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A Space-Age Playground (and Memorial) in New York City

By Nancy Prince and Abigail Lootens, New York City Parks & Recreation

A Daffodil is for younger children, who can work the three "manipulatable" toys on the 2-feet-4 inches - tall piece. Kids enjoy experimenting with the movement of these pieces, but they can also inspire more imaginative play, like using them as the control deck for a spaceship. The top piece is usually used as a telescope, but also works as a megaphone as well. Photos courtesy of New York City Parks & Recreation

Harlem's McNair Park site was occupied by tenement buildings in the 1970s. It was acquired by the City of New York in 1986--the same year that astronaut Ronald McNair died in the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. McNair Park is scheduled to open this month.

The design team assembled this play structure from standard GameTime components. The toadstool like pieces at lower left are Lily Pad Links. Note the low-to-the-ground play features here are intended for smaller children aged two to five.

McNair Park is an inspiring playground built in honor of the late Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair. The park and playground feature themes of exploration, space travel and science. Designed by parks department Landscape Architect Nancy Prince, the site features a scaled model of the planets, sundials, space station play equipment, a moon-like spray shower and other elements.

McNair, a physicist as well as a karate instructor, performing jazz saxophonist, and loving father and husband, grew up visiting his uncle's auto repair shop in East Harlem. The design of the park is inspired by McNair's interests in physics and space science, as well as teaching tools on the Challenger Center's educational website.

A space-station theme governs the design of this play complex built for older children from five to seven years old.

Due to economic recession in the early 1990s, the park's construction was postponed until City Council Member Philip Reed helped allocate $1.8 million and Mayor Bloomberg assigned $138,000 towards the project. McNair Park is located in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood (between Lexington and Third Avenue, East 122nd and East 123rd Streets).

The Art Commission is New York City's design review agency. Established in 1898, the Commission's mandate is to review works of art, architecture and landscape architecture on city-owned property for aesthetic merit. It comprises 11 members and includes an architect, landscape architect, painter and sculptor as well as representatives of the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library.

This custom piece representing the phases of Earth's Moon was built by GameTime's Playworx division. "Kids in Harlem don't see a lot of stars in the night sky," Landscape Architect Nancy Prince said. " What they do see is the Moon." The overhead climber is seen here before the installation of rubber-tile safety surfacing.

The Planets of our Solar System

The planets of the solar system are represented in the pavement and curbs of the park. One teaching tool on the Challenger Center's website has students use scaled paper planets and rulers to measure and compare the planets' relative sizes. The design for Ronald McNair Park gives this exercise a physical form on a large scale.

For example, Jupiter is represented by a 77-foot-8-inches ring of pavement, incised with the planet's name around a circular lawn area. Pluto (recently demoted to "dwarf planet" by astronomy's governing body) is represented by a 1-foot-3-inch granite disk paver.

A close-up of the phases of the moon displayed on the overhead climber. The globes are constructed of steel. A high-zinc primer and epoxy paint complete the light and dark effect. The tubing is powder-coated against corrosion.

Other Play Elements

Sundial: This pattern in the pavement will allow children to tell the time using the sun. A child stands in a designated spot according to the month and their body will cast a shadow that falls on numbers thereby telling the approximate time.

A Spica is for older kids and measures 5-feet-5-inches tall. The pieces rotate freely on their bases and allow a child to pick up speed or slow down based on their body position relative to the main axis (like a spinning ice skater). The piece was selected because it demonstrates centrifugal force and related Newtonian principles.

Earth Sundial: This is a stationary globe with New York located at the top. Sunshine will move across the globe as it does across the earth.

Space Station Play Equipment: One large play unit will resemble a space station. A small unit will allow young children to role play and pretend they are operating a spaceship.

Oliver Corwin, a graphic designer with the city's parks department, created the space-themed designs that were laser-cut into sheet steel for the shade element at top.

The Phases of the Moon: The phases of the moon will be illustrated in a custom-made climber with spheres that are half black and half white.

Artistic renderings display key features of Ronald McNair Park in New York's Harlem neighborhood.

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Spinning Equipment: Several play pieces both for younger and older kids will spin. The spin rate can be controlled by leaning in or out thus illustrating principles of physics.

Jupiter is represented by this agate-toned granite ring inlaid outside of Saturn's diameter (the raised, yellow concrete band inside it). Hexagonal asphalt pavers forming the hardscape are in the process of being installed in this view.

A Shower Featuring the Moon

The spray shower will have a pre-cast concrete dome with moon-like craters. Water will mist, spray and run in a small trough around this moon providing water play opportunity for children of all ages.

Evergreen thuja shrubs help separate the park and playground from the busy street outside. Newly-planted groundcover plants are protected from rambunctious children by a powder-coated steel fence.

A Green Park

Trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcover will surround all the interesting and active features of this park. These plants will be both typical of McNair's native South Carolina and well adapted to our northern urban setting. A synthetic turf lawn will provide a soft place for play, relaxing and special events. The park will also include plenty of comfortable benches, drinking fountains and trash receptacles.

A brownish-purple granite marketed as Royal Sable was selected for this granite paver that represents the heavenly body Pluto. As of late August, there were no plans to eliminate the marker following Pluto's well-publicized demotion to "dwarf planet" by the International Astronomical Union.

Project Summary

Project Team

Nancy Prince with Alex Hart and Susan Coker.

Site History

The land for McNair Park was acquired by the City of New York in 1986. The site is a level, open, undeveloped, mid block area located between Lexington and Third Avenues and accessible from 122nd and 123rd streets. The area was once occupied by tenement buildings that are now gone. It's located in Harlem, within Community Board # 11 and Council District # 8.

Design Intent

In 1990, plans to develop the site into a multi-use park and science playground were never realized due to the economic recession in the early '90s. Council Member Reed gave $1.8 million to develop this important neighborhood park with active and passive recreation to commemorate the life of astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair. Dr. McNair lost his life in the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986. Besides being an astronaut, McNair was also a physicist, a Karate instructor, and a performing jazz saxophonist.

The design of the park reflects McNair's interests in physics and space science, and is manifested in the design of the play units, site furnishings, pavements and decorative lighting.

The Planets of Our Solar System:
The eight planets for a child-size exploration of the solar system.

This park design was inspired by teaching tools found on the Challenger Center web site. The Challenger Center, established by the families of the 1986 Challenger astronauts, is a multi media resource for teaching school age children about space and science. One exercise engages students by having them compare the relative size of the planets in our solar system. The design for Ronald McNair Park gives this exercise a large scale physical form. The solar system's now-eight planets can be found in the pavement and curbs of the park. For example, Jupiter is represented by a 77-foot-8-inch ring of pavement, incised with the planet's name around a lawn area. Pluto is represented by a 1-foot-3-inch’ granite disk paver.

Ronald McNair (below) was a member of the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger mission, which exploded after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. McNair was a South Carolina resident, but had ties to family in the Harlem neighborhood where the city's second park bearing his name was built.

New York's First McNair Park

New York City created a Ronald McNair park in Brooklyn shortly after the Challenger tragedy. (It was formerly known as Guider Park, near Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.) The city's Department of Cultural Affairs selected Nigerian-born sculptor Ogundipe Fayomi to create a bronze memorial of the astronaut. Fayomi fashioned a sensitive portrait, set within a nine-foot tall polished red-granite pedestal resembling a modified rocket ship. The pyramidal base features a bronze relief with images relating to Dr. McNair's achievements and interests.

Dr. McNair was born on Oct. 21, 1950, in Lake City, S. C. He graduated from Carver High School in Lake City in 1967, and received a B.S. degree in physics from North Carolina A & T State University in 1971. In 1976, Dr. McNair completed his Ph.D. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After graduating from MIT, Dr. McNair was employed as a staff physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif. His work there involved developing lasers for isotope separation and photochemistry, using non-linear interactions in low-temperature liquids. He also conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications and explored the scientific foundations of the martial arts. A member of numerous scientific organizations and a visiting lecturer in physics at Texas Southern University, Dr. McNair also taught karate as a fifth-degree black belt and was a performing jazz saxophonist.

In 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Dr. McNair as an astronaut candidate. He completed his training the following year, and became eligible as a mission specialist astronaut on Space Shuttle flight crews. He first flew as a mission specialist on Mission STS-41-B on Feb. 3, 1984, which featured the first untethered spacewalk. Serving as a mission specialist on Mission STS-51-L, his life was cut short when the space shuttle exploded one minute and 13 seconds into the launch. After his death, the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation for Science, Technology & Space Education was established in Atlanta, Ga.

When the monument was dedicated on June 14, 1994, family, friends, former colleagues, community representatives, city officials and hundreds of school children gathered in memory of Dr. McNair's legacy. The monument and the park, which was renovated at the time of the sculpture's installation, evoke a mood in keeping with Dr. McNair's wish inscribed on the pedestal. It reads, "that we should allow this planet to be the beautiful oasis that she is, and allow ourselves to live more in the peace she generates."

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December 8, 2019, 7:55 am PDT

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