Mini-park scores mega-honor


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Federal recognition bestowed on Greenacre Park, a tiny East Side oasis that had an outsized impact on streetscape and urban design


Photos



  • A 25-foot-high waterfall with a pool at the base is the central feature of Greenacre Park on East 51st Street, which was just named to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo Courtesy of Greenacre Foundation / Howard Jay Heyman




  • It sure doesn't look like midtown Manhattan. But this roaring 25-foot waterfall is the centerpiece of Greenacre Park on East 51st Street, which was just added to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: Courtesy of Greenacre Foundation / Howard Jay Heyman It sure doesn't look like midtown Manhattan. But this roaring 25-foot waterfall is the centerpiece of Greenacre Park on East 51st Street, which was just added to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy of Greenacre Foundation / Howard Jay Heyman




  • City Council Member Keith Powers and Gail Caulkins, president of the Greenacre Foundation, stand in front of the 25-foot waterfall that dominates Greenacre Park. The East 51st Street oasis was just added to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy of Greenacre Foundation / Howard Jay Heyman




  • State Senator Liz Krueger stands by a plaque at Greenacre Park on East 51st Street at ceremonies earlier this month to mark the naming of the 47-year-old oasis, a gift of the Rockefeller family, to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy of Greenacre Foundation / Howard Jay Heyman



“It recharges our souls, lifts our moods, lowers our blood pressure, reduces our stress and raises our self-esteem.”

State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey



Up until the late-1960s, the standard city park occupied three acres or more. It almost always fronted an avenue. It offered multiple entrances to pedestrians. And it cut off the street grid to barricade traffic flow.

Then, mid-century planners devised the vest-pocket park: It could be as small as the footprint of a single building. It could fit on a discreet side street. It could sit amid shops and stoops in the very heart of midtown.

Spawned by urban renewal, and the need to fill gaps in the streetscape left by the demolition of chunks of the urban fabric, a movement was born to bring little plots of green into the city’s park-starved precincts.

Leading the charge was Greenacre Park, a three-level, mid-block sliver park — dominated by a 25-foot-high waterfall that tumbles off granite blocks with a pool at its base — that opened on East 51st Street in 1971.

A gift from the philanthropist Abby Rockefeller Mauze, the older sister of ex-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the privately owned, publicly accessible, 6,360-square-foot vest-pocket park redefined the concept of parkland.

It joined Paley Park, which debuted in 1967 on an East 53rd Street mini-lot, in inspiring scores of other hidden gems, invisible from the avenues, that were nestled into some of the most congested blocks in the city.

Now, Greenacre Park, between Second and Third Avenues, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, which serves as the official U.S. government listing of American places deemed worthy of preservation because of their historic, artistic, cultural or architectural significance.

“It’s only the size of a tennis court,” said Lois Cremmins, the executive director of the Greenacre Foundation, the nonprofit founded by Mauze to own and maintain the park for public use in perpetuity. “But it welcomes 200,000 people a year.”

They come for the garden-like setting, fast-flowing brook, forest of honey-locust trees, ivy walls, terrace with trellis roof, lush evergreen plantings — and most of all, the central waterfall that muffles the honking of taxis and other urban sounds the moment a park-goer enters from 51st Street.

There are also sunlit seating areas on the russet-brick paving that come complete with moveable tables and chairs and an outdoor café.

And there’s a sense of permanence: The park is virtually unchanged — there have been almost no alterations — since the day it bowed on Oct. 14, 1971, Cremmins said.

The historic designation is a “sign of the value the park brings to the area,” said East Side City Council Member Keith Powers. It guarantees that a rare midtown oasis will endure and thrive, offering the hope of “protecting the sunlight, which all New Yorkers can appreciate,” he added.

Greenacre takes its place on the registry with 557 buildings, properties, districts and religious institutions in Manhattan, a list that runs, literally, from A (the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side) to Z (Zion-St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Upper East Side).

HEALTHFUL, RESTFUL, SOULFUL AND UNSTRESSFUL

At the unveiling of a plaque at the park’s entrance on Oct. 2 to mark its naming to the roll, Rose Harvey, commissioner of the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said that Greenacre was, by some measures, an unlikely nominee for federal designation.

Most entrants to the registry, which is managed by the National Park Service, are more than a half-century old; Greenacre is 47. Individual parks aren’t typically honored, though Central Park, Bowling Green and Bryant Park all made the cut. And no other Manhattan vest-pocket park appears on the list.

The park’s intimacy — part living room, part social space, part pastoral retreat, part healing gardens, part celebration of urban life — is central to its appeal, Harvey said.

“This beautiful park delivers a connection that builds social bonds with family, friends and community — and allows us to maintain a regular relationship with the outdoors,” she said.

“It recharges our souls, lifts our moods, lowers our blood pressure, reduces our stress and raises our self-esteem,” Harvey added.

Practically, the listing won’t have a huge impact on Greenacre.

While properties named to the National Register can qualify for grants and state and federal tax credits for historic preservation, those incentives wouldn’t apply to the nonprofit foundation, Cremmins said.

Simply put, “The designation is a great honor to have for a beloved green space in an area that lacks green places,” she added.

Indeed, Community Board 6, which takes in the park, has the least amount of open space in Manhattan.

And while 19 percent of the total acreage of the average City Council district is devoted to parkland, the tally for District 4, which includes the East Side and Midtown, is a mere two percent, according to data from the Greenacre Foundation.

Not only that, District 4, which Powers represents, ranks 49th out of all 51 City Council districts in terms of the number of parks and playgrounds per 1,000 residents, the foundation found.

“People clamor to get in,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, whose East Side district takes in the park. “It’s beautiful and peaceful, a communal space to escape the bustle of the city. You take a deep breath, and you feel like you’re breathing cleaner air, and you probably are.”

For the district’s elderly visitors, Greenacre Park is a special blessing and “literal oasis,” Krueger added.

“The seniors tell me, ‘I come here every day’ and ‘Thank God, it’s here,’” she said. “They tell me, ‘It doesn’t matter that Central Park is nearby because getting up to 59th Street and Fifth Avenue just isn’t realistic for me.’”

invreporter@strausnews.com







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