Over one hundred years ago, settlement workers Lillian D. Wald and Charles B. Stover founded the Outdoor Recreation League (ORL) to promote organized games in public playgrounds as an alternative to play in city streets. Between 1898 and 1902 ORL opened nine privately sponsored playgrounds on municipal parkland. Soon after the City of New York assumed operations of ORL playgrounds in 1902, the facility at Seward Park became the first permanent, municipally built playground in the United States. It opened on October 17, 1903, in the north corner of the park. With its cinder surfacing, fences, recreation pavilion, and play and gymnastic equipment, the facility became a model for playground programming and design.
The city had acquired the land for Seward Park by condemnation in 1897. Due to lack of funds, the site remained largely unimproved until the intervention of the ORL. In addition to the playground, the 1903 plan featured a large running track with an open play area in the center and a children’s farm garden in the southeast corner. Curving paths and a north-south mall divided the park into recreational areas. The limestone and terra cotta Seward Park Pavilion was equipped with marble baths, a gymnasium, and meeting rooms. Rocking chairs were placed on the broad porch for the use of mothers tending their small children.
Seward Park underwent a major transformation in the 1930s and 1940s. First, a sliver of land on the east side of the site was surrendered to the city and reassigned to the Manhattan Borough President for street purposes. The Schiff Fountain (1895), designed by architect Arnold W. Brunner, was moved from nearby Rutgers Park to Seward Park in 1936. It was the gift of Jacob H. Schiff, a banker and philanthropist, to the people of the Lower East Side. Seward Park’s pavilion was demolished in the same year, and a new recreation building was erected in 1941. New facilities focused on active play: a basketball court, playgrounds, horseshoe-pitching and shuffleboard courts, and a large paved area adaptable for roller skating, paddle tennis, and ice skating.
The Lower East Side neighborhood around Seward Park continued to evolve. In the late 1950s a triangular swath of land to the east and north of the park was condemned and redeveloped by the city. Most of the intersecting streets were closed, and the Seward Park houses were built where crowded tenements once stood.
The 1999 renovation of Seward Park has revived several features from the 1903 plan. There is a new center oval with a large spray shower and marble mosaic map of the neighborhood. The various quotations by historic local residents were provided by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Other revivals of the park’s original appearance include fencing modeled after the historic fences, as well as period lighting and site furniture.
The new design also considers the legacy of park namesake William Henry Seward (1801-1872), an American statesman. As senator from New York (1849-1861), Seward was an outspoken critic of slavery. As Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, he arranged the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia. This famous bargain, once denounced as “Seward’s folly,” inspired playground equipment such as the seal spray shower and Mount McKinley play unit. Standing proudly in park’s tot lot is a bronze statue of the husky named Togo. A contemporary of Balto (whose statue is located in Central Park), Togo played a heroic role in the 1925 dash to bring an antidiptheria serum to Nome, Alaska. In 2001 the park benefited from a $1.56 million reconstruction funded by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani with Council Members Kathryn E. Freed and Margarita López. The reconstruction added a new playground, spray showers, fencing, plantings, benches, pavement, a historic fence, and a mosaic.
Directions to Seward Park
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