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Mathews - Palmer Playground

Matthews - Palmer Playground

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

Social worker May Mathews (1887-1974) labored tirelessly for many years on behalf of the residents of the Clinton neighborhood of Manhattan.  Born in Paterson, New Jersey, she was 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 came to live at Hartley House, a settlement house on West 46th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in 1903.  Hartley House celebrated its 100th year of social service in 1997.

Mathews took over the management of Hartley House in 1904 and remained as 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.  Local girls and boys participated in social clubs, and twelve-to-fifteen year-olds joined peace clubs.  Hartley House offered instruction in the visual arts, dance, music, storytelling, drama, and athletics.  There were also opportunities for outdoor recreation at a playground in the backyard and at summer camping programs at a farm outside the city. 

The City of New York acquired property to the southwest of Hartley House for a small park in 1936-38.  The 45th Street Playground opened to the public on April 16, 1937.  A Parks press release announced that the new playground featured “see-saws, swings, jungle gym, garden swings, slides, sand tables, play houses and game tables for chess, checkers and backgammon, and also benches and shade trees.”  Handball and basketball courts were constructed in the northern portion of the playground. 

Between 1972 and 1977, funds for playground art and renovations were provided by McGraw-Hill and a gift from the late oil heiress Mary Flagler Cary (1901-1967).  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.  Art in the park includes the Against Domestic Colonialism mural painted by artist Arnold Belkin in 1972; sand-casted panels and ceramic tiles made by local children and seniors under the direction of architect Phillip Danzig and artist Marilyn Fox in 1972-77; and the Kids’ Club mural created by students of P.S. 17 in 1991. 

In 1977, at the recommendation of the West 46th Street Block Association, the City renamed the playground in honor of May Mathews.  In 1996, the capital reconstruction of the playground provided new trees, play equipment, safety surfacing, spray shower, handball and basketball courts, gates, benches, pedestrian ramp, paving, drainage and water supply systems, and a yardarm for the flagpole.  The playground features a squirrel-shaped weathervane atop the comfort station. 

The playground’s second namesake was Alexandra Palmer, 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 in the Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton neighborhood. Palmer passed away in 2003 and her name was bestowed on the park in 2007.

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