Duane Park, located at Hudson and Duane Streets in Manhattan, was the first public space acquired by the City specifically for use as a public park. This park and the adjacent street take the name of James Duane (1733-1797), New York’s first mayor after the Revolutionary War.
Born in New York City and admitted to the bar in 1754, Duane went on to serve as New York attorney general in 1767 and in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1784. Despite having initial reservations about his country’s independence, he later supported the Declaration of Independence and helped to draft the Articles of Confederation and the first New York State Constitution. He was a member of the New York State Senate, the first mayor of New York City (1784-1789), and he served as a U.S. District judge in New York.
The park is the last remnant of the greensward of the Annetje Jans farm, granted in 1636 by Governor Wouter Van Twiller to Roelfoff and Annetje Jans. After the death of Roeloff Jans, his widow married the Revered Everardus Bogardus, second minister of the Dutch Church of New Amsterdam, and the farm became known as the Dominie’s Bouwery, (minister’s farm).
The farm was sold in 1670 to the English Governor, Sir Francis Lovelace, but was later confiscated by the Duke of York and deeded in 1705 to Trinity Church. In 1797 the triangle was purchased from Trinity Church for five dollars in order to create a public park.
Originally an open commons, the park was later enclosed by an iron fence. By 1870 it had been enlarged and enclosed with trees, lawn, and shrubs following a design by Parks Chief Engineer M.A. Kellogg and Chief Gardener I.A. Pilat, who were also responsible for designs for City Hall and Washington Square Parks. The 1870 design featured bluestone curbing, iron fencing on a granite base, grading and planting of the enclosed green space, and twelve new street trees. The sidewalk along the south side of the park was widened from two to ten feet, and the sidewalk along Hudson was narrowed from sixteen to ten feet.
Around this time many of the nearby buildings were erected, and as part of a citywide effort to improve public access to enclosed parklands, Parks Superintendent Samuel Parsons, Jr., and landscape architect Calvert Vaux introduced a new plan for the space in 1887 that added paths while retaining the plantings.
Parsons in particular wrote extensively about designing public squares like the one at Duane Street. “I do not know why it is that city squares are generally treated as mere open spaces of greensward with shade trees dotted over them,” Parsons opined in his 1892 article “The Evolution of a City Square.” “Poverty of designing ability, probably, and lack of knowledge of what might be done to beautify such places will entirely suffice to account for this baldness of treatment.”
Noting that ideally parks “should be of the most liberal character - ten, twenty, fifty acres,” Parsons acknowledged that there were “often vacant places, triangles, and irregular spaces, not suited for building lots, that seem to be left unoccupied, perforce, as we might say.” The Duane Street site, in what Parsons called one of Manhattan’s “crowded and dusty” neighborhoods, was one such example.
Integrating “definite artistic principles” and taking into account the foreboding native soil in this part of Manhattan, the Vaux-Parsons plan for Duane Park featured paths curving in from each surrounding street. “At Duane Street a diagonal walk has been introduced swelling out to a considerable width at one point between the three entrances,” Parsons explained. “Beyond this there are only three small bits of green grass on either side, a few shrubs along the fence and a small flower-bed, but even this is a boon to the crowded neighborhood.”
In 1940 a design by Chief Consultant Landscape Architect Gilmore D. Clarke and Parks Landscape Architect Janet Patt gave the park a formal Beaux-Arts style look, reducing the planted area and adding a central flagpole. The design was typical of Works Progress Administration projects, and featured a geometric style.
In 1999, a plan by landscape architect Signe Nielsen sponsored by the Friends of Duane Park, replaced much of the paved area with planting to evoke the 1887 design. Tablets detailing the park’s history and design were installed and the flagpole’s base was reinscribed.