Brook Playground and the adjacent avenue are named for Mill Brook, a stream which once ran through this neighborhood before the area was developed. The stream flowed from Gates Place in the north Bronx, along what is now Webster and Brook Avenues, and into the Bronx Kill, serving as an important boundary in the nineteenth century; it divided the lands of various Bronx estates, including those of the Bathgate and Morris families.
Brook Park is also known locally as Alexander Burger Park. Burger (1873–1932) was born in Lithuania, and immigrated to the United States, settling in the Bronx. He ran an office furniture manufacturing company, Art Steel, Inc., which was one of the first local businesses to racially integrate its workforce. In recognition of his courage and concern for his community, the school across the street, J.H.S. 139, now bears his name. To this day, the Burger family continues to play an active role in the school’s affairs.
Parks acquired Brook Park in 1979 under the auspices of the South Bronx Neighborhood Open Space Development Project. The project was initiated in 1978 by the South Bronx Open Space Task Force, Inc., an umbrella organization formed by a coalition of neighborhood groups committed to greening the environment and expanding community recreational facilities. The project was funded by a grant from the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, a part of the United States Department of the Interior. The Service was established by the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and it initiated the development and revitalization of 15 vacant lots throughout the South Bronx with an emphasis on community participation in design and maintenance.
Around the corner, the Piccirilli Brothers, noted stone carvers, housed their studio at 467 East 142nd Street. The six brothers — Attilio, Ferruccio, Furio, Getulio, Masaniello, and Orazio — emigrated from Italy with their father Giuseppe in 1887 and opened their studio in 1893. Much of the Piccirilli Brothers’ work was done at the 142nd Street studio where they received a number of prominent visitors, including President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960), former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882–1947), and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907).
From 1901, when Attilio won the commission for the Maine Monument (1913) at Central Park’s Merchants Gate, an original work, until the 1940s, the Piccirillis’ stone-carving skills figured prominently in major sculptures in New York and elsewhere. The brothers’ most famous work, the heroic statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., was enlarged from the seven-foot plaster model designed by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) and carved out of 28 5-ton blocks of Georgia marble. French reportedly considered the Piccirillis his favorite carvers.
Having executed the carving work for many major sculptors — including Hermon MacNeil, A. Stirling Calder, and Frederick MacMonnies, to name a few — the Piccirillis are well represented in city parks. The Piccirillis handiwork can be seen, for example, in MacNeil’s and Calder’s sculptures on the Washington Arch in Greenwich Village. In addition, the World War Memorial (1920) in Memorial Gore in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was designed by the brothers, and the Firemen’s Memorial (1913) at Riverside Park was designed by Attilio.
Locally, the brothers also executed Edward Clark Potter’s Lions (1911), which sit at the entrance to the New York Public Library; J.Q.A. Ward’s New York Stock Exchange Pediment (1904); and Daniel Chester French’s The Four Continents (1907) at the entrance to the U.S. Custom House in Bowling Green (now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian).