February 22, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect changes since its original publishing.
2020 was a milestone year for Central Park with the addition of a permanent figurative monument to honor historic women. The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument was unveiled on the Mall’s Literary Walk in August of that year—the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the constitutional right to vote.
The monument was the first to be added to Central Park since 1965, the first since the Park became a landmark, and, perhaps most notably, the first in the Park to depict actual women. However, numerous important women have been instrumental in shaping Central Park throughout its history. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting a few trailblazing, but little-known, women who inspired or funded a variety of features in Central Park—whether they be playgrounds, landscapes, or recreational facilities.
Sophie Loeb Fountain
Sophie Loeb, known as “America’s greatest mother,” campaigned tirelessly in the 1920s for legislation and services to improve the lives of New York City mothers and children—including the addition of playgrounds in Central Park. Sophie Loeb Fountain is a memorial that honors Loeb’s activism by providing joy and refreshment to local families.
Originally, the fountain was installed outside of Heckscher Playground, a fitting site as Central Park’s first playground, and functioned as a drinking fountain. It was relocated to James Michael Levin Playground and converted to a water play feature in the 1980s. The whimsically decorated fountain features characters from the beloved children’s book Alice in Wonderland, along with inscriptions such as “In the depths of despair may I never lose hope” and “Her greatest wealth was her heart of gold,” which serve as permanent reminders of Loeb’s unwavering dedication to social justice.
Just off the eastern edge of the Mall, Rumsey Playfield is an open playfield that is best known as the venue for the SummerStage concert series. This spot was originally the location of a restaurant that in the early 20th century was known as The Casino. In 1937 it was converted into a spacious, two-acre playground—one of many built during the 1930s—containing equipment and open space for games. It was distinctive at the time because it was named to honor Mary Harriman Rumsey, a social reformer and playground advocate.
While studying at Barnard College, Rumsey volunteered at settlement houses, helping immigrants and low-income families. Influenced by this work, she later dedicated her life to social reform. She founded the first Junior League, one of the oldest and largest women’s nonprofit volunteer organizations, and the Community Councils of the City of New York. Rumsey’s work with the Councils included the opening of approximately 500 playgrounds throughout the City.
After decades of use, Rumsey Playground became rundown. In 1985, the Conservancy remade it as a place to play sports; soon after, it became used as a venue for performances. A plaque at the entrance reminds of us of Mary Harriman Rumsey’s involvement in its creation as well as her lifelong philanthropy and dedication to her community.
The Wollman Memorial Recreation Center, commonly referred to as Wollman Rink, was named in honor of philanthropist Kate Wollman’s parents, Betty and Jonas, and Kate’s three brothers, William, Benjamin, and Henry. In 1928, William proposed a memorial gift to the Park that honored the spirit of his mother, who was a Kansas-based abolitionist. His idea was to create a Mother’s Rest House, staffed by a professional nurse and fitted with milk-heating facilities. The Rest House was never built, however, Kate’s later gift for the Memorial Recreation Center has the similar purpose of providing families a place for healthy and active recreation.
Alice in Wonderland
While Alice in Wonderland is one of the most popular works of art in Central Park—well-known as a sculpture beloved by both children and adults alike—it's also a memorial.
In 1956, George Delacorte, a well-known publisher, spoke with Parks Commissioner Robert Moses about his interest in memorializing his recently deceased wife, Margarita, with a monument in Central Park. She had been instrumental in establishing his publishing empire and was an enthusiastic linguist and reader. Delacorte proposed a statue representing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which was one of her favorite books to read to their children.
At the memorial dedication ceremony in May 1959, 11 grandchildren of the late Margarita Delacorte (1891–1956) unveiled Alice. They then promptly climbed up on the statue, as children still do today. In the rush to explore the sculpture, most visitors overlook the inscription, “Margarita Delacorte Memorial,” at the bottom of its platform.
Nell Singer Lilac Walk
Along the northeastern edge of Sheep Meadow is a somewhat hidden but significant and fragrant landscape: Nell Singer Lilac Walk. Dedicated to the people of New York in April 1970 and funded by the philanthropist Nell Singer, it features a wide variety of common and hybrid lilac bushes and trees from all over the world. From April to June, the intoxicating scent of lilacs envelops the area. A plaque placed at the site reminds visitors that “even during periods of harsh conflict and confrontation, the delicate beauty and fragrance of the lilac have been faithful annual reminders of lovelier aspects in human relations.”
Singer provided funding and support for many medical and cultural institutions in New York City, including a summer concert in Stuyvesant Park, local public television programming, Lincoln Center, and the Central Park Conservancy. As the President of the Nell and Herbert Singer Foundation, she supported research and new facilities at Beth Israel Hospital and Rockefeller University.
These memorials and sites honor some incredible women in New York City’s history. Many other women have also helped make the Park a welcoming and thriving public space—from artists to nature advocates to the Conservancy’s own founder and current staff. And now, the new monument to Women’s Rights Pioneers helps us remember the important role women have always played in civic public life and the need to make this more publicly known.
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