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Carl Schurz Park

Catbird Playground

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

One of the fanciful pieces of animal artwork in this playground is a sitting cat adorned with wings, which led to the playground’s name, “Catbird.” The name is also a veiled reference to the “catbird seat,” an expression meaning an advantageous position, which is appropriate considering the power held by residents of nearby Gracie Mansion. Also in the neighborhood is 2 Gracie Square, former residence of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who helped with the creation of this very playground.

The catbird is a songbird indigenous to North and South America belonging to the mockingbird family. The gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) grows to about nine inches long, and is characterized by slate gray feathers, a black-feathered crown, and chestnut-colored area underneath the tail. The catbird’s name refers to the call it makes, which can sound similar to the “meow” of a cat. The bird usually sits on a high perch overlooking the world below, hence the derivation of the expression “catbird seat.”

Carl Schurz Park, named by the Board of Aldermen in 1910 for the soldier, statesman, and journalist Carl Schurz (1829-1906), overlooks the turbulent waters of “Hell Gate,” where the waters of the Long Island Sound and the East River meet. Schurz was born in Cologne, Germany, and immigrated to the United States in 1852. He quickly earned a reputation as a skilled orator, and proved to be instrumental in Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election campaign. Schurz’s most significant political offices were that of United States Senator from Missouri, and Secretary of the Interior (1877-81) during the Hayes administration. In his later years, Schurz was editor of The New York Tribune and an editorial writer for Harper’s Weekly. Schurz is also honored with a statue sculpted by Karl Bitter in 1913, which is located at Morningside Drive and 116th Street.

The first known Dutch owner of this land was Sybout Claessen, who was granted the property in 1646 from the Dutch West India Company. Jacob Walton, a subsequent owner, built the first house on the site in 1770. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army built a fort surrounding the Walton residence to guard the strategic shipping passage of Hell Gate. After a British attack on September 8, 1776, the house was destroyed and the Americans were forced to retreat from the fort, which the British retained until the end of the war in 1783. Archibald Gracie, a Scottish shipping magnate, purchased the land from Walton’s heirs in 1798. He built a mansion there in 1799, where his illustrious guests included future United States president John Quincy Adams and future French king Louis Phillippe. The estate, sold by Gracie in 1819, was acquired by the City from the Wheaton family in 1891. The first home of the Museum of the City of New York, from 1924-32, the mansion has served as the official residence of New York City’s mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) moved there in 1942.

The playground that exists today was originally designed in 1935 by Gilmore D. Clark. The newly redesigned Catbird Playground occupies the semi-circular space at the north end of the rectangular play space. This area was originally used as a separate seating area and flower garden. In 1965, play equipment was introduced and steps were added to connect it to the playground. After receiving suggestions from Community Board 8, Parks decided to remove old timber play equipment from the site and replace it with a new steel unit that meets current safety and accessibility standards. Council Member A. Gifford Miller funded a $567,000 renovation to the playground in 2000, and the site was named Catbird Playground. The steel play unit features an ensemble of high platforms, challenging climbers, slides, and overhead ladders and rings. Under the decks, another series of play activities is accessible from ground level. The renovation also included adding new benches, trees, and pavement, as well as the imaginative animal artwork, sculpted by Carol Zaloom, that earned the playground its name.

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