Clara Coffey Park
What was here before?
This park is one of five small parks along the East River in the vicinity of Sutton Place, located on York Avenue between 53rd and 59th Streets. The parks, once known as Five Parks, were renamed in 1997 for Effingham B. Sutton (1817–1891), the entrepreneur who developed this neighborhood.
Sutton was a shipping merchant and made a fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849. In 1875, Sutton built residential brownstones between 57th and 58th Streets in what was then largely an industrial community. However, by the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood along the waterfront had become neglected, suffering from poverty and substandard tenement housing. During this era, the neighborhood was infamous for street gangs, known as the Dead End Kids, who haunted the riverfront cul-de-sacs before parks were built here. Stanley Kingsley’s 1935 play about the area, Dead End, inspired several films depicting the area and the gangs.
How did this site become a park?
The arrival of the Vanderbilts and Morgans in 1921 spurred the neighborhood’s transformation into a wealthy enclave. Sutton Parks were created in 1938 in tandem with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, which runs next to and beneath the properties. NYC Parks took over maintenance and operation of Sutton Parks in 1942.
The park features an Armillary Sphere (1971) by Albert Stewart, inspired by Renaissance examples of the astronomical models once used in Ancient Greece. In 1991, a granite marker dedicated to landscape architect and local resident Clara Coffey was placed in a former sandbox converted by the Sutton Area Community Block Association into a garden with a decorative urn.
A comprehensive renovation of the parks in 2001 expanded the planting beds, unified the overlook and the parks, and added new lighting, paving, fencing, and park benches. In 2021 Clara Coffey Park was rebuilt, and the northeast portion reconfigured to accommodate the entrance ramp to a pedestrian and cycling bridge linked to the East Midtown Greenway, enabling community waterfront access.
Who is this park named for?
The park is named for Clara Stimson Coffey (1894-1982) a leading mid-20th century landscape architect prominent in New York City. She was born in Eaton Rapids, Michigan, and earned her bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture (1917) and master’s (1919) from the University of Michigan. She worked in Warren Manning’s Cleveland landscape design office in 1921-22, before moving to New York to work for Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950) and Marian Cruger Coffin (1876-1957), remaining in private practice until 1936. As the Parks Department’s Chief of Tree Plantings, she supervised prominent landscaping projects throughout the city including the plantings on the Hutchinson River and Belt Parkways (1941). She returned to private practice in 1942 with partners Cynthia Wiley and Alice Ireys until 1944.
From 1945 to 1957 she ran a solo landscape firm. In 1957, she established the partnership of Coffey, Levine and Blumberg, which designed several city playgrounds, including Clement Clarke Moore Park (1969) in Manhattan, Yellowstone Park (1970) in Queens, and Haffen Park (1968) in the Bronx. Coffey worked on redesigns of Prospect Park’s “Vale of Cashmere,” and on an upgrade of Central Park’s Conservatory Garden.
Coffey’s philosophy of design - understated, practical and accessible – is exemplified in her plan for the Park Avenue Malls (1970). The project replaced fences and tall hedges with flower beds, supplemented existing crab apple trees with kwanzan cherry trees, and displayed seasonal flowers within wood borders. In 1977, Coffey was appointed by Mayor Abraham Beame (1906–2001) to the Art Commission as its landscape architect representative.