Sanitizing Playland: Establishing Expectations for Public Behavior in Greater New York’s Parks

By Kara Murphy Schlichting

When temperatures climb during the summer months, New Yorkers and residents of the city’s suburban counties beat the heat with a visit to the shores of New Jersey, Long Island, and Long Island Sound. Although the Sound lacked the surf and wide, sandy beaches of the Jersey and southern Long Island shores, recreationalists frequented its rocky beaches, picnic grounds, modest amusement parks, hotels, and private clubs. By the early 1900s, Long Island Sound’s shores comprised a residential and recreational hinterland of greater New York. This development irrevocably linked coastal communities along the Sound to the modernizing metropolis.

Playland, Rye Beach: Westchester County, New York. Maps of New York City and State collection, New York Public Library

Playland, Rye Beach: Westchester County, New York. Maps of New York City and State collection, New York Public Library

The Sound beaches of Westchester, the mainland New York county directly northeast of the Bronx, provide an opportunity to study the evolving relations between city and suburb in metropolitan New York. Westchester reveals the central role that public parks played in the relationship. The democratization of leisure during Progressive era and New Deal increased the number of greater New Yorkers with the resources and time to visit Sound resorts. It also stirred worry among social scientists and government officials who feared uncontrolled mass leisure and who labored to establish behavioral prescriptions in park design.[1] As a result, metropolitan New York’s park builders promoted a shared belief that modern design would alter recreational behavior patterns. In the 1920s, Westchester earned national recognition as an archetype of twentieth-century suburbanization and a vanguard in regional park planning. In 1922, the county Board of Supervisors originated New York State’s first county park commission, the Westchester County Park Commission (WCPC). In less than a decade, the WCPC built a sprawling, celebrated park system of parkways, wooded reserves, three golf courses, six swimming centers with beaches as well as pools, and Playland, its famous Art-Deco amusement park in Rye.

“Playland Mall,” Photograph. (n.d.). Playland Photograph Collection, Westchester County Archives (Jul. 2008) (18 Oct. 2012).

“Playland Mall,” Photograph. (n.d.). Playland Photograph Collection, Westchester County Archives (Jul. 2008) (18 Oct. 2012).

Westchester’s park planners took a multi-pronged approach to shaping an idealized public for county parks. The WCPC took an unusually explicit step towards regulating public behavior through directed play in its public spaces with the creation of the county Recreation Commission in 1924. In the words of the New York Times, the leading citizens who peopled the commission were “to teach a county to play.” The authority, only the second of its kind in the country, collaborated with the WCPC. Its goal, the newly appointed Superintendent of Recreation told American City magazine, was to establish “ethical standards of play, [and] clean, wholesome bodies” at all county parks.[2] As Susan Currell argues, Depression-era leisure was a growing focus of government oversight; social scientists had come to believe, in the words of one sociologist, that “there [could] be no doubt of the right of government to prevent the sale of unwholesome recreation just as it has the right to prevent the sale of unwholesome food.”[3] Westchester’s Recreation Commission focused on working-class conduct and explicitly articulated an agenda of cultural uplift through directed play.[4] The commissioners expressed the belief that Westchester had special recreation needs because of its proximity to the city, arguing that in the Bronx and Manhattan Westchesterites found “the wrong sort of enjoyment in commercialized recreation.” To counteract the appeal of such amusements, the recreation commission offered art and acting classes and summer camps where working-class citizens could, the Recreation Commissioner explained, “be induced, or even coaxed ever so gently, into the formation of new desires, new abilities, new tastes.”[5]

The Recreation Commission articulated an agenda of cultural uplift that was also apparent in the promotional materials and physical design of the county’s keystone park, Playland.[6] Billed as “America's Premier Playground,” Playland opened in 1928. The award-winning firm Walker & Gillette designed Playland’s celebrated Art Deco architecture, while celebrated landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke designed the grounds.[7] In making Playland physically beautiful, the WCPC attempted to signal that the project was a unique moral amusement park. Clarke and Gillette declared that with their design “the cause of art has been advanced, that we have helped to elevate the amusement park to a higher plane, and made of it a place where people of refinement may go in quest of pleasure heretofore only found in environments lacking in art and culture.”[8] Playland combined three distinct leisure environments in a single destination. The park was a bathing destination (it featured both a beach and freshwater pool), a modest naturalist park (it included a marshy manmade lake and trail), and a reinterpretation of amusement park form. Figures from children’s rhymes, cowboys, dancers, and dragons paraded across the park’s decorative friezes that cheery string lighting illuminated at night. Rides and games such as the Tumble Bug, Derby Racer, Noah’s Ark, the Caterpillar, and carrousel lined the amusement section’s 120-foot long colonnade.

Playland’s design was meant to convert patrons to a new class of amusement park-goers. County park commissioners insisted that the amusement park’s uniquely ordered environment subtly discouraged the rowdiness of former “hurdy gurdy” patrons, the plebeian crowd enthralled by Coney Island-style bally-hoo and barkers.[9] To achieve this goal and ensure middle-class propriety, the commission barred barkers hawking wares, gambling, and chance games. Countless press releases, promotional pamphlets, and trade journal features covering the WCPC and Playland’s design said the park heralded a new era of wholesome, ordered, and safe public amusements that entertained but were also healthful, educative, and elevating.[10]

“Sanitized Playland,” as the county amusement park was called, meant “the absolute absence of any element of offences to the most susceptible of temperaments.”[11] Officials who eagerly retold stories of “rowdy youths transformed into orderly fun-loving kids” by a visit to Playland attempted to assure county residents that urbanites would not trouble their suburban sensibilities.[12] In a typical promotional story printed in Survey Graphic, a county official explained “it was one of the pleasing digressions of the director to pick up a gang of ‘rough-necks’ at the entrance and follow them into Playland. Invariably, before they had been there twenty minutes, their spirit had changed to one of appreciative enjoyment, in harmony with the spirit of the place. Everyone behaved, yet everyone was gay.”[13] The official creed of Playland, published in promotional booklets, vowed “to provide clean, safe, wholesome outdoor recreation for everybody,” emphasizing “courtesy and harmony.”[14] By Playland’s opening, beach bathing had largely shed its nineteenth-century reputation as potentially transgressive. Nevertheless, police signs warned visitors to maintain proper attire when off the beach—offenders who changed in the parking lot to avoid bathhouse fees risked arrest.[15] The attraction Kiddyland and its uniformed nurses hired to safeguard children underscored the family orientation of the new park.[16] WCPC hired for Kiddyland “specially-trained nurses and attendants” to watch children when parents enjoyed the park. Enclosed in a white picket fence, Kiddyland was equipped with supposedly gentle attractions geared specifically to juveniles; it featured small mechanical rides and Mary’s Garden, a trellised flower patch with the well-known rhyme “Mary Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow/with silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row” hanging above.[17] Employing contemporary theories of crowd psychology, amusements were located to neutralize and balance each other: Kiddyland was located next to the Areoplane, as a way to reassure those frightened by the roller coaster with the gentler games of children.[18]

“Children with Kiddyland Sign,” Photograph. (n.d.). Playland Photograph Collection, Westchester County Archives (Jul. 2008)

“Children with Kiddyland Sign,” Photograph. (n.d.). Playland Photograph Collection, Westchester County Archives (Jul. 2008)

The WCPC saw Playland as a success not just because it proved popular and profitable, but because the commission succeeded in directing patron behavior to fit the idealized version of suburban leisure that Playland in particular and the Westchester park system in general purportedly embodied. In a 1933 report on leisure in Westchester, sociologist George A. Lundberg compared Playland to the cultural theme parks Skansen in Stockholm and the Park of Rest and Culture in Moscow. Lundberg approvingly pointed to the highbrow cultural attractions of both parks. The open air museum of Skansen, a living museum showcasing earlier eras of rural Swedish life, balanced the “usual restaurants and casinos for public dancing” which were but “a minor and subdued part of the amusement park.” The Park of Rest and Culture emphasized physical fitness and opportunities for reading, discussion, and lectures. Lundberg believed Playland to be a third example of successful culture parks.[19] To Lundberg, Playland was similar, a theme park that idealized wholesome leisure and a culture of “courtesy and harmony” bolstered by aesthetics, as part of the county’s emerging suburban lifestyle.

The WCPC expressed a desire to create, at Playland, a park that would appeal to and welcome “people of all walks of life” and residents of New York City and Westchester alike. The park offered relatively rare access to the cooling waters of Westchester’s Sound beachfront, the majority of which was privately developed by the 1920s. The WCPC worked to comprehensively meet the recreation needs of both city and suburb—an endeavor that reflected the commission’s regional approach to park infrastructure as well as economic motivations, since the park system depended on regional, not just county, patrons for profits. Yet despite publicly welcoming a regional audience, the commission focused on new standards of behavior that favored an idealized social atmosphere of its suburban, not urban, visitors.[20] Public promotional materials and the WCPC’s internal records alike underscored the goal of “training” the metropolitan population to proper recreation patterns at wholesome public facilities.[21] The Recreation Commission translated these goals into programming, reflecting the professional consensus that leisure diversions needed professional oversight to prevent so-called wasteful or exploitative leisure practices. In his study of Westchesterites’ social lives the sociologist Lundberg, representing a large group of social scientists and reformers, identified “the problems of leisure.” He concluded that mechanical leisure had failed the masses, quoting an appraisal of Coney Island “what an unhappy people it must be that turns for happiness here.” Playland represented the solution.[22] In greater New York, the Progressive-era drive to regulate leisure exhibited a uniquely suburban focus; the city-suburb relationship drove WCPC debates and work concerning the public and public spaces of Westchester. Westchester’s unique county-run amusement park illuminates how regional commissions engaged in the cultural debates over what should be considered the “wrong” sort of leisure and negotiated what constituted “appropriate” public behavior in the new recreation spaces of greater New York during the 1920s and 1930s.

Kara Murphy Schlichting is an Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY.

[1] See Susan Currell, The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks In America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982).

[2] “5 Women to Teach a County to Play,” also quoted in Marilyn E. Weigold, People and the Parks: A History of Parks and Recreation in Westchester County (White Plains, NY: Westchester County Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, 1984), 9.

[3] Jess Steiner, Recent Social Trends in the United States: Report of the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends, vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933), 941, quoted in Currell, March of Spare Time, 2.

[4] “Crowd Figures Greatly Exaggerated, Prices Not Too High, Reports State,” Daily Item (Jul. 17, 1928), Park Department Clippings, Series 98, Westchester County Archives, Elmsford, New York (“Park Department Clippings”).

[5] Meyer quoted in Weigold, People and the Parks, 22.

[6] “Crowd Figures Greatly Exaggerated, Prices Not Too High, Reports State,” Daily Item (Jul. 17, 1928), Parks Department Clippings.

[7] Leon N. Gillette and Gilmore D. Clarke, “‘Playland’—An Amusement Park at Rye, Westchester County, NY,” The American Architect, Vol. CXXXIV, No. 2835 (Oct. 20, 1928), 492, and National Association of Amusement Parks, Bulletin, Playland Number, (Aug 15, 1929), 3.

[8] Gillette and Clarke, "'Playland'," 498.

[9] George A. Lundberg, Mirra Komarovsky, and Mary Alice McInery, Leisure, a Suburban Study (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), 77.

[10] “A Treat in Store,” The Yonkers Statesman (Nov. 25, 1927) and “County Classes as Pioneer in Recreation Plan at Playland,” [np] (Mar. 20, 1928), Parks Department Clippings.

[11] For “Sanitized Playland” see William C. Wright, Biography of V. Everit Macy, chapter 16, page 4, Manuscript. Folder 1, Series 187, V. Everit Macy Papers, Westchester County Archives, Elmsford, New York. For “the absolute absence” see “County Classes as Pioneer in Recreation Plan at Playland.” See also “A Super-Park in the Making,” Amusement Park Management 1, no. 4, Playland issue (Mar.1928), and “Coney Island of the Future,” The Rye Chronicle (Aug. 17, [nd]), Parks Department Clippings.

[12] For “rowdy youths transformed” quote see “Playland, Rye Beach,” reproduced in Colin Dunne, John Dunne, Beth Griffin, Ted M. Levine, Robin Russell and Arlene Weiss, Rye in the Twenties (New York: The Rye Historical Society, Arno Press, 1978). For “sanitized Playland” see Wright, chapter 16, page 4.

[13] “Playland, How it Pays!” #42, Hufenland Pamphlet Collection, Westchester Historical Society Collection, Westchester County Archives, Elmsford, New York.

[14] Westchester County Park Commission, “Play at Playland, Rye, New York,” Pamphlet, Rye #36, Hufenland Pamphlet Collection, Westchester Historical Society Collection, Westchester County Archive, Elmsford, New York.

[15] Kathryn W. Burke, Playland, Foreword by Andrew J. Spano (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 96.

[16] Darling, “The Future of Playland,” Amusement Park Management 1, no. 4, Playland issue (Mar.1928), 133. See also “Rye Beach Gambling,” [np] (Jun. 13, 1927) Parks Department Clippings. On the 1920s transformation of the amusement park crowd “into family clusters focused on children and child-like fantasies,” see Gary S. Cross, “Crowds and Leisure: Thinking Comparatively Across the 20th Century,” Journal of Social History vol. 39 no .3 (Spring 2006), 643.

[17] “County Classes as Pioneer in Recreation Plan at Playland.”

[18] National Register of Historic Places, Playland Amusement Park, Rye, Westchester County, New York, National Register # 80004529, 8-7. National Register of Historic Places Digital Archive on NPGallery <> (accessed 25 May 2017).

[19] Lundberg, et al., Leisure, 79.

[20] “The Opening of Playland,” Reporter (May 25, 1928), Parks Department Clippings.

[21] Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks In America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), 236, and Neil Smith and Setha Low, “Introduction: The Imperative of Public Space,” The Politics of Public Space, eds. Low and Smith (New York: Routledge, 2006), 9.

[22] Lundberg, et al., Leisure, 19.