This playground is named for August Heckscher (1848-1941), real estate magnate, financier, philanthropist, and grandfather of August Heckscher (1913-1997), Parks Commissioner under Mayor John V. Lindsay (1921-2000, mayor 1966-73). Heckscher the elder was born in Hamburg, the son of the German Minister of Justice in the provisional German government. He studied in Switzerland and served as an apprentice at an export house in Hamburg, then moved to New York in 1867. Heckscher spoke no English when he arrived, so he joined the Mercantile Library at Astor Place in Lower Manhattan and reportedly taught himself to read the language in three weeks. Heckscher then began pursuing his fortunes, first running a coal mine near Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and later in zinc plants in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Sussex County, New Jersey. In the early 1900s, Heckscher grew interested in Manhattan real estate, and after a few initial investment blunders, reaped millions in profits.
Heckscher’s interest in philanthropy began when an officer for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children asked the wealthy businessman to donate funds for a motor bus. Heckscher refused to give money for an automobile, but instead donated a valuable piece of property on Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets. When the society said it couldn’t afford to build anything there, Heckscher donated a block-long building where the Heckscher Foundation for Children made its home. For years, Heckscher lobbied to pass legislation aimed at razing many of the city’s slums and funding public housing for the less fortunate. He expanded his philanthropic activities to the arts and parks, including funds for what became Heckscher State Park on Long Island. In 1920, the Heckscher Museum of Art was founded in Huntington, Long Island, filled mostly with Heckscher’s private collection. Central Park's first formal playground opened in 1926 at 7th avenue and 61st Street. The 4.5-acre site, equipped with swings, merry-go-rounds, jungle gyms, and a wading pool, was also named for Heckscher. At the time, many wealthy residents living near the playground opposed its construction because they feared it would attract less affluent crowds to the park. It did. Heckscher died in his sleep at his winter home in Mountain Lake, Florida, in 1941.
This playground received its name after the city purchased the land for Parks from the Heckscher Foundation for Children in 1935. The property had served as a public playground since 1934. When Parks took over, the property included a recreation building containing a dental facility and an indoor play facility. The park was home to summer activities such as puppet shows, story telling, and arts and crafts. Originally, the playground was a little under one acre in size. In 1969, Grove Street was closed off between Central and Wilson Avenues for the purposes of a housing, health, and education development. The project never came to fruition, and Heckscher Playground was reconfigured into its present shape and size in the mid-1970s.
August Heckscher’s grandson, August Heckscher, also figures prominently in the city’s history. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s in government from Harvard, he worked at several federal agencies, and was chief editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune from 1952-1956. He was appointed New York City Parks Commissioner in 1967 by Mayor John Lindsay, and served for six years. Heckscher’s term as Parks Commissioner is remembered for instituting large recreational events such as the New York Marathon, an annual tradition that began in 1970. Known as a benevolent leader, he was fondly referred to as “King Augie the Good.” His experiences as commissioner are detailed in his autobiography Alive in the City. He wrote other books, including a 1991 biography of Woodrow Wilson, which was praised by critics and academics alike. In later years, Heckscher served as chairman of several public institutions, including the New School for Social Research, the Woodrow Wilson Institute, and the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
Heckscher Playground contains benches, swings for tots and for children, play equipment with safety surfacing, a comfort station, basketball and handball courts, a spray shower, and a mini pool. In 1994, Mayor Giuliani and City Council Member Victor L. Robles funded a $469,000 reconstruction.
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