Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Paul Manship's Lehman Gates - Central Park


On June 16, 1960, The New York Times reported that Governor Herbert H. Lehman and his wife, Edith Louise Altschul, had donated $500,000 "to build a children's zoo in Central Park."  The gift was in celebration of the Lehmans' 50th wedding anniversary.  The article said that Park Commissioner Newbold Morris, "had no hesitancy in accepting the gift.  He was sure there would be no opposition to the children's zoo as an 'encroachment'" on Central Park.  

Ironically, were they still around, Park architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux would have most heartily opposed the project.  From the beginning, they had denounced the idea of a zoo, charging that one would upset the natural beauty of the park.  (The gradual establishment of the Menagerie behind the Armory beginning in 1858 was a fluke, begun when a lost bear cub was left there.)

The New York Times remarked that the architects of the Children's Zoo project, Aymar Embury 2d and Edward C. Embury, "envision an ornamental gateway leading down a landscaped, tree-shaded path to low, glass-walled, small-scale buildings."  It was the one element of the project they would not design.  Instead, sculptor Paul Manship took charge of what would be known as the Lehman Gates.

Manship's most notable work in Manhattan is his gilded 1934 Prometheus above the lower plaza of Rockefeller Central.  The Lehman Gates would not be the first project he created for Central Park.  In 1932 he designed the bronze Art Deco sundial for the Waldo M. Hutchins Bench, and in 1953 created The Osborn Gates to the Osborn playground (today's Ancient Playground). 

The Waldo M. Hutchins Bench sundial.

The design of the Lehman Gates was patently Paul Manship.  Harking to his earlier Art Deco works, they consist of three granite plinths connected by swirling bronze stylized vines.  Two small boy figures sit upon the outer gateposts playing flutes while above the center post an older youth frolics with goats.

The Children's Zoo opened on September 28, 1961.  The New York Times reported, "The world of Hansel and Gretel, the Three Little Pigs and the White Rabbit will come alive today in Central Park."  The sophisticated Lehman Gates were noticeably unlike the zoo proper.  The New York Times article called the zoo a "Disneyland-like scene," including a "walk-in whale," Noah's Ark, and Hansel and Gretel's candy cane cottage.

Exactly three decades after the facility opened, in 1991 padlocks were placed on the Lehman Gates.  The Children's Zoo was closed after having "degenerated into what was widely considered a pitiful aggregation of overcrowded animals," according to The New York Times.  Four years later, on September 28, 1995, the newspaper said the padlocked one-acre site was "a repository of beer cans and rotting kitsch."

At the time of the article, the Wildlife Conservation Society had announced plans to replace the Children's Zoo with a modern facility.  It sparked backlash from preservationist groups like the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts who pushed to save and restore the fairy tale based buildings.  They called the structures like the candy cane cottage and the Three Little Pigs' houses "arty treasures."  Unmoved, the Wildlife Conservation Society described Noah's Ark and Jonah the Whale as involving "inappropriate religious messages," said the old zoo's "storybook ways" of exhibiting animals did not promote conservation, and, finally, asserted that "restoration would be too costly."

It was a drawn-out and somewhat bitter battle that the preservationists lost.  On August 11, 1996, The New York Times reported that "hundreds of New Yorkers streamed into Central Park's Children's Zoo yesterday to say goodbye to an old friend."  They were allowed three hours to visit, after which the Lehman Gates were again shut and workmen began demolition on the degraded buildings.

Not one person had ever suggested that the Lehman Gates should be part of the process.  Manship's handsome sculptural portal transcended the debate.  But it would not be long before it did play a significant role in another conflict.

Edith and Henry Everett donated $3 million--half the cost of the new zoo.  But then, in the spring of 1997, the Everetts and the Wildlife Conservation Society became deadlocked over a single detail.  On May 15, The New York Times reported, "A 36-year-old granite gate at the zoo entrance turned out to be the lightning rod in the dispute."  The article said, "Last month, the New York City Art Commission approved a plan to place a plaque commemorating the Everetts' gift on the center pier of the gateway, with two smaller plaques on the flanking piers, one noting the Lehmans' gift of the gateway and the other noting the Lehmans' gift of the original zoo."  The Everetts' balked at the Lehmans' names being there at all.  

"We're not talking about neon lights," Edith Everett told a reporter.  "Be that as it may, they have the final word."

Reba White Williams of the Art Commission, who had presided over the negotiations, explained, "We can't go around erasing the past.  What does this say to donors, if you can't respect the history of a gift?"

The Everetts withdrew their donation, Edith telling a reporter from The New York Times, "We'll take our $3 million someplace else that will be happy to have it."

Coincidentally or not, days earlier the Everetts had openly denounced the appointment of James S. Tisch as the head of the UJA-Federation of New York, calling him "unfit to head the giant charity."  Now, a week after they recalled their funding, The New York Times reported that the Tisch Foundation had agreed "to replace the donation and add up to $1.5 million more."  Allison Power of the Wildlife Conservation Society announced, "the new zoo will be called the Tisch Children's Zoo, not the Everett Children's Zoo.

Seemingly innocent to fiery controversy, Paul Manship's bronze boys continue to play their flutes and frolic with goats as visitors stream into the zoo below.  The Lehman Gates comprise a striking civic artwork within the park.

 photographs by the author
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