Tuesday, April 10, 2012

20th Anniversary: Bryant Park in the 1930’s

Long before the founding of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in 1980, there was another major effort to reclaim the park for the people of New York City. The 1934 renovation of Bryant Park followed two of the most dramatic years in the park’s history. In 1932, Bryant Park’s fortunes were at low ebb, for many reasons. The park laid in the shadow of the “noisy, clanky, and utterly barbarous” Sixth Avenue El train, and was bordered by “newsstands that look like the shacks of squatters”, according to commenters in the New York Times. The nation was also in the midst of the Great Depression, which meant that there was little city money available to maintain the park. Administration of NYC’s parks was, at any rate, a haphazard affair: there was no Parks Commissioner, and each borough’s parks were administered by a separate official, who often was a patronage appointee with little expertise.

Aerial view 1931

Despite efforts by neighborhood business alliances, such as the grandly named ‘Forty-Second Street Property Owners and Merchants Association’; the ‘Sixth Avenue Association,’ which deemed the park a “civic eyesore”; and the ‘Fifth Avenue Association;’ to lobby the city to improve the park, funding problems proved intractable. The park’s condition was so poor that Nathan Straus, Jr., President of the New York City Parks Association, a private advocacy group, okayed a plan to place a replica of Mt. Vernon there because “Bryant Park is a park in name only…little harm could be done by placing it there.”

Though the idea to place a replica of Mt. Vernon in the park was scratched, the Commission on the Bi-Centennial of the birth of George Washington did build a replica of Federal Hall there, as seen in this 1932 photo of the park. ‘Federal Hall at Bryant Park’ was the scene of many musical performances and appearances by the famous, including a visit by Amelia Earhart fresh off her trans-Atlantic solo flight. The exhibit was, however, a financial disaster, as far too few of the city’s residents could afford the 25-cent admission fee. Afterwards, it took litigation to compel the organizers to remove the replica from the park, a process that was not completed for nearly a year after the exhibit closed. As a result, the park was in worse shape than ever through much of 1933, leading one observer to state that “Those who once used it as a park now shun it in disgust.”

Things looked pretty bleak, but deliverance was on the way. Throughout the early 1930’s, calls to save the park continued, and at least 100 plans to remodel and restore it were created by landscape architects and circulated. In late 1933, the Architects Emergency Committee, formed to provide relief for unemployed architects, held a contest calling for plans to renovate the park. That contest was won by Queens architect Lusby Simpson, and all 40 entries were displayed at the Ziegfeld Theater in November, 1933. Simpson’s design would serve as the basis for a spectacular restoration, but a few things had to happen first - most importantly, the appointment of a true Parks Commissioner (Robert Moses) with the power, will, and energy to fight the inertia that seemed to have doomed the park to permanent dilapidation.

For more information on the park's transformation, read posts from our 20th Anniversary Series

This is an excerpt from a series of articles on the transformation of Bryant Park from our weekly newsletter, MidCity Newswritten by Terry Benoit. MidCity News keeps park enthusiasts informed about our events, milestones, operations, and all of the detailed maintenance work that goes into caring for the park. Weekly updates are sent with our sister organizations 34th Street Partnership and Chelsea Improvement Company

You can view this most recent edition of MidCity News online, or sign up to receive it in your inbox. 

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