Sutton Parks

Clara Coffey Park

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

In 1936, landscape architect Clara Stimson Coffey (1894–1982) accepted a position with Parks as the Chief of Tree Plantings. In this capacity, she supervised several prominent landscaping projects throughout the city including the plantings on the Hutchinson River and Belt Parkways (1941) and the redesign of the Park Avenue Malls (1970). Other projects Coffey worked on included Clement Clarke Moore Park in Manhattan (1969) and Yellowstone Park in Queens (1970).

Coffey’s philosophy of design - understated, practical and accessible – is exemplified in her plan for the Park Avenue Malls. The project replaced fences and tall hedges with flower-beds, supplemented existing crab apple trees (Malus) with kwanzan cherry trees (Prunus serrulata), and displayed seasonal flowers within wood borders. In 1977, Coffey was appointed by Mayor Abraham Beame (1906–2001) to the Art Commission as its professional landscape architect in residence.

In 1991, a granite marker dedicated to Coffey was placed in this park at 54th Street, within a former sandbox converted by the Sutton Area Community Block Association to a lush garden with a decorative urn. The park also features an Armillary Sphere (1971) by Albert Stewart, inspired by Renaissance examples of the astronomical models once used in Ancient Greece.

This park is one of a series of five vest-pocket parks that run along the East River in the vicinity of Sutton Place, itself located on York Avenue between 53rd and 59th Streets. The parks were originally known as Five Parks, but an Executive Decree in 1997 renamed them for Effingham B. Sutton (1817–1891), the entrepreneur who developed this neighborhood.

Sutton was a shipping merchant and one of the few prospectors who succeeded in building a fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849. In 1875, Sutton built brownstones between 57th and 58th Streets in hopes of re-establishing a residential community. By the turn of the century, however, the neighborhood along the waterfront had become neglected, suffering from poverty and blanketed with substandard tenement housing. During this era, the neighborhood was infamous for gangs of street toughs, known as the Dead End Kids, who congregated at the end of these streets before Sutton Parks were built. Stanley Kingsley’s 1935 play about the area, Dead End, inspired several films depicting the area and the gangs.

Sutton’s venture was saved by the arrival of the Vanderbilts and Morgans in 1920, which began the neighborhood’s transformation into a wealthy enclave. Sutton Parks were created in 1938 following the construction of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, which runs next to and underneath the properties. When the highway was built, some Sutton Place residents lost their access to the East River. The City built private backyards for them in compensation, and three of the five Sutton Parks are between these backyards. Parks took over maintenance and operation of Sutton Parks in 1942.

In 2001 a $429,000 renovation of the parks funded by Council Member A. Gifford Miller and Borough President C. Virginia Fields expanded the horticultural beds, unified the overlook and the parks, and added new lighting, paving, fencing and park benches using plastic slats. Also in 2001 an endowment in the memory of Bronka Novak, a long-time resident of Sutton Place, was established by her husband Adam. The endowment will provide for the maintenance and care of the flowers, trees and shrubs in the parks.

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