Park Avenue was not always the prestigious address that it is today. In fact, trains ran up and down the avenue at street level prior to 1900. The conversion from steam to electric train power ultimately made it possible for the tracks to be moved underground and wide center medians (now referred to as the malls) were created above them. Over the years, the width of the malls was reduced in order to accommodate more traffic lanes.
Early photographs show fencing, grass and simple plantings. In the 1950s, Mrs. Albert D. Lasker, an early advocate of urban beautification, began planting begonias, tulips and flowering trees on some of the malls to demonstrate to the City that plants could survive amidst all the traffic and pollution. She later convinced the Parks Department to take responsibility for their on-going planting and maintenance.
In 1970, the Parks Department hired landscape architect, Clara Coffey, to redesign the malls. She removed the fences and tall hedges, supplemented existing trees and created planting beds at the end of each mall.
By 1980, the malls had fallen into disrepair. The city was no longer able to continue their maintenance without support from the community. Ronald D. Spencer, then the President of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, conceived of an arrangement between the Park Avenue buildings north of 86th Street, whereby they would each contribute a set amount, based upon the number of shareholders, to pay for the annual planting and maintenance of the malls.
Mrs. Lasker felt strongly that her fellow citizens should contribute to the beautification of their city. She was eager to see the Carnegie Hill arrangement implemented on Park Avenue below 86th Street. In 1980, with Mrs. Lasker’s encouragement, the Park Avenue Malls Planting Project, the privately-funded beautification program led by Margaret Ternes, was created.
Under the auspices of the Planting Project, the buildings along the rest of the avenue agreed to share the annual cost of planting and maintaining the malls, thereby forming a conservancy for the Park Avenue malls between 54th and 86th Streets that continues to this day as a program of The Fund for Park Avenue.
The Fund for Park Avenue also manages the annual Park Avenue Tree Lighting, a tradition that began in 1945 as a memorial to the men and women who lost their lives in World War II. Sustained for many years by its founder, Mrs. Stephen C. Clark and her friends, the program became a part of The Fund for Park Avenue in 1981. The illuminated trees along Park Avenue are now made possible by the contributions that The Fund for Park Avenue receives from the community.
Above: ca 1871 Park Avenue sketch of the general plan of planting
New York City Parks Photo Archive