew up plans for the modernization of the city’s park system, which 70,000 Parks Department paid relief workers helped build.
One of these projects, Toll Family Playground (formerly known as Mariners’ Playground), just off West 84th Street along Central Park West, was recently renovated to look more like it did when Moses opened it in 1936. The project is part of the Conservancy’s plan to renovate 20 playgrounds across Central Park, as outlined in Plan for Play: A Framework for Rebuilding and Managing Central Park’s Playgrounds.
The $1.5 million renovation, completed in 2016, included the replacement of outdated play features added in the late 1990s, such as a post-and-platform structure and sand box, when the Conservancy last renovated the playground.
The open design of the New Deal-era playground stands up well to history, and the Conservancy’s most recent renovation honors that tradition. The restoration maintains the existing footprint and openness of the original playground, while updating the swings, slides, and sand tables with modern versions. In addition, the path leading to the park from West 85th Street was regraded to make it ADA-accessible.
Two features of the renovation are particularly intriguing regarding their connection to the past. First, the Conservancy added two playhouses inspired by the original ones Moses installed in 1936. The houses resemble miniature gazebos, with detailed carpentry and millwork and elegant cupolas. Just as important as what they look like, is what they don’t look like. Intended to stimulate imaginative play, the playhouses are not strictly representational in the way of a castle or pirate ship. They leave room for children to exercise their imaginations. Perhaps the structures are houses, or schools, or ice cream shops. The abundant possibilities for pretend play offered by the formal simplicity of their design is an old idea very much in vogue in the design community.
The second nod to the past relates to boundaries, which, in 1936, were somewhat more relaxed than they are now. This is a difficult issue as the risk of a child running off at a big park is not to be taken lightly. But the solution here is ingenious. To define the playground’s edge, a seven foot-tall steel picket fence was replaced with wood-and-concrete benches and pipe rail, a throwback to the Moses-era playground that provides seating and edging (not to mention a ring of watchful eyes on the playspace). A lightweight mesh fence screened by hedges reinforces this edge with a natural boundary that is both safe and ecologically sensitive.
Not all the playground’s renovations are anchored in history. The design includes a push-button water sprayer on the north end, new climbers, swings, tunnels, and slides in the central pay space, and additional toddler swings on the south end. The steel tube slide on display above was certainly not something common to playgrounds of the era.
Goric made significant contributions to the playground’s restoration, lending excitement and diversity to the play space, while remaining faithful to the openness of the original design. A slate-toned array of EPDM 3-color mix rubber tiles provides a soft cushion for play and looks entirely at home as a surface layer to the playground. The clean, sculpted steel of durable two- and four-seat spring seesaws, a Whirlwind spinning toy, and our popular Dancer, a rocking toy with an enclosed ball labyrinth, energize the playground and add to its classic beauty. The small footprint of these play points makes them well suited for restoration projects where preserving open space is a priority.
We admire the restoration of Toll Family Playground for many reasons, but the key takeaway may be this: a playground can speak to its surroundings in ways that are timeless and loyal to history, while being exciting for kids and adults. The refurbished playground is a tasteful, understated player in a marvelous public park enjoyed by tens of millions of families, caregivers, and children each year. We give it two thumbs up.