The City of New York acquired this small parkland to the southwest of Hartley House in 1936-38, and the 45th Street Playground opened to the public on April 16, 1937. The site has since been named Mathews-Palmer Playground after park and community advocates May Mathews and Alexandra Palmer.
Social worker May Mathews (1887-1974) labored tirelessly for many years on behalf of the residents of the Clinton neighborhood in Manhattan. Born in Paterson, New Jersey, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1902. Mathews moved to New York City and divided her time between work at the Friendly House settlement in Brooklyn and studies at the New York School of Philanthropy (now Columbia School of Social Work), where she earned a certificate in 1904. She moved to Hartley House, a settlement house on West 46th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in 1903.
Mathews took over the management of Hartley House in 1904 and was head social worker until 1954. She focused her efforts on services for New York City’s newly arrived European immigrants. During her directorship, Hartley House sponsored English and citizenship classes for immigrants, discussion groups and social clubs for men and women of different age groups, and worker education groups for industrial, clerical, and household workers. A special housekeeping school instructed local mothers in cooking, sewing, and child-rearing.
Mathews was a champion of children’s rights. She campaigned for stricter child labor laws, spearheaded the effort to serve hot lunches to public school children, and created a variety of youth programs at Hartley House including classes in visual arts, dance, music, storytelling, drama, and athletics. In 1977, at the recommendation of the West 46th Street Block Association, the City renamed the playground in honor of May Mathews.
Alexandra Palmer, the playground’s second namesake, was a longtime resident of West 46th Street who was deeply involved in the maintenance and restoration of the park. She worked with an urban planning group in the 1970s to renovate the park and make it a community destination. Palmer passed away in 2003 and her name was bestowed on the park in 2007.
McGraw-Hill and a gift from the late oil heiress Mary Flagler Cary (1901-1967) funded the 1970s renovation, which included artwork in the playground. Working with community members and City Arts Workshop (now City Arts), architect Michael Altschuler redesigned the playground, which reopened in 1977. Posted signs listed past and present playground users as well as contractors and builders. In 1972, artist Arnold Belkin painted the mural Against Domestic Colonialism. Sand-cast panels and ceramic tiles made by local children and seniors under the direction of architect Phillip Danzig and artist Marilyn Fox were added in 1972-77. The Kids’ Club mural was created by students of P.S. 17 in 1991.