Philip Mazzei (1730-1816), an influential early American statesman, was born in Poggio a Caiano, near Florence, Italy. He was known for his unusual interests and unique occupations. He studied classical Latin and Italian literatures as well as agronomy (the science of soil management and crop production). He was a licensed physician, an author, a teacher, an importer of olive oil, wine, and cheese, and a renowned world traveler—legend has it that a Turkish sultan’s smitten daughter once made an offer to purchase the young Mazzei.
In 1756 he moved to London, where he met founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who persuaded Mazzei to move to the United States. With his wife, daughter, and a team of 12 Tuscan farmers, Mazzei settled in Virginia in 1773 and started an experimental wine and grape vineyard. After this short-lived career, Mazzei became involved with the American Revolution. He was influential in helping his neighbor Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and it has been said that Mazzei coined the phrase “all men are created equal.” In 1792 Mazzei retired to Italy, where he spent the rest of his life gardening and recruiting Italian sculptors for the United States Capitol.
Bounded by Mace Avenue and Williamsbridge Road, and adjacent to P.S. 89 and Williamsbridge Middle School, this site was assigned to Parks by the Board of Estimate on August 17, 1948. The playground, paid for by the New York City Housing Authority, was the 538th playground in the park system when it opened on November 24, 1950. At the time, the playground featured four handball courts, a comfort station, a flagpole, a wading pool, and a large, paved surface that could be used as either a basketball court or a softball diamond.
The playground was originally known as Pelham Parkway Houses Playground, after the nearby housing project named for the Bronx and Pelham Parkway. Two-and-one-half miles long and as wide as a city block, the parkway was constructed as a result of 1884’s New Parks Act, which purchased the land that would later become Van Cortlandt, Bronx, Crotona, Claremont, St. Mary’s, and Pelham Bay Parks and the Moshulu, Crotona, and Bronx and Pelham Parkways. Today, the parkway serves as a conduit between two of the Bronx’s largest parks, connecting with Bronx Park at Boston Road on the west and with Pelham Bay Park on the east.
Mace Avenue is named after Levi Hamilton Mace (1825-1896), an early 19th century Bronxite. Mace owned a refrigeration factory at East 150th Street and the Harlem River, and served as president of District 2’s Department of Education for 26 years. Williamsbridge Road was once a Native American footpath. Later, a local farmer named John Williams would leave his name to the road, as well as to a nearby bridge spanning the Bronx River, and a park (Williamsbridge Oval).
The last two decades have brought several notable changes to the playground. In 1980, a Local Law renamed the Pelham Parkway Houses Playground in Mazzei’s honor, and on May 1, 1981, a 48-inch diameter steel and granite flagstaff dedicated to Mazzei was donated by the Columbus Esca Alliance, Inc. In 2000, a renovation paid for with funds allocated by the City Council gave the playground new swings and play equipment, a seven-foot-tall steel picket fence, new pavement, safety surfacing, security lighting, new benches and picnic tables, and a wide array of lush greenery. London plane trees and honey locusts were added to the playground. Numerous shrubs, including bayberry and witch hazel were also planted, along with reed grass and lily turf.