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Morningside Park

Playground 123

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This playground is located on the northeast corner of Morningside Park, facing 123rd Street, for which it is named. The site lies within the area settled following the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. New York City Mayor De Witt Clinton (1769-1828) created the commission, which was charged with planning the orderly development of Manhattan north of Houston Street. The planners agreed on a system of rectangular blocks, extending from 14th Street through Washington Heights, designed to maximize the efficiency of construction and travel throughout Manhattan. Known as the grid system, the plan arranged 12 north-south avenues perpendicular to 155 east-west cross streets.

The plan provided for parks to be located on 53rd, 66th, 77th, and 120th Streets. The Commissioners Plan of 1811 astutely predicted the exponential residential growth that would occur during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the plan failed to include the park acreage necessary to provide adequate recreation for the growing population. In 1867 Andrew Haswell Green, Commissioner and Comptroller of Central Park, recommended that a park be located in Morningside Heights. He argued that it would be “very expensive” and “very inconvenient” to extend the Manhattan street grid over the area’s severe topography.

The City of New York gained jurisdiction over this property in 1870, and employed architect Jacob Wrey Mould and landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (co-designers of Central and Prospect Parks) to transform its raw topography into a place for public recreation. The name Morningside Park is a reference to the park’s location on the eastern side of the Manhattan schist, which separates Morningside Heights on the west from the Harlem Plain to the east. It is from this side of the cliff that the sunrise can be viewed in the morning.

The 1887 plan for Morningside Park, as envisioned by landscape architects Olmsted and Vaux, designated three entrances to the park from 123rd Street, one at each corner and another in the middle. The two easternmost entrances led to meandering paths that convened in a trail circling the field that once dominated the northeastern region of the park. In a renovation initiated by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981), the two trails were straightened, dividing the field into three smaller areas. A playground was constructed on the eastern section, the land on which Playground 123 stands today. It was named Morningside Playground and opened on November 20, 1935.

The stone recreation building on this site is the only existing element of the original playground. Today, it houses an after-school program, which provides local schoolchildren with tutoring and homework assistance, as well as organized recreational activities. Many of the program’s participants include students of the Margaret Douglas Elementary School (P.S. 36), situated on the northwestern corner of Morningside Park, and the Ralph Bunche School (P.S. 125), located across 123rd Street from this site.

In 2000, Commissioner Henry J. Stern renamed this site Playground 123 and the mayor provided $131,319 towards a renovation of the playground. 

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