As the oldest municipal playground in the U.S., Seward Park, founded in 1903, has a rich history steeped in the late 19th-century immigrant neighborhood of New York City’s Lower East Side.

While the Park didn’t officially open until October 17, 1903, its precursor was the Outdoor Recreation League, formed in 1899 by social reformers Lillian Wald and Charles Stover who believed strongly that immigrant families living in squalid tenements desperately needed fresh air and exercise. The League raised funds to plant grass and trees and to create walking paths and benches.

Prior to the League’s formation, Aguilar Free Library Society was established in 1886. The Society purchased the land for the Seward Park Public Library, adjacent to the site for the Park, and built a small building in 1890. Shortly thereafter, the German-Jewish banker, businessman and philanthropist Jacob Henry Schiff (1847-1920), erected the ornate Schiff Fountain in Rutgers Square; the fountain was moved to its present site on the Essex St. side of Seward Park in 1936.

New York City took over the administration of the park in 1903. When it officially opened, published reports documented that as many as 2,000 children scrambled onto the playground. The Park included a running track, a children’s farm garden (on the present-day site of the Seward Park Garden) and was considered a model for future playground architecture. In 1904, a limestone and terra-cotta Pavilion was built with a gym, meeting rooms and the first public bathhouse to be opened in a New York City park. Rocking chairs were placed on the porch for use by mothers tending to their small children. Just five years later, in 1909, the Seward Park Library was built, replacing the Aguilar Free Library building.

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In 1936, the Pavilion was demolished and later, in 1941, a new recreation building opened, known as the Park House which stands today and includes public restrooms and a community room. In 1941, the Park offered basketball courts, horseshoe pitching, shuffleboard and a paved area for roller-skating and ice skating. Fast-forward to 2001, and Seward Park underwent a redesign by the New York City Department of Parks to its present-day status. The Landmark Seward Park Public Library was redesigned from 2002-2004.

The Park is named for William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, who is best known for his purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Seward was also known for his support for immigrants, particularly the Irish, who backed him for New York State Senator in the 1830s, Governor of New York in the 1840s and a United States Senator in the 1850s.

On the East Broadway side of the Park, there is a historic reference to Seward’s connection in the form of Togo, a bronze statue of the husky that played a heroic role in delivering anti-diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925.

Present

Each day, Seward Park is filled with activity—women dancing, teenagers playing basketball, kids scrambling around on the playground equipment, people practicing Tai Chi, parents pushing baby carriages and seniors resting on benches. Here are a few personal stories from people who enjoy the Park.

Togo

For a small park, we have a lot of history. Part of our history is bound up with Alaska! William H. Seward, for whom our park is named, was the  Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. He purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for seven million dollars. At the time it was called “Seward’s Folly” by the press but it proved to be a wise investment.

In our park, guarding the “small children” playground, on East Broadway, there is a lovely statue of a husky in full gallop. This is Togo. His ears are shiny because many a child enjoys jumping on his back and using them to hold on.

Hold on they should, because Togo was the lead sled dog of a man named Leonhard Seppala.

Togo had been sick as a young puppy and had required intensive nursing from Seppala’s wife. Later he became very bold and rowdy, thus he was seen as “difficult and mischievous, showing all the signs of becoming a canine delinquent,” according to one reporter. Later it became clear that his bravery, energy, and tenacity would make him a champion sled dog.

In 1925 Seppala and Togo together made a difficult and dangerous journey across central and northern Alaska to bring diphtheria serum to Nome. With other mushers and 100 dogs, they braved minus 30-degree temperatures, ice floes, and 5,000-foot mountain peaks before handing off the cargo to another musher and another sled dog named Balto (who has a celebrated statue in Central Park) for the last part of the trip.

Many mushers today consider Balto to be the back-up dog, as Seppala’s team led by Togo covered the longest and most hazardous leg of the journey. They made a round trip of 365 miles.

Our brave Togo does not have a plaque in front of his statue in our park. We think he deserves one!

While Gardening

While I was deadheading roses in the garden, a woman commented on how beautiful the flowers were and how she too grew roses.  We chatted about plants and I asked her about her roses and where she grew them.  She told me that she still lives on the Lower East Side but she tended the roses at her son’s house.  He’d moved to Huntington, Long Island twenty years ago.  She explained that her ties to the community keep her in the neighborhood.  Here she can speak her native tongue and easily obtain the foods associated with her Chinese homeland.

As fate would have it, Huntington is my hometown.  I moved from there to the East Village some twenty years ago.  It’s likely that her grandchildren go to the schools I attended or play in the same town park I did as a child.  This shared connection to a fellow gardener delighted me and got me thinking about my own family and its ties to the neighborhood.

Retracing my own family tree, Thomas Gill emigrated from Ireland and married an American, Ann Lee who was of English descent.  Thomas was the accountant for the New York Post for twenty-five years from 1808 to 1833, after which he founded a newspaper, The Evening Star, with Mordecai Manuel Noah.  Thomas suffered a stroke in the garden behind his house at 181 Orchard Street and died a few days later.  His daughter Mary married John Howe, my great-great-great-grandfather, who owned a clothing shop at 204 Chatham, which is now in the heart of Chinatown.My fellow gardener calls home what my ancestors once called home, and her son calls home what I once called home.  Isn’t it amazing to know what so many of us have in common with each other?  Though my family immigrated in the 1700s and hers in the 1900s, our stories overlap on the map of New York and right here on the Lower East Side.

~ Pam Brown

Terra Cotta

Ornate and lovely pieces of terra cotta were donated to the park and placed in the garden. They have been repurposed to the benefit of the park and serve as flower planters and a birdbath.  But where did they come from?

Seward Park Conservancy is fortunate to have a board member who is the architect involved in the adaptive reuse of the historic Jarmulowsky Bank building. The building, located at the intersection of Canal and Orchard Streets, was built in 1912 just a few years after the city officially opened Seward Park.

The Jarmulowsky building, which was landmarked in 2009, is currently undergoing renovation to become a boutique hotel.  During the course of the renovation, it was discovered that the terra cotta pieces have withstood a century of neglect and will need to be replaced.  The entire decorative frieze was removed and the best pieces are being used to cast a mold from which all new pieces will be created.

Roundel and the surrounding console have been installed in four areas of the garden: They are now planters. The festoon pieces were removed from the cornice at the highest point of the current iteration of the Jamulowsky building, and are being used as a decorative birdbath in the center of the garden.

We are very lucky to have these beautiful and historic fixtures bestowed upon us and that a piece of history can remain locally for all to enjoy.

Looking Out My Window

I moved to East Broadway in 2006 from the Upper West Side. I moved downtown for a change and because I fell in love with the building where I now live. Soon, however, the charm, history, and beauty of Seward Park began working it’s magic on me as well.

The same year I moved downtown, The Junior League of New York chose to re-plant and refresh the Seward Park Garden. Several of us decided to volunteer our time and energy to help maintain the new, vulnerable plantings. I found, over time, that the gardening became a source of great satisfaction, exercise and relaxation for me and I suspect for other of our “regulars.”
Now it is 2015. As you can see from the pictures on this website, the garden is flourishing. Our small band of volunteer gardeners has now become The Seward Park Conservancy.The whole of Seward Park is a community resource and a neverending playground for children and adults alike. We are so lucky to have it and we hope to help maintain and improve it for generations to come. Seward Park represents both historically and practically the best of the great public park system that we New Yorkers are so lucky to have in our city.

~ Amy Robinson

Cones, Robes, and Buddhist Monks

It was one of those perfect hot spring days. The one that you’ve been waiting for and when it finally comes you think, yes, soon it will be summer. It was with this thought in the front of my brain that I heard the song of the ice cream truck as I emerged from the East Broadway subway station. Although I was tired and wanted to go home, the day was just too beautiful to be indoors, so I treated myself to a soft serve chocolate cone with chocolate sprinkles and walked into Seward Park.  As I walked down the main path, surrounded by a cathedral of old elm trees shading my way I went straight to the back of the park. Once there I was surprised to see that the volleyball area was filled with men of all ages dressed in saffron robes fully engaged in volleyball. How wonderful it was to see these Buddhist monks enjoying themselves in this great space. To top it off, they had an old-school boombox that had Buddhist chants playing on it. As I sat on the bench enjoying my cone, small children darted around me completely oblivious to the sacred chants accompanying men in flowing robes playing volleyball in this urban park where generations of immigrants played, relaxed, and loved.

~ Carol Anastasio

 

Future

In our mission statement, we advocate “for the park concerning funding for the preservation, renewal, and restoration of the park and it’s facilities in partnership with the Department of Parks.”.

Two major initiatives of the conservancy will be the renewal of the Library Plaza and the restoration of the historic Schiff Memorial Fountain.

The Conservancy envisions this plaza as a sustainable green space including public art, tables, chairs, and umbrellas.  People can enjoy the peace of the park while having lunch, reading or just relaxing in the shade.

The historic Schiff Fountain was donated to the people of the Lower East Side in 1894 by philanthropist Jacob Schiff and is currently in a critical state of neglect.  The fountain has lost the upper basin and bronze ornamentation.  The lions are broken and no water flows from its spouts. The inscription that reads “And there shall come water out of it that the people may drink. Exodus XVII: VI” is faded with age.

The Conservancy wishes to return the fountain to its former glory complete with upper basin, ornamentation and running water.