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Playground of the Century A Political and Design History of New York City’s Greatest Unbuilt Park

Thomas J. Campanella
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
Vol. 72, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 189-204
DOI: 10.1525/jsah.2013.72.2.189
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jsah.2013.72.2.189
Page Count: 16
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Playground of the Century
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Abstract

Playground of the Century: A Political and Design History of New York City’s Greatest Unbuilt Park presents a microhistory of one of the last substantial open spaces in metropolitan New York, the Gerritsen tidal marsh of Brooklyn. Spared from development on the recommendation of Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, the Gerritsen estuary was an ecological treasure that nonetheless became a “clean slate” upon which a succession of heroic plans was projected. The greatest of these was Charles Downing Lay’s 1,800-acre Marine Park, intended to be the largest urban playground in the world. A vast space for exercise and sport that won its designer a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics, Marine Park was the anti–Coney Island, an engine of moral fitness and self-improvement as focused on physical activity as Prospect Park was on promenade and contemplation. It remains a rare example of progressive park design in the conservative “Country Place” era of the 1920s. Designed in the neo-Renaissance idiom then popular for private estates, Marine Park was a vast formal garden for the people. In this article Thomas J. Campanella explores the ironic turn of events by which Robert Moses later dismissed the Lay plan in favor of a less invasive park scheme that preserved the salt marsh and enabled its recent ecological restoration as one of New York City’s Forever Wild nature preserves.

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