Until recently, the only way to enter Central Park’s oldest and largest playground was through a chain-link fence. The great Heckscher Playground, impressive in scale and amenities, did not have an entrance to match, but a recently completed renovation to the building has retuned the structure to it’s original use with a contemporary twist blending the building’s history with contemporary needs.
In 1926, an entrance gateway, similar to many classically-adorned brick breezeways in other New York City parks, was constructed concurrent with Heckscher Playground but did not last long. While Fredrick Law Olmstead’s design for Central Park provided huge swaths of public space, there remained a need for maintenance areas, and the original entranceway was enlarged and the transversal passage enclosed.
The Heckscher Building, with an arched copper roof and flemish bond brick, sat uninvitingly as a maintenance shed at the top of Heckscher Playground until 2004, when the Central Park Conservancy approached several architecture firms with a commission. The Conservancy wanted to retain the enclosed support space while restoring the breezeway entrance into Heckscher Playground. After consulting with several firms, Salam & Giacalone Architects was selected to design the building’s renovation.
The design posed several challenges to the architects. The Heckscher Building was designated a Scenic Landmark in 1974 as a part of Central Park. Under New York City Law, the “aggregate landscape features” in the park are under the control of the Landmarks Preservation Commission meaning the building with 1936 renovations was protected as well. Because the original playground gate had been significantly altered before landmark designation, restoration of a portal would need to respect both the original 1926 design and the 1936 enlargement while still addressing contemporary needs of the Conservancy. Another primary challenge for the architects was combining the two programmatic requirements: recreating a”portal for the playground” while preserving much needed space for maintenance staff and equipment.
To preserve and renovate the exisiting structure, Salam & Giacalone raised the maintenance space to the second floor, opening space in what was once the original 1926 breezeway. The second story is hidden behind the copper roof and accessible by stairs, requiring a steel frame throughout the building for structural support.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission, concerned with the appearance of the “relationship of the building to the historic landscape,” prevented installing exterior windows on the second floor. To bring natural light to the new space, the architects created a central light-shaft they refer to as an “oculus,” which also lights the passageway below. The interior passageway is decorated with ornamental pilasters, modern abstractions of those on the exterior.