Damrosch Park at the Lincoln Center was designed in the 1960s by master landscape architect Dan Kiley. Much diminished through neglect and misuse, the park is about to host New York Fashion Week, which is moving from its old home in Bryant Park.
I am a huge fan of Kiley (see my previous posts on his designs in Brussels and Paris) and was lucky enough to discuss his work at the Lincoln Center with him, and to review his files on the project (since sadly destroyed in a fire).
He was commissioned in 1959 to design a courtyard to the north of the Metropolitan Opera House. The firm of Darling, Innocenti and Webel was to design Damrosch Park, to the south. As the early plan reproduced here shows, Richard Webel worked up plans for a traditional park with a lawn and some trees. But Center President John D. Rockefeller and his team of architects were so enthusiastic about Kiley’s design for the North Court that, as Kiley later explained, Webel “was directed to incorporate precepts of my plan to assure site continuity.” The final design for Damrosch Park bears Kiley’s unique imprint. The resulting relationship between the two plazas brought a sense of spatial continuity and cohesion to the whole site. Damrosch Park had the same distinctive quartets of plane trees, set in planters with an understorey of azaleas. They enclosed a seating area that was surrounded by a bosque of forty or so purple-leafed maple trees. The bandshell at the far end of the Park was also framed by plane trees, with a perimeter planting of Sargent crab apples.
In 1990, the Center infamously ripped out all the plane trees in the North Court and replaced them with forlorn little ornamental pears. Soon the Center started to remove trees from Damrosch Park as well. One complete row of plane trees was taken out, apparently because the shade they cast was causing moss to grow on the side of the Metropolitan Opera House. All the crab apples disappeared too, possibly because they were obstructing the guy wires for the Big Apple Circus that pitches its tent in the Park for several months each winter. The crab apples were replaced with small ornamental plantings of geraniums and dwarf conifers, as well as what one observer called “inexcusable installations of amateurish lava rock landscaping.” Eight or so of the purple leafed maples also disappeared, at least one having been damaged by circus vehicles. Other plane trees were removed when they became infected with cankerstain. Staff at the Center, unaware of who had designed both plazas, argued that the plane trees had been “bunched too closely together” and might all need to be replaced with single specimens of zelkova or sophora trees.
It looked as if none of the original plantings in Damrosch Park would be left. But interventions by landscape architects Robert Stern and Ken Smith saved at least some of Kiley’s design. In 1996 the Center replaced all the purple leafed maples that had been removed (although ironically, Kiley noted in his project files: “If I had known, I would have suggested the Schwedler maple – the purple leaf ‘bugs’ me.”). Kiley was invited to advise Lincoln Center staff on how to maintain and restore the remaining plane trees, which were apparently also showing signs of disease. He told me he was dismayed at the suggestion that the problems arose because the trees were placed too closely together, arguing that trees will thrive in denser plantings and with less soil in the wild. He also expressed surprise that no-one at the Center had previously contacted him for advice when the trees began to struggle, when he was as expert as anyone in the country on urban tree planting. The Center subsequently restored all the missing plane trees, retaining the tight spacing of four in each planting box. For many years, ironically, they provided the best illustration on the site of Kiley’s original plans for the landscape, even though he had not originally been commissioned to design Damrosch Park at all.
The North Court has sadly now been dismantled as part of the massive, one billion dollar redevelopment of the Lincoln Center led by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. Lead architect Liz Diller told me recently that she has tried to retain something of the “spirit” of Kiley’s design, with a geometric planting of plane trees, but to me the plaza now feels more like a corridor than a gathering space, and is overwhelmed by a new fancy-dancy sloping roofed restaurant.
Plans for Damrosch Park under the redevelopment are not yet clear, but many of the plane trees have recently been cut down, and the arrival of Fashion Week suggests that the Center management is more interested in holding high-profile outdoor events at the Park than in conserving what remains of Kiley’s work.