Nestled atop a large rock outcropping in the south end of Central Park is an octagonal brick building with unique architectural details. It’s surrounded by game tables in the shade of a rustic wooden trellis and towering trees. Chess & Checkers House, as it’s been known since it was erected in 1952, is part of the Children’s District, an area of the Park with an established history of welcoming kids and their caregivers.
The Central Park Conservancy continues this tradition with its recent restoration of the Chess & Checkers building and its surrounding landscape—an ideal destination for kids to play games like chess and find a quiet, cool oasis this summer in New York City. The multi-year project has also furthered the organization’s mission to align Central Park and its facilities with the Park’s original design. While the Conservancy continuously looks to harmonize the Park’s present with its storied past, it is simultaneously focused on adding contemporary improvements to enhance the greenspace for today’s visitors.
CENTRAL PARK’S CHILDREN’S DISTRICT: A Historical Addition
Not long after construction of Central Park began in 1858, New York City newspapers criticized the original design for its lack of facilities for children (especially underserved children) and their caregivers. In response, the Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, created the Children’s District in the middle of the Park, just south of 65th Street—an area easily accessible from public transportation and denser parts of the City. The original Children’s District included the Dairy (now the Dairy Visitor Center & Gift Shop), Playmates Arch, a playground (now Heckscher Playground & Ballfields), the children’s cottage (since demolished), and the now-famous Central Park Carousel. Although it wasn’t a part of the original plan for the Park, the Central Park Zoo is a popular destination for children and located nearby.
Another key feature of this area was the Kinderberg (Dutch for “children’s mountain”). Built in 1866 and measuring 110 feet in diameter, the Kinderberg was the largest rustic structure in the Park. It served as a summerhouse—a rustic wooden structure in a garden or park designed for enjoying summer breezes—and offered rustic chairs and tables for visitors to enjoy the surrounding scenery.
Rustic architecture has been an instrumental part of the Park’s design since its creation. Rustic work, made from unmilled wood, was popular on picturesque English estates in the 1750s. Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s foremost landscape designer in the mid-1800s, introduced his American clients and readers to the style. This influenced his business partner and Central Park’s co-designer, Calvert Vaux, who then incorporated rustic work into the Park’s original plan. Rustic structures require constant upkeep and restoration. The original Kinderberg suffered from neglect and disrepair and was eventually destroyed in a fire in 1940. For years the terrace sat empty. The original Chess & Checkers House and gameboards were eventually built in 1952 in response to the popularity of chess during that time. The popularity of the game has waxed and waned over the subsequent decades, but its reemergence into pop culture—thanks to shows like The Queen’s Gambit—helped renew Americans’ recent interest.
STAYING TRUE TO THE INTENT OF CENTRAL PARK'S DESIGNERS
The Central Park Conservancy acknowledges Central Park as a dynamic entity, intended to adapt to the evolving needs of its users. However, its diverse landscapes also serve as a testament to its inherent purpose and intentional design.
Jennifer Wong, a landscape architect at the Conservancy, likens Central Park to a time capsule in this way: “[It] memorializes ideas from the last 150 years about what a public park in New York City should be.” Olmsted and Vaux’s design, she points out, created a place that to this day is dedicated to the amusement of Central Park’s youngest visitors, with rustic structures, benches, tables, and access to the nearby rock outcrops to encourage play.
And so the Conservancy’s expert team of landscape architects, architects, project managers, and historians set out to revive the site, ensuring the building and its surrounding landscape are accessible to modern Park users.
The last significant project at the site was the Conservancy’s restoration of the building exterior and addition of the existing trellis in 1985. By 2021, when plans for the current project began, the trellis had reached the end of its useful life, and the pavement on the terrace below had significantly deteriorated. Meanwhile, the building’s roof had not been replaced since the original construction in 1952, and the stairs and steeply sloped path leading to the facility were not accessible.
The Conservancy turned to the past to propel the site into the future. The team poured over historic drawings, annual reports, photos, and news articles to understand Olmsted and Vaux’s intent in designing the Park and the changes it’s undergone since.
Harriet Provine, a project manager on the Conservancy’s team, was integral to sourcing this material, alongside the Conservancy’s historian. “We referenced photos from the 1800s, when the Park was first built, and from the 1950s when Chess & Checkers House was new,” explains Harriet. “These historic sources are vital to our work, allowing us to glean inspiration from the past. Our designers can balance these original elements with modern functionality.”
RE-BUILDING CENTRAL PARK LANDMARKS TO LAST A CENTURY
Chess & Checkers House and the Kinderberg boast captivating rustic charm and architectural details. Harriet explains how the team worked to evoke the historic rustic structures’ ornate cedar woodwork reminiscent of a tree’s natural branches, twisting and turning as it reaches the trellis above. Structural integrity and longevity are also at the forefront of the Conservancy’s work. “We’re trying to make this last a very long time,” Harriet points out.
To make that happen, the Conservancy chose black locust wood over cedar; while cedar is a more flexible, organic-looking wood, black locust is much more rot resistant. The Conservancy also integrated steelwork inside the columns of the trellis. “In order to emulate the historic design, we had to [make some changes.] But these changes will make it more robust from a long-term perspective,” says Harriet.
Another key detail of Chess & Checkers House was its cupola, the dome-like structure that graces the top of the building. While often used as a distinguishing ornamental finish to a building, cupolas historically served as lookouts or sources of light or air. Chess & Checkers’ cupola is a charming flourish and provides ventilation for its slate roof. Made from lead-coated copper, it’s also designed to last.
The red and white brickwork on the outside of Chess & Checkers House may look familiar to visitors. Like many of the brick buildings throughout Central Park (and New York City), they’re typical of Robert Moses–era design. Moses, NYC Parks Commissioner from 1934 to 1960, was a domineering force on NYC landscape architecture, parks, and city planning, Harriet explains, and often regarded as one of the most influential people in the history of New York City.
WORKING ALONGSIDE THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
While the Conservancy always strives to harmonize the past and present, it also balances its restoration work with respect for Central Park’s natural features. Jen notes that the team ensured that the site’s existing trees, including their critical root zones, weren’t damaged and stressed by the construction activity. They closely collaborated with an arborist to create enough clearance around the roots to both protect the trees and allow visitors to safely navigate around the tree bed.
HOW EQUITABLE DESIGN MATTERS TO CENTRAL PARK
Olmsted and Vaux created Central Park with a specific purpose: as a respite from the pace and pressures of NYC and a welcoming space for visitors from all walks of life. The Conservancy is committed to restoring, maintaining, and caring for the Park with this vision in mind—from collaborating with the community on programming tailored to visitors’ needs to improving accessibility and safety to enhance people’s experiences in the Park.
“Central Park is a gathering space for the whole City,” Jen explains. “These are public, shared spaces, so we want them to be fair and to balance the needs of different users. To make an equitable design, we need a fair and collaborative process for generating the ideas that affect the final product.”
The Conservancy heard its communities’ need for a more accessible Children’s District and a public restroom in this area of the Park, even though a bathroom was not historically included in the design. As a result, the Conservancy renovated the interior of Chess & Checkers House to add public restrooms, constructed an accessible ramp leading to the facility, restored the existing stairs with the addition of a handrail, and included flexible seating around the game tables to accommodate people of all abilities. Now that Chess & Checkers House is once again open to the public, it functions as a visitor center run by the Central Park Conservancy. Park-goers are encouraged to stop by to find shade under the pergola, borrow a chess set, take part in other public programs, use the restrooms, and enjoy the surrounding views.
As a landscape architect Jen isn’t just thinking about what’s currently here, or even what the next five or ten years may bring. “We really try to think about the future, and what landscapes are going to be for generations, beyond what we can imagine,” she says.
Harriet agrees. But it’s not just about the longevity of the facility and its unique features: “We want it to be a magical space.”
Kaitlyn Zafonte is the Associate Director of Editorial at the Central Park Conservancy.
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