Seward Park Library

Art & Culture | History

Assassinations, Fountains, and Playground Firsts, Welcome to Seward Park!

Seward Park Library Exterior Lower East Side

About Seward Park Library

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • The park is named after William Seward, who served as Governor of New York as well as a Senator, then as Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
  • He is most famous for his purchase of Alaska from the Russians, known at the time as “Seward’s Folly.”
  • He survived an assassination attempt on the same night Lincoln was killed. John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators planned to take out the President, VP, and Secretary of State so that the government would be thrown into chaos without a succession plan.
  • Luckily, they did not succeed, and Seward went on to serve as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson.
  • Seward Park opened on October 17, 1903, as the first municipal playground in the country!
  • The idea for the playground came from Lower East Siders themselves.
    • In the late 1890s, Lillian Wald, founder of the nearby Henry Street Settlement, established the Outdoor Recreation League, to advocate for dedicated play spaces for city kids, so that they wouldn’t have to play in the streets.
    • She and fellow settlement worker Charles B. Stover established Seward Park as a play space. The idea was so successful that the city took over Seward Park to make it a permanent, municipally-run playground, the first of its kind in America!
  • Soon, the New York Public Library came calling.
    • The New York Public Library was founded on May 23, 1895. In 1901, the millionaire Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 Million to construct 65 neighborhood branch libraries throughout New York.
    • The Seward Park library is one of the original Carnegie branch libraries.
    • The Renaissance Revival building, designed by Babb, Cook and Welch, opened on November 11, 1909.
  • And how about that fountain in the middle of the park?
    • That’s the Schiff fountain, named for Jewish financier Jacob H. Schiff. It originally stood on nearby Straus Square. (where the LES war memorial now stands).
    • Schiff built the fountain as a gift to the Lower East Side and donated it in 1895.
      • Remember, there were no municipal playgrounds yet, there were no community recreational facilities, so the fountain became the jewel of the LES, where people could gather and cool off.
      • Lillian Wald got involved in safeguarding the fountain, making sure it was in good working order for all Lower East Siders, and not festooned with trash and other debris of city life.
        • She organized settlement house children to form a group for taking care of the fountain. And voila – the Fountain League was formed! Over 100 boys volunteered and got badges to advertise their membership in the group.
        • When subway tracks were extended between Delancey/Essex and East Broadway in 1931, the fountain was moved to its current location in Seward Park.

Carpe City Trivia

Who was Lillian Wald?

Lillian Wald was a trained nurse who moved to the Lower East Side in 1893 when she was 26 years old. She founded the Visiting Nurse Service of New York and the Henry Street Settlement. She also helped found the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Children’s Bureau, and succeeded in placing the nation’s first school nurses, special education classes, and free school lunches into New York City Public Schools.

Who was Andrew Carnegie?

Carnegie was a Scottish-American magnate and philanthropist. He founded Carnegie Steel (which he later sold to JP Morgan). Carnegie gave away nearly 90% of his fortune to charity and established the notion of “The Gospel of Wealth,” which held that wealthy people had the duty to give back to society. Just a few of his philanthropic works include more than 3,000 public libraries around the world, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Carnegie Mellon University.

By: Lucie Levine

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