Thursday, November 23, 1995
Stuyvesant Square Historic District's 20th Anniversary
But there the small membership-generated funds were never enough to keep the park from falling apart, and to save the oldest free standing cast-iron fence in New York City from the danger of collapse. To step back in history - the Park was given to the City in 1836 by Peter G. Stuyvesant, great-great-grandson and namesake of Old Silver Nails, the last Dutch governor-general of New Amsterdam. PGS was turning the 120 acre Governor's bouverie (farm) into a residential suburb of orderly rectangular blocks. He felt that the citizens deserved a park, in fact two parks, straddling 2nd Avenue-to-be. The City concurred but let the park site go to seed, with squatters building shanties and pigpens. Eventually Hamilton Fish, Peter's nephew and the future Senator and U.S. Secretary of State, sued the city and forced the installation of a fine fence in 1846, as well as construction of fountains and landscaping in 1851.
By 1977 the fence was deteriorating rapidly and an SPNA coalition, led by Jeanne Tregre, started a campaign for restoration. The Park area was part of the Stuyvesant Square Historic District, designated as such by the Landmarks Preservation Commisssion on September 23, 1975, exactly 20 years ago, through the efforts of neighborhood preservationists, including the late Joe Roberto, AIA, and Rex Wassermann, then the Department of Parks landscape architect for Stuyvesant Park. He died early in November 1995. The coalition, joined by Rosalee Isaley (president of SPNA for 12 years, until 1993) was successful, and raised Parks Department and other funds, approximately $1 Million, for restoration of the West Park's fence, which was removed and shipped to a foundry where the missing memebers were recast. Construction wagons surrounded the closed West park for two years while the sidewalks - all but the 2nd Avenue side - were replaced with historically correct new bluestone, and the plumbing, lights and convenience facilities were redone. Finally, in 1983 the fence came back, and the West Park reopened.
Not so the East Park, for which SPNA shares custodial activities with Beth Israel Hospital, pa rticularly its fence. Parks Department has fallen on bad times and has no funds for the full repair, estimated at $1.4 Million, taking into account both sidewalks facing 2nd Avenue. An effort was made to get the initial $1 Million from ISTEA, the Federal Department of Transportation fund for intermodal?? ransportation relief projects, since we do straddle 2nd Avenue, which has been continuously under repair. That looked promising, but then the Fed grant authorities decided that this is not a transportation improvement project. However, miraculously, early in 1995 there was an initiative on part of City Councilman Antonio Pagan, resulting in the earmarking of major City funds, $400,000, for the restoration. Given that now the project looked real, Borough President Ruth Messenger was able to find $600,000 more, and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern felt that he could scrape up an additional $200,000. We were almost home, but then the bottom fell out - the Pagan money had to be diverted to other areas, and the other grantors could not go it alone.
The East Park continues to suffer. Some eight trees donated by Beth Israel director xx are in need of replacement. THe Antonin Dvorak bust, donated by Lincoln Center, is in the studio of the restorer, while monies continue to be solicited from neighborhood residents, to pay for the installation and fund the endowment required by Parks Department for maintenance of donated statues. But these monies are minor, compared to the funds needed for the restoration of the fence.
Several preservationists have pitched in to help with their support for the fence - notably Margot Gayle of the Society For The Preservation of Cast-Iron Architecture, Fanny Eberhard of Historic Districts Council. Neighborhood residents must pitch in. SPNA should like to have one or more volunteers that can give limited time to the fund-raising effort. To those among us who might think this an immense effort - not so, you will be calling on government, on foundations, not individuals. If you feel that the city has better things to do with its money besides restoring a stable-looking cast-iron fence, it is important to remember that neglect is the root cause of the collapse of neighborhoods. Union Square was the cesspool of the area, until the rebuilding of the park and increased policing in the early 1990s brought it back to life. Neglect of the Dyckman Mansion and its area, in Harlem, impedes the recovery of that city section.