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Presidents in Parks

President John F. Kennedy at dedication of East Coast War Memorial

Countless world leaders have visited New York City parks for both official business and personal pleasure. On this occasion, we take time to note the connections between United States commanders–in–chief and Parks.

A Nation's Beginning

Technically speaking, the New York City Parks Department was not created until 1870 (during Ulysses S. Grant's tenure presidency), but city parks existed before this — and many Presidents spent time in the places that are now parks.

Our first president, George Washington, is honored across the parks system with park names, sculptures, markers, and tablets commemorating him.  As General of the Continental Army, Washington spent much time in places that became parks.  General Washington commanded forces from Morris–Jumel Mansion, which is now one of Parks' historic houses.  In 1790, it is believed that Washington passed through what is now Alley Pond Park on his way to Long Island; a marker at 233rd Street near the entrance to the Cross Island Parkway commemorates this.

Fifth president James Monroe actually fought in the Battle of Harlem Heights under Washington's command.  The site of the battle is commemorated with a marker at 121st Street and Riverside Drive near Grant's Tomb and another at Broadway between 147th and 148th Streets in Manhattan.

John Adams, our second president, participated in the famous meeting between British Lord Admiral Richard Howe and Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge at a house owned by British army colonel Christopher Billopp on the southern tip of Staten Island.  At the meeting, Lord Howe offered to end the conflict peacefully if the American colonies would return to British control; the American delegation declined.  The site for this historic "conference" is now known as "Conference House," and is located in Staten Island's Conference House Park.

When the U.S. capital was moved to New York City on a temporary basis from 1789 to 1790, both Washington and his secretary of state, eventual third president Thomas Jefferson, relocated to Lower Manhattan. Jefferson lived on Maiden Lane, between Bowling Green and the Common (now City Hall Park).

Functions of the Office

Presidents are often called to New York City to attend important conferences or dedications, oftentimes scheduling appearances in parks to coincide with their mission at the moment, whether it be self–promotional or altruistic.

In his later role as U.S. Representative, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, visited the home of one-time New York Mayor Philip Hone, located right across from City Hall Park at the corner of Broadway and Park Place. Sixteenth president Abraham Lincoln made one of the most famous appearances of his career at Cooper Union, at the site of Cooper Square in the East Village. After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, he lay in state at City Hall in City Hall Park. New York also has the honor of being the first city to dedicate a statue of the president in his honor, the Henry Kirke Brown statue in Prospect Park (1869).

Lincoln's successor, 17th president Andrew Johnson, visited City Hall in late August 1866. A procession took the President up Broadway to Madison Square Park, and finally back down to Delmonico's Hotel at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, where he stayed the night.

Twenty–third president Benjamin Harrison participated in New York's centennial celebration of George Washington's inauguration, spending several days in the city. On April 29, 1889, President Harrison replicated Washington's cross-harbor voyage from Jersey City, landing at the foot of Wall Street where Washington himself landed 100 years earlier. Harrison took part in ceremonies at City Hall on April 30, and viewed the parade that led from Fifth Avenue and 57th Street to Washington Square from stands at Madison Square on May 1, 1889.

On April 30, 1899, 25th president William McKinley attended Sunday services at Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, after which he made some calls around the city and ended his day on Riverside Drive to visit General Grant's Tomb. President McKinley had just come from Philadelphia, where he helped unveil the General Grant monument in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.

During the same visit to New York, McKinley also took a pleasure cruise on the Hudson. To get to the dock at 129th Street from the Hotel Manhattan where McKinley was staying, the President, First Lady, and their entourage boarded carriages and cut through Central Park to Riverside Drive.

Monumental Presidents

Several sitting Presidents participated in dedication ceremonies in parks. Nineteenth president Rutherford B. Hayes opened the American Museum of Natural History on December 22, 1877 in what is now known as Theodore Roosevelt Park. President Hayes also unveiled the Fitz-Greene Halleck statue in Central Park on May 15, 1877.

Twenty-seventh President William Howard Taft attended the dedication of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park on November 14, 1908. And 29th President Warren G. Harding spent an afternoon in New York on April 19, 1921 to unveil the Simon Bolivar Statue in Manhattan's Central Park. Harding used the occasion to deliver a major policy address in which he urged greater cooperation between North and South America.

Twenty-eighth President Woodrow Wilson viewed the Liberty Parade from the "Altar of Liberty" in Madison Square on October 12, 1918 at the end of the first World War. The Liberty Parade was a joint Columbus Day-"Liberty Day" military display in which soldiers and veterans marched in full gear--including gas masks--down Fifth Avenue from 72nd Street; parade participants marched with trophies of captured German guns.

New York received a flurry of attention during the 1960 presidential elections. On October 27, 1960, then-candidate John F. Kennedy embarked on a whirlwind four-borough tour of New York City that took him to rallies in both Washington Square and Union Square. (As 35th president, Kennedy also dedicated the East Coast Memorial in Battery Park on May 23, 1963.) 34th president Dwight D. Eisenhower, campaigning with 1960 Republican nominee (and eventual 37th president) Richard Nixon, spoke to supporters in Herald Square on November 3, 1960, just five days before the election. (Eisenhower also spoke at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Columbus Monument in Columbus Circle on October 12, 1958 and was honored in Battery Park with the Eisenhower Mall at a ceremony he attended on September 27, 1963.)

Thirty–sixth president Lyndon B. Johnson spoke at the Singer Bowl at the opening of the 1964–65 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows in Queens. On a sadder occasion, the President flew in and out of New York in a helicopter via Central Park's Sheep Meadow for Robert F. Kennedy's funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral on June 8, 1968. The federal government also funded "War on Poverty" seasonal work opportunities in parks during Johnson's administration.

On October 5, 1977, while in New York for United Nations business, 39th president Jimmy Carter made his famous visit to the South Bronx to experience firsthand the blight during that era. His tour took him in the vicinity of Crotona and St. Mary's parks. Carter also signed the Federal loan-guarantee bill on the steps of City Hall in City Hall Park on August 8, 1978; the bill helped the city avoid bankruptcy.

While campaigning for President in 1980, our 40th president, Ronald Reagan, also visited the Bronx areas where Carter went to make a political point about the administration's failures. In addition, Reagan participated in the celebration of the Statue of Liberty's centennial anniversary on July 3, 1986 from Governors Island, in New York Harbor off the Battery. On December 7, 1988 President Reagan met with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on Governor's Island, a low-key summit that came at the end of Reagan's term. The two discussed Soviet reforms. On a related note, in 1982, a crowd estimated at 500,000 amassed in Central Park to oppose Reagan's nuclear policies.

When the 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks took on a special meaning for a country dealing with the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 43rd president George W. Bush visited Yankee Stadium (a Parks concession) on October 30, 2001, the third game of the series and the first in New York. President Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch—a strike from the mound.

And on September 27, 2007, 44th president Barack Obama conducted a rally midway through his campaign for the presidency in a packed Washington Square Park.

Image courtesy of the photographer, Aaron Lee
Image Copyright and All Rights Reserved by Mr. Fineman


Sometimes the line between business and pleasure can be blurred with presidential appearances in parks. Several leaders scheduled trips that were an equal mix of both.

After the federally owned Battery fort was handed over to the City in 1823, entrepreneurs converted the circular fort we now know as Castle Clinton to a setting for countless receptions, demonstrations, and performances. Many Presidents were feted at the renamed "Castle Garden," including 10th president John Tyler, 11th president James K. Polk, and 14th president Franklin Pierce. At Castle Garden, Pierce heaped praise on the "Empire City," noting "the rapidity with which New York has arisen to so commanding a position as one of the most important cities upon the globe, has no parallel in history." Pierce also delivered a speech at the opening of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, which took place on the site of Bryant Park in 1853-54.

Castle Garden originally was situated 200 feet offshore in New York Harbor, and before it was eventually connected to the Battery by landfill, visitors used a bridge to reach the old fortress. On the occasion of seventh president Andrew Jackson's visit to Castle Garden, the bridge collapsed after the president crossed and sent trailing dignitaries falling into the water. After the festivities, the president then proceeded up Broadway to City Hall Park where he met with City officials. Then-Vice President Martin Van Buren (who became our eighth president) also attended. (Van Buren's ties to New York are strong -- he was once New York State Governor, Attorney General, and a State Senator.)

Courtesy Picture Collection, The New York Public Library

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, located between 23rd and 24th Streets on the West side of Fifth Avenue just across from Madison Square Park, was the place for 19th Century Republicans to hobnob. Twentieth president James A. Garfield stayed at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, as did 21st president Chester Alan Arthur and 18th president Ulysses S. Grant. Madison Square Park is another notable spot for Republicans; prominent Republicans are honored with statues in the park, including President Arthur himself.

Thirtieth president Calvin Coolidge does not have a strong connection to Parks, but Mrs. Coolidge was responsible for the President arriving in New York early on a trip in 1925 so that she could visit the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get decoration tips for the White House.

Executive Branching Out

Some presidents have directly shaped Parks' history, occasionally through wide-ranging legislation and other times through more specific measures.

Thirteenth president Millard Fillmore has an interesting connection to Parks. In 1847, as New York State comptroller, Fillmore authorized the appropriation of funds to construct the Arsenal, which is now part of Central Park and citywide headquarters for the Parks Department. An honorary façade marker inscribed with Fillmore's name was placed on the building.

As Governor of New York, 22nd (and 24th) president Grover Cleveland signed legislation in 1883 to establish six large parks and three broad parkways in the Bronx -- what became Bronx, Claremont, Crotona, St. Mary's, Van Cortlandt, and Pelham Bay parks, and the Crotona, Mosholu, and Bronx-Pelham parkways. Cleveland also was a pallbearer at Congressman Samuel Sullivan Cox's funeral in New York in 1889. Cox is represented in a statue at Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan's East Village.

Thirty-second president Franklin D. Roosevelt has had a large impact in the city's parks system. His Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs (after 1939, known as the Work Projects Administration) funded many projects in the city, including eleven large swimming pool projects and numerous playgrounds and renovations. President Roosevelt himself dedicated Downing Stadium on Randall's Island on July 11, 1936, and was also on hand on April 30, 1939 to officially open the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. At the end of World War II Roosevelt's successor, 33rd president Harry S. Truman, spoke to 50,000 people at Sheep Meadow in Central Park on Navy Day, October 27, 1945. A year later Truman addressed the first session ever of the United Nations General Assembly, held on October 23, 1946. This historic event took place at the Fair's former New York City Building in Flushing Meadows Park. The Assembly continued to convene there until moving to its permanent home along the East River in 1950.

In addition to his campaigning in the city during the 1960 election, 37th president Richard M. Nixon helped the federal government take control of city parks sites that became part of the federally administered Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA). Nixon toured the New Jersey and New York sites by helicopter in 1971. The former parks sites fell under federal jurisdiction in 1972.

Rubbing Shoulders with the Prez

Parks naturally become a part of the daily routine for presidents who settle in New York City as residents at some point in their lives.

Although he was from Ohio originally, 18th president Ulysses S. Grant was perhaps the first president to retire in New York, spending the last years of his life on the Upper West Side at 3 East 66th Street. And though it is technically on federal land, Grant's Tomb is located within Riverside Park and figured prominently in plans to beautify the park at the end of the 19th century.

Twenty-sixth president Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City and spent his childhood near Gramercy Park. In the summers of 1870 and 1871, Roosevelt lived at Wave Hill in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, reveling in the outdoors and solidifying his devotion to nature. At the time, Wave Hill was owned by publisher William H. Appleton, who used it as a summer residence. Wave Hill was deeded to the City in 1960 and subsequently preserved by the nonprofit Wave Hill organization.

After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Richard M. Nixon moved to New York and lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park.
Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, spent much of his time in New York City--from 1940 until his death in 1964--when he moved into the Waldorf Towers, overlooking Parks' Park Avenue Malls.

Forty-first president George Herbert Walker Bush also lived in the Waldorf Towers from 1970 to 1972 while serving as the United States ambassador to the United Nations.
Bill Clinton, our 42nd president, set up his post-presidency office in Harlem; the former president surprised Parks Arsenal employees one winter afternoon after a visit to the Central Park Zoo--he graciously shook hands on his way out to Fifth Avenue.

Finally, though fourth president James Madison did not live in New York, a tree from his estate in Virginia was planted in Madison Square Park to commemorate the centennial of the naming of "Madison Avenue" for the President in 1936.

The Remaining Presidents

And the four Presidents we left out? William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, only lasted a month in office and never made it to New York. We're not sure about the 12th president, Zachary Taylor, or the 15th President, James Buchanan. The last one is our 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, who is perhaps best known in New York for the infamous Daily News headline, "Ford to City: Drop Dead" after he declined the city's plea for a federal bailout.

Presidential Contenders

William H. Seward, the former New York State governor who nearly beat Lincoln to the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, is honored with a statue in Madison Square Park and Seward Park on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Colorful New York governor Alfred E. Smith, the 1928 Democratic candidate honored by a sculpture, a playground, a recreation center, a school, and a housing project on the Lower East Side block where he grew up, was a mentor to Parks commissioner Robert Moses. As Governor, he appointed Moses his secretary of state. In retirement, he was given the title honorary zoo night keeper (or some such moniker) and a key to the Central Park Zoo, so he could admit himself at any time.

It has been said that late in his 1956 losing presidential campaign to unseat incumbent Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson held a rally in Washington Square Park. When asked by a reporter why he still continued to campaign in the face of inevitable defeat, he looked up at the Arch and ad-libbed by repeating the quotation coined by Washington inscribed on the frieze of the Arch's south façade, using it as a rationale for his mission: “LET US RAISE A STANDARD TO WHICH THE WISE AND HONEST CAN REPAIR. THE EVENT IS IN THE HAND OF GOD.”

In 1996, future Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, then Mayor of New York City, and future Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, attended the dedication of a monument to Eleanor Roosevelt in Riverside Park.

As winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, former Vice President and 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore's name was inscribed on the Alfred Nobel Monument in Theodore Roosevelt Park in June 2008. Each year, the names of the American laureates are added to the inscriptions. Appropriately, Roosevelt's name is first on the list, followed by other winners, including presidents Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter.

Finally, another presidential contender, Barack Obama, while on the 2008 campaign trail drew a crowd estimated at 15,000 to a rally in Washington Square Park on September 27, 2007.

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