To Save the Former Phipps Playground

As we await the decision of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), neighborhood activists have united behind a plan to save the historic Phipps playground at 39th Avenue and 50th Street by creating a much needed public park that preserves the rare and remarkable playground structures.

On this lot for over half a century, Phipps Garden Apartments operated its famous Outdoor Nursery for tenants’ children and other neighborhood groups. The playground is a significant example of the planned open spaces of Clarence S. Stein and Marjorie Sewell Cautley, Phipps's architect and landscape architect, as well as the colleagues with whom they developed Sunnyside Gardens. Sadly, Phipps sold the playground after it became part of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District in June 2007, and architects for the current owner proposed to destroy the playground for a large housing development

and import a 1931 experimental house with no connection to the Historic District.

The threat to this important playground was cited by Charles Birnbaum, writing in the Huffington Past, as one of 2013's notable developments in landscape architecture, and preservationists sprang into action. At the LPC's Public Hearing on October 15, 2013, more than 600 local residents submitted letters and e-mails to oppose the development plan. Amplifying the voices of neighbors and advocates, our elected representatives were unanimous in asking the LPC not to approve this development: City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, State Assemblywomen Margaret Markey and Catherine Nolan, State Senator Michael Gianaris, and U.S. Congressman Joseph Crowley.

A large coalition of community groups, historical societies, and preservation advocates joined the cause, with a definitive statement from the Historic Districts Council and a Web page at The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

But this carefully planned lot and its historic buildings are designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as part of the Historic District, so we count on the LPC to protect this very rare Reform Era outdoor nursery from the 1930s, and it survives as a complete, original playground lot.

Excitingly, a remarkable group of neighbors has a better idea, for a community garden that will retain the historic buildings and open up to the public. They’ve adopted the name of Marjorie Sewell Cautley, whose landscaping for Phipps may have included this playground. When Community Board 2 heard the community garden proposal two years ago, the full Board voted unanimously to support the plan, and on September 29, the Board affirmed its overwhelming opposition to the proposed development that would forever erase this park from the Historic District.

In anticipation of the decision of the LPC, see the photos below and visit Cautley Garden to read more. Then join us to save this historic playground: E-mail

Gerry Perrin, Phipps Tenant Association Co-President, was “born and raised” in the Outdoor Nursery, and he has historic photographs to show for it. Photo by JFA Associates.

This photo of the Sewing Club from the late 1930s shows the two Reform Era playground buildings that survive today. At left is the open pavilion, at right the “playhouse” containing girls’ and boys’ rest rooms. Courtesy of Gerry Perrin.

Seen through the fence today, the venerable pavilion and playhouse/rest rooms call out to be saved and re-used within a community park. Courtesy of Cautley Garden.

As if a decoy meant to divert attention from their plan to eliminate the historic Outdoor Nursery, architects of the proposed housing development asked the LPC to “save” the experimental 1931 “Aluminaire House,” by installing it like a sculpture on the corner with apartments looming around it. This development plan drew the opposition of In truth, there is no need nor precedent to import an utterly dissimilar building, one that the LPC has not designated, into a historic district that it has. Illustration from the architects, Campani and Schwarting.

The jarring aluminum and terra cotta structures would violate the extraordinary streetfront of Clarence Stein’s Phipps Garden Apartments, defying the sense of place he and his colleagues created by the consistency of their planning. A responsible home for the Aluminaire House would be a museum setting, to ensure staffing, full security, heating and air conditioning, curatorial and archival care, funding, parking or ease to public transportation— requirements that are not provided here. Illustration from the architects, Campani and Schwarting.

In considering whether to approve new construction within historic districts, the LPC Commissioners consider design, materials, and massing (size and footprint). The development proposal fails all 3 tests. Its postmodernist style is completely alien to every other building in the neighborhood. Its facades are either terra cotta panels or aluminum, neither of which was used here. And its mass far exceeds the renowned standard of reserving 70% of the land for open space. Illustration from the architects, Campani and Schwarting.


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