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Marie Warsh is a landscape historian and the Director of Preservation Planning at the Central Park Conservancy. She is a native New Yorker and her childhood playground is remarkably still intact.

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A Newly Renovated Adventure-style Playground in Central Park

For the past six months, the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) has been renovating two of Central Park’s most well-known playgrounds: Adventure Playground and the East 72nd Street Playground, both adventure-style playgrounds designed by the architect Richard Dattner. (Adventure was opened in 1967; East 72nd Street Playground in 1970). The East 72nd Street Playground reopened on October 15 and Adventure Playground will open later in November. These projects are part of CPC’s campaign to renovate or rebuild all of Central Park’s twenty-one playgrounds, described in the planning document, Plan for Play.www.planforplay.org

There are five adventure-style playgrounds in Central Park, and these are some of the few that remain from the 1960s and ‘70s. (I am working on a book about these playgrounds in Central Park so this will be a topic of subsequent posts.) A brief description of a couple of the more significant changes to the East 72nd Street Playground is an opportunity to introduce CPC’s approach to renovating and updating these unique playgrounds, which they have developed over a period of almost-twenty years. The East 72nd Street Playground was last renovated in 2001, a project that mainly involved replacing deteriorated wooden play structures. This recent project followed the goals of Plan for Play to address design standards, improve the connection to the park, increase and enhance play opportunities, and, particularly relevant to the adventure-style playgrounds, “to preserve unique and successful aspects of existing designs.” The renovation was designed by CPC’s Department of Planning, Design, and Construction, a team of landscape architects, planners, and engineers that design and oversee all restoration projects in Central Park, and they consulted Richard Dattner during the design process.

View of the playground in 1979. In addition to concrete structures, the playground included tire swings and wood climbing structures.

View of the playground in 1979. In addition to concrete structures, the playground included tire swings and wood climbing structures.

East 72nd Playground was the fourth playground Dattner designed for Central Park and it includes many of the features that mark his style: a climbing pyramid, an elaborate water feature, and a low concrete wall that encloses the play space, along with wooden play structures and tire swings.   Those familiar with the playground may enter the newly-renovated playground initially perceiving little change, and this is one of the desired outcomes. All of these features mentioned above are still present, but closer inspection reveals that they have been rebuilt, reconfigured, or replaced; in fact, quite a lot has changed.

Playground prior to construction.

Playground prior to construction.

A similar view following the renovation.

A similar view following the renovation.

The most prominent feature in the playground is a large, maze-like construction in concrete, part of which Dattner designed for water play. It includes a small sunken plaza into which water sprayed from a concrete pier, connected to an upper level plaza via a ramp and stairs. During this project, the entire feature was redesigned and rebuilt, to make it accessible for users with disabilities and upgrade the water infrastructure (which had not been updated since it was first created in the 1930s), but also to animate the space and increase opportunities for water play. CPC retained the original water play area and introduced two additional water sprays, one on the upper level plaza and the other in a paved area below it. The water is activated through a bollard and engineered so that it flows along the ramp that connects the three spaces.

 

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Main play and water feature under construction.

Diagram illustrating the water spray elements and water flow.

Diagram illustrating the water spray elements and water flow.

Another significant alteration was made to the perimeter of the playground. Dattner’s 1972 design was created within the oval-shaped footprint of the pre-existing playground that had been built during the 1930s. Within this oval, Dattner delineated the main play space with a low concrete wall that followed a strong, angular geometry. Beyond the wall, following the fence line, was a row of benches. CPC redesigned the wall to become the main boundary of the playground, reinforcing the striking lines that characterize this playground—also very forceful in the water feature—while also alleviating the strong division between the playground and the Park. The shape of the new wall allowed for the creation of an expanded planting bed surrounding the playground that also enters the space at the various corners of the angular wall. Within this bed a low and transparent landscape fence was installed to secure the playground. The wall also integrates benches and can be used for seating itself, adding to the cohesion of the overall design.

 

Illustrative plan of revised footprint and wall configuration

Illustrative plan of revised footprint and wall configuration

View from outside the playground, showing landscape fence and new plantings.

View from outside the playground, showing landscape fence and new plantings.

 

The adventure-style playgrounds built in the 1960s and ‘70s were exceptional in part because they were the result of a more environmental approach to playground design, deemed in its time “a playground revolution.” A cohesive design consisting primarily of interconnected, sited-constructed forms was intended to provide a more challenging and interactive play experience than was possible on a playground with traditional, standalone equipment. The recent renovation of the East 72nd Street Playground aimed to preserve and enhance its defining features while also engaging the landscape beyond the playground, with the ultimate goal of creating a unique and dynamic play experience in Central Park.

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