Opened on October 17, 1903, after the City of New York assumed operations of nine privately sponsored playgrounds operated by the Outdoor Recreation League (ORL), Seward Park became the first permanent, municipally built playground in the United States. According to newspaper reports, when its gates opened, an estimated 20,000 children rushed in. With its cinder surfacing, fences, recreation pavilion, and play and gymnastic equipment, the facility became a model for playground programming and design.
The city had acquired this land by condemnation in 1897 but due to lack of funds, it remained largely unimproved until the intervention of the ORL. In addition to the playground, the 1903 plan featured a large running track with an open play area in the center and a children’s farm garden. Curving paths and a north-south mall divided the park into recreational areas. The limestone and terra cotta Seward Park Pavilion was equipped with marble baths, a gymnasium, and meeting rooms. Rocking chairs were placed on the broad porch for the use of mothers tending their small children.
Seward Park underwent a major transformation in the 1930s and 1940s. A sliver of land on the east side was surrendered to the city. The Schiff Fountain (1895), designed by architect Arnold W. Brunner, was moved from nearby Rutgers Park to Seward Park in 1936. It was the gift of Jacob H. Schiff, a banker and philanthropist, to the people of the Lower East Side. Seward Park’s pavilion was demolished and a new recreation building was erected in 1941.
The 1999 renovation of Seward Park has revived several features from the 1903 plan. There is a new center oval with a large spray shower and marble mosaic map of the neighborhood. The various quotations by historic local residents were provided by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Other revivals of the park’s original appearance include fencing modeled after the historic fences, as well as period lighting and site furniture. The new design also considers the legacy of park namesake William Henry Seward (1801-1872), an American statesman. As senator from New York (1849-1861), Seward was an outspoken critic of slavery. As Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, he arranged the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia. This famous bargain, once denounced as “Seward’s folly,” inspired playground equipment such as the seal spray shower and Mount McKinley play unit.
Standing proudly in park’s tot lot is Chris “Snowcat” Crowley’s bronze statue of the husky named Togo. A contemporary of Balto (whose statue stands in Central Park), Togo played a heroic role in the 1925 dash to bring an antidiptheria serum to Nome, Alaska.