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Reviewed by:
  • Central Park's Adventure-Style Playgrounds: Renewal of a Midcentury Legacy by Marie Warsh
  • Keith Bresnahan (bio)
Marie Warsh Central Park's Adventure-Style Playgrounds: Renewal of a Midcentury Legacy Foreword by M. Paul Friedberg Baton Rouge Louisiana State University Press, 2019 xv + 163 pages, 141 halftone illustrations ISBN: 9780807172018, $30.00 PB

In March 2021, images circulating on social media showed the plaza of the Stephen Wise Towers in New York City, suddenly absent its eighteen concrete horses, which had apparently been sawed off at their feet. The squat equine sculptures, created in 1964 by the artist Constantino Nivola, had served for nearly six decades as play-structures for resident children. While the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which owns the towers and plaza, sought to allay concerns by stating that the horses had been temporarily removed to facilitate needed repairs to the plaza, questions remained about the integrity of the sculptures, and indeed of the plaza itself, amid calls for greater consultation around any changes to NYCHA's modernist holdings. [End Page 111]

Nivola's horses also appear, briefly, in Marie Warsh's recent book, Central Park's Adventure-Style Playgrounds: Renewal of a Midcentury Legacy. Although the book predates this recent event, it highlights similar questions around the legacies of children's play-spaces in New York City, through the story of Central Park's modernist playgrounds and the problems of historic preservation that surround them today. Warsh, the historian for the Central Park Conservancy, has written a buoyant and engaging narrative of playgrounds in the park from the late nineteenth century to the present, with a particular emphasis on developments in the 1960s and 1970s and their legacy in the park. Packed with historic examples and profusely illustrated with halftone images, Warsh's study is a welcome addition to the ongoing scholarly conversation on midcentury designs for children, and specifically the so-called "adventure" playground.1

The book tells a tale of citizen participation and activism, much of it through mothers' groups, and of philanthropic investment that transformed Central Park's playgrounds as part of what Warsh (following a 1966 advocacy pamphlet) terms "the playground revolution" of the 1960s and '70s. Divided into four chapters, it moves from the early history of play-spaces in Central Park and New York City through the initial post-WWII decades, followed by the introduction of modernist "adventure-style" playgrounds through their gradual decline, and concludes with the renewal of the park's modernist playgrounds since the 1990s. Between 1967 and 1979, ten existing playgrounds in Central Park were transformed, as were many others elsewhere in the city, by architects and community groups who rejected the earlier paradigm of isolated play equipment (slide, swings, sandbox), in favor of what series editor Charles A. Birnbaum describes as "comprehensively designed environments where interconnected forms, such as pyramids, mounds, and steps, and basic materials, such as water and sand, encouraged new levels of creativity and interaction" (xiii).

Coming to be known as "adventurestyle playgrounds," these borrowed from the precedent of the "junk" or "adventure" playground, which had emerged during the 1940s in Denmark and England to signify a new model of children's play environments that emphasized the imaginative exploration of whatever materials lay at hand. Frequently located in vacant lots filled with timber and junk or in bombed-out city sites, these playgrounds had no purpose-built equipment nor designed features at all: children were encouraged to engage and build with whatever they found. In North America this translated into defined playscapes, designed by architects, which sought to foster rich and open-ended play experiences, fueling children's native curiosity and experimentation as they redirected children away from unsupervised and dangerous play in the streets. Emphasizing this point, Warsh selects a photograph of children in New York City, circa 1900, playing in the gutter mere feet away from a dead horse: the kind of scene that spurred parents to agitate for new, safer play-spaces. However, the messiness and dangers of the European adventure playground proved too much for American donors and parents, who tended to favor a more controlled, safer environment—and a fully designed one.

It is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. 111-114
Launched on MUSE
2022-08-04
Open Access
No
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