The Ancient Playground isn’t so ancient.
Built in 1972, it’s the fourth playground to be assembled on the site between East 85th Street and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park.
Here’s today’s configuration:
Ancient’s bathroom — or comfort station, that is — was first installed in 1928. A one-story, concrete square, it was flanked by two walkways that ran south to a large asphalt path. From the station to the path, a small lot housed a group of bushes, a 6-foot elm tree, and taller 10-foot companion. You can see how this looked on the old map below:
In 1936, the Parks Department put a makeshift playground there. It had the area under the trees filled with sand and set swings and slides about for children on the surface. A caretaker was even hired for the space.
But not everyone was a fan.
Socialite Zorah Gristede (1907-1989) sure wasn’t. The daughter-in-law of Charles H. Gristede (1871-1948), co-founder of the grocery store chain, she lived with her family at nearby 12 East 88th Street. Her daughter Amy (1941-1996) may have drawn her to the playground. Whatever the catalyst, on April 17th, 1944, she was fed up with what she saw. So she typed out a letter to Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981). This is what she wrote:
Moses, responding the next day in perhaps the most Robert Moses way ever, not only published Gristede’s missive as part of Parks Department press release, but also included his reply:
The letters set off a firestorm. According to Ruth Millett (1912-1997), whose column We, the Women ran in over 450 newspapers across the country, “Both letters were given wide publicity, and a lot of New Yorkers took sides.”
On April 19th, Gristede led a group of reporters to inspect the playground. A scribe from the New York Times remarked that she “picked a beautiful day for a tiff with [Moses].” But the “safari” didn’t induce much shock. They found “a flock of pigeons feeding” and a “big rat” emerging from a hole — hardly sights unique to playgrounds. Besides, neither kept Amy from enjoying her visit. While Gristede was ferrying the group about, her daughter “slid down the slide, again and again.”
Moses, meanwhile, declared there was nothing wrong with the site. And no, he hadn’t fixed anything before the reporters arrived. “All you have to do is look at the playground,” he told the Times, “I have not done anything in the meantime.”
But Gristede wouldn’t have it. “They must have cleaned it up,” she mused. Moses couldn’t fool her.
“If he wants to fight, I am going to fight. He is not going to intimidate me.”
Then, dousing his celebrity, she mocked, “He should be called ‘Mushroom Moses’ or maybe ‘Medal Moses’ because all he gets is medals.”
But the fight didn’t last very long.
A year later, when East 84th Street was routed through Central Park to connect with the 86th Street Traverse, the little playground was obliterated.
Images edited by Rick Stachura.
(1) Site view. Screenshot from Google Earth. February 2022.
(2) Site view, top half. From “The City of New York Department of Parks Topographical Survey of Central Park.” Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Revised from June 9, 1935 to March 10, 1944.
(3) Site view, bottom half. From “The City of New York Department of Parks Topographical Survey of Central Park.” Courtesy of the New York Public Library. Revised from June 9, 1935 to March 10, 1944.
(4) Zorah Gristede’s Letter. From the Department of Parks and Recreation Press Release Archives. April 17, 1944.
(5) Robert Moses’ Letter. From the Department of Parks and Recreation Press Release Archives. April 18, 1944.