Fresh: The Small Parks Act and the Columbus Park Pavilion Entry and Photography by Andrea N. Sforza

04_South2Although it’s hard to believe, there was a time when lower Manhattan was even more densely built. Before the creation of many parks that exist today, blocks of overcrowded tenement housing stood in their place. So what called for these areas of fresh air to be created?

We can owe many these parks to the Small Parks Movement – a regional offshoot of the larger Progressive Movement that swept across the United States. The Small Parks Movement, as it came to be known, was led by reformers such as Jacob Riis who looked to create better living conditions for poor immigrants in New York City. As with the push for housing reforms, such as the various tenement house acts, and with efforts to improve education, build public baths, etc., they fought for better living conditions for the impoverished of the city. One way to create improved environments for these inhabitants, in the reformer’s opinion, was to bring in fresh air, light, and space for the neighborhood in the form of a park. The parks also provided supervised recreational opportunities for area youth who would otherwise have been playing in the streets. Resulting from the reformer’s persistence, the Small Parks Act of 1887 was passed by the New York State Legislature. The Act enabled the city to acquire land and allocate funds towards parks for the purpose of de-densifying some of New York’s most over-crowded, impoverished, and crime-ridden areas. The parks that resulted were largely a success.

One of these parks was Mulberry Bend Park, now Columbus Park, (among others such as Carl Schurz, James J. Walker, Hamilton Fish, John Jay, and Seward Parks) situated in Lower Manhattan between Baxter Street and Mulberry Street with New York’s Civic Center to the west and Chinatown to the east. In 1888 the Board of Street Opening and Improvement decided to turn Mulberry Bend into a park. Jacob Riis was heavily involved in the formation of this park in particular as it was near the notorious Five Points, an area full of disease, corruption, crime, and violence; described by the New York Tribune in 1895 as “one of the most congested quarters of the face of the earth.” On July 26, 1895 the last of the tenement buildings that stood upon the future park site were razed.

Columbus Park with Pavilion, 1903; Image Source: Architectural Record 1903

Columbus Park with Pavilion, 1903; Image Source: Architectural Record 1903

 

Mulberry Bend Park was designed by notable landscape architect Calvert Vaux and took several years to build. His designs included curvilinear paths and open lawn space. Although little to none of the original Vaux park remains, there is one piece that survives, the Mulberry Bend Park Shelter, now the Columbus Park Pavilion.

 The completion of the park, the first of those created through the Small Parks Act, was marked by the completion of the pavilion on June 15, 1897. The open space on the upper level of the pavilion created an entertainment and recreation space for the community that lived around the park. The structure was used as a venue to host dances and concerts for the neighborhood.  Defined by its limestone block arches and deep overhanging eaves with exposed wood beams underneath, the pavilion was designed by relatively prominent New York City architects John Howard and Samuel Cauldwell. Howard & Cauldwell’s design for the pavilion remains largely intact today, a reminder of New York’s Beaux-Arts past. 

­­The design for the Mulberry Bend pavilion incorporates neo-Classical elements, such as the columns surrounding the open-air space. The pavilion also employs “arts and crafts” style elements, such as the overhanging eaves and exposed wooden rafters, to make the pavilion more suitable for a park setting. In line with the progressive ideals of the time, Howard and Cauldwell’s design for the pavilion was not any less in quality than their designs for the elite living on Madison Avenue. Good architecture was appropriate for both the rich and the poor.

After a major effort by community members and the New York City Parks Department during the first decade of the twenty-first century, the structure was restored and many of the adverse renovations over the past century were corrected. In 2006, the New York City Parks Department undertook the major restoration of the pavilion building.  All paint was carefully removed from the stone, brick, and wood. New roof eaves were added seamlessly back onto the roof. All broken or failing materials were replaced with new materials of the same type to match the original.

The pavilion today remains a vital piece of infrastructure in the vibrant Columbus Park. The city’s Chinese population which inhabits the area surrounding the park utilizes the pavilion for a variety of uses. The most recent landscape design, completed in conjunction with the restoration of the pavilion, was the work of Hui Mei Grove, a landscape architect with the New York City Parks Department. She incorporated Chinese inspired details, such as the dragon head hanging posts on the light fixtures, into the landscape as an acknowledgement and celebration of the Chinese influence in the neighborhood and the greatest percentage of park users.

The Columbus Park pavilion serves as an important reminder of New York City’s progressive past as well as lower Manhattan’s vibrant ethnic heritage. The structure is a rare survivor of public park architecture from the turn of the century. Many of the parks created with funds by the Small Parks Act have been heavily altered and their pavilions demolished. The Columbus Park Pavilion is one of only two extant original structures built in a “Small Park” with funds from the Act. The other is the play center at Hamilton Fish Park at 130 Pitt designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1898-1900.

 

Sources:

“The End of Mulberry Bend,” New York Tribune, July 27, 1895, p. 11.

Frazer, Jennifer M., “Piercing Poverty with Light, Air and Control 1887-1906: A Case for the Preservation of Eight New York City Small Parks,” Historic Preservation Master’s Theses, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, 2013.

John Galen Howard, (1864-1931), The AIA Historical Directory of American Architects, entry ahd1020751, http://public.aia.org/sites/hdoaa/wiki/Wiki%20Pages/ahd1020751.aspx

McIntyre, Linda, “A Great Leap Forward,” Landscape Architecture, v. 12, December 2006.

Parsons, Samuel, “Small City Parks,” Transactions of American Society of Landscape Architects, 1899-1908, 79.

Pentecost, George F. Jr., “City Gardens,” The Architectural Record, v. 14, No.1 (July 1903): 50-61.

“Plans for Mulberry Bend Park,” New York Tribune, August 17, 1895, p. 4.