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A Parade of Toys & History in Madison Square Park

By Nancy Prince, RLA, NYC Parks and Recreation, and Leslie McGuire, managing editor

As the base for the water feature requested by local parents, a colorful pinwheel was created with pre-formed, tinted poured concrete.

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New York City Park’s Department Landscape Architects, Nancy Prince, RLA and George Bloomer, RLA have designed a unique small urban playground within Manhattan’s Madison Square Park that incorporates elements of the rich architectural, historical and commercial setting. It was essential not only to make this reconceived playground unique, but to also make it function well for the neighborhood children and caregivers by making it safe, secure and durable.

The play structures are constructed in two sizes. The larger ones seen here in the foreground have the bridge and are designed for older age children, five to 12. The smaller structures seen on page 138, top left, are designed for the younger, two to five-year-olds.

The Park and the Neighborhood— Rich History And Rapid Change

Historic Madison Square Park, located at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street in Manhattan, is the vibrant center of Manhattan’s Flatiron district, offering flourishing gardens, lush lawns and cultural programs for all ages. The park, which stretches east to Madison Avenue and north to 26th Street, was until recently, neglected and crime ridden. In June of 2001, after a two-year capital restoration project, Madison Square Park was rededicated, and in the spring of 2002, a restored playground reopened to delight the many children who now live in the area.

“It’s funny. We had this big grand plan to restore the park, then we heard from the parents in the area,” said Adrian Benepe, New York City Parks Commissioner. “The playground was serviceable, but far from the quality of the rest of the park, so Joe Rose, chairman of the City Planning Commission convinced Rudy Giuliani to add $700,000 to the budget and restore the playground.”

The Mansard-inspired roofs of the play units, echoing the surrounding architecture, crown high platforms that can be fancifully transformed into castles or Rapunzel’s tower. The bridge lines up with the entry gate so people get a view under the bridge when they first walk into the park.

Originally reclaimed swamp ground, the 240-acre tract of land was set aside in 1806 for an arsenal, a military parade grounds and a potter’s field. The arsenal lasted from 1806 to 1815. The land was then used as a parade ground for military training. From 1825 to 1839, a municipal House of Refuge was located in the old barracks buildings. It wasn’t until 1847 that 6.8 acres of the original 240-acre plot were dedicated as a public square and laid out as a park.

Up until 1871, the land at the north end of the park was used by Cornelius Vanderbilt to house his New York & Harlem Railroad operations in a sprawling shed. Vanderbilt moved the operation north to Grand Central Terminal and the now vacant block and shed was taken over by Phineas Taylor Barnum. His Hippodrome, an early circus of Barnum’s, was held in 1873 in the old railroad depot just outside the park at 26th Street and Madison Avenue. Barnum went on to build the first Madison Square Garden on the site in 1879. Around the turn of the century, the area surrounding the park became a commercial district. Fifth Avenue between Union and Madison Squares is still known as Ladies’ Mile, since the street was once lined with fine department stores. The department stores have since moved north, but the elegant cast iron facades and picturesque Mansard roofs remain.

1845: Baseball was born here, or at least that’s what many people believe. Alexander Cartwright founded the first baseball club there in the neighborhood and called it the New York Knickerbockers.

The Madison Square Park area is now known as a center for the insurance, china and toy industries. The park is within Manhattan’s “Toy District,” which is home to many toy companies as well as the International Toy Center. It is bordered by several architecturally distinguished buildings including the often photographed Flatiron building. Today there are a growing number of families in this still bustling, but increasingly residential, business district.

The Challenge

Prince and Bloomer were constrained by the size of the existing 1/4 acre playground first constructed in 1986 based on a design by the consultant firm of Miceli Kulik. The playground’s perimeter fence was in good shape. The existing kindergarten and tire swings were popular features with local children, but the wood equipment and safety surface suffered from neglect and had deteriorated. The park paths and large trees limited expansion of the playground. The designers were able to expand the playground by only a few square yards to the south. Many families have moved into this neighborhood over the last several years creating intense demand for playground space. Prince and Bloomer worked closely with a community group who had a very ambitious list of desired features for this new playground.

A tumbling pinwheel fills and dumps revolving buckets of water onto a colorful pinwheel pavement design, as whimsical toy blocks provide a gentle spray. This water feature was planned for the older children five to 12 who love to run through the sheets of water.

Among the things they asked for were kindergarten bucket swings and a tire swing, features found in the original playground. They also requested a water play area, a story telling area and equipment for kids from toddlers to age ten. In addition, there needed to be separate play units for younger and older age groups. Therefore, there is a kind of controlled duplication of many of the play structures. The low slides are plastic for the kindergarten group, and the tall slides are steel for the older age group. There are short ladders for the kindergartners to climb, and tall ladders for the older children to climb. Based on their experience designing urban playgrounds, the designers, added to this list new safety surfacing, lots of comfortable benches designed in the 1939 World’s Fair style, tables for lunch, a drinking fountain that kids can reach and lots of space to park strollers.

Powder-coated, steel spray blocks provide a tumbling water feature where the two to five-year-olds can play in the softer dancing sprays. The piping comes up from the ground to a nozzle inset in the hollow blocks in a plate attached to the steel. They were specially designed for this playground.

Designed to Invite and Delight

Prince and Bloomer looked to the rich history and architecture of the Madison square area to inspire the design and details. They focused on the theme, “a parade of toys”. This provided rich opportunities for child pleasing design elements that were linked to the military and circus history of the site and a theme that also recognized the importance of the local toy industry.

Entering the playground one is greeted by toy soldiers standing at attention on either side of the gate. Images of toy circus animals, boats, soldiers and horses animate the steel play units. Custom Mansard roofs on the play equipment echo the surrounding architecture and crown high platforms that can be transformed into imaginary castles. Several raised circular platforms invite storytelling and imaginative play. A spinning pinwheel fills and dumps small buckets of water onto colorful pavement as whimsical toy blocks provide a gentle spray to run through. Precast pieces were created of integrally colored concrete with color hardener and designed in a pinwheel pattern to echo the pinwheel design of the spray shower. A preformed blue ribbon created with Lithochrome® color hardener surrounds and ties the whole area together.

1873: P.T. Barnum began holding his circus in an old railroad depot located on Madison Square.

A nearby semicircle of benches features a caterpillar-shaped bench scaled for children. Decorative fence panels illustrate the children’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” at a child’s-eye level. The designers provided comfortable traditional wood and iron benches, game tables, space for strollers. For this playground the designers added a child height bowl to the Canterbury International accessible drinking fountain previously designed by their colleague Emmanuel Thingue.

The judicious use of bright colors combined with brown ensures that the playground is cheerful but also suits its location within an elegant old urban square. Winding along the ground and wrapping around the toys and structures, the curling ribbon on the safety surface loosely ties the playground together. The new playground has been enthusiastically received by neighborhood children as well as by their parents and caregivers, and is a fitting addition to the neighborhood’s historically rich and varied history.

The new playground was expanded into the rest of the park, so the outer fencing needed to be replaced on the side nearest the play shower area (A). Winding along the ground plane and wrapping around the “toys” and structures, a curling blue ribbon of colored concrete loosely ties the playground together.

In addition, according to Adrian Benepe, “Since the park has been restored, real estate values in the neighborhood have soared and major retail is moving in along with high end restaurants. The Madison Square Parks Conservancy has an ongoing plan for public art. The area is regaining its role as an entertainment center just the way it was in the last century.”

All the graphics were designed by the in-house landscape architects, and reflect the history of the area as well as its connection now with the toy industry. The toy soldiers on the entrance gate fence panels hark back to the soldiers who once marched on the old parade grounds.

1876: The arm and the torch of the Statue of Liberty were displayed in the park in order to raise money to construct the statue and its base.

MADISON SQUARE PARK PLAYGROUND Designers: City of New York Parks & Recreation Landscape Architects: Nancy Prince, RLA, George Bloomer, RLA, Assisted by: William Gotthelf, RLA Oliver Corwin, Artist Susan Ellis, Specification writer Construction: Sonic Construction Co., Inc. NYC Parks and Recreation Construction Team: Andrew Aideyan, Site Engineer Oscar Urquiola, Director Manhattan Construction John Natoli, Chief of Construction NYC Parks & Recreation Management: Adrian Benepe, Commissioner Amy Freitag, Deputy Commissioner Nancy Barthold, Assistant Commissioner for Capital Projects Bonnie Koppel, Chief of Design David Carlson, ASLA, Director of Landscape Architecture

Left: Several raised circular platforms invite storytelling and imaginative play, while a nearby semicircle of benches features a caterpillar-shaped bench scaled for children. The powder-coated, steel caterpillar bench was designed in-house specifically for Madison Square Park by Nancy Prince and William Gotthelf, but it has since been used in other places.

Middle: Images of toy boats, cars and circus animals animate the play units.

Bottom: Decorative fence panels illustrate the children’s poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” This particular poem was chosen because former N.Y.C. Parks Commissioner Stern liked to give everyone nicknames. His nickname for the Chairman of the City Planning Department, the man responsible for getting the funding to build this children’s playground, was “Owl” and the poem is a form of dedication to him.
Manufacturers: Custom play equipment, structures, fence panels and spray blocks: Chris O’Karma, Fred Druck and William Weisz of Playground Environments. (Druck and Weisz are now with PlayWorx). Custom Caterpillar Bench: PlayWorx, a division of GameTime. Custom Spray Shower Pinwheel: Vortex Custom Shower Rounds: Key Cast Stone Benches: Kenneth Lynch & Sons, Inc. Fence and Entrance Gate: A & T Ironworks Custom Colored Concrete: L. M. Scofield

1909: The Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, then considered “the tallest building in the world” was completed facing Madison Square.

The elephant is a reminder of the circus show that really put P.T. Barnum and his circus on the map in New York. It’s one of the many toys depicting Jumbo, the elephant. Barnum purchased Jumbo from the London Zoo in 1882 for $10,000. Jumbo was so popular that ticket sales spiked, more than covering the cost of purchasing and shipping what Barnum advertised as “The World’s Largest Elephant.”

1912: America’s first community Christmas tree was illuminated in Madison Square Park.
1923: On Armistice Day, The Eternal Light Monument was dedicated in Madison Square Park to commemorate the return of U.S. troops from World War I.

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December 7, 2019, 4:33 am PDT

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