Concrete jungle: City ‘looking into relocating’ animal statues in NYC playgrounds

animal sculptures
The dolphin in Cobble Hill Park is one of hundreds of concrete animal sculptures located in New York City playgrounds.
Rose Adams

Some concrete creatures that adorn the city’s playgrounds may vanish, as animal-nappers with the Parks Department plan to relocate the beloved concrete animal sculptures from the Five Boroughs’ play areas during playground renovations. 

“We are looking into relocating these pieces,” said Parks Department spokeswoman Anessa Hodgson, when asked about the plan. “We are still in the planning process, and do not have further details at this time.”

In Brooklyn, children have long rejoiced at the sight of the concrete dolphin sculpture in Cobble Hill Park, the eagles at Fort Greene Park, and the metal dragon at Prospect Park’s Imagination Playground.

Adding to the animal lore, many of Gotham’s playgrounds are actually named after their zoological attractions — like Dinosaur Playground, whose dinosaurs are made of fiberglass, and Hippo Playground in upper Manhattan.

Hodgson did not say whether the animal excavation plan would affect all animal sculptures in playgrounds, where the sculptures might be moved, or when this initiative might begin.

Following this article’s publication, another Parks representative clarified that the sculptures would be removed during a playground renovation, but did not explain which sculptures will be relocated permanently, and which will be returned to their original site. 

“Parks is not removing all animal structures from playgrounds/parks,” said Crystal Howard in a tweet. “We are looking at finding a home for those that are removed due to construction at sites, the plan is still being developed. No details have been finalized.”

News of the plan was first made public during a virtual meeting held by Community Board 10 on March 4, when a Parks Department landscape architect revealed that the upcoming redesigns of two Bay Ridge playgrounds would lead to the removal of their decades-old animal monuments.

“The commissioner is actually compiling all of the animal art — the concrete animals — that were so well loved, and that Commissioner [Henry Jordan] Stern made prevalent back in his day,” said architect Denise Mattes at the meeting. “We’re actually compiling areas for all of those animals.” 

Many community board members pushed back against the removal of the owl and horse sculptures from Owl’s Head Park Playground and the whale from JJ Carty Playground — arguing that the animals have become core features of the parks since their installation over 20 years ago.

“I think they’re really important to try to preserve because they’re what make you know you’re in a New York City park,” said attendee Marty Lentz. “You see those and it connects you to the past.” 

Perhaps not expecting the outpouring of love for the white stone finback, the park’s landscaper said she would be willing to find a spot for the orc.

“If it becomes a prevalent thing that needs to be saved, I can certainly find a spot for the whale,” Mattes said.

Word of the plan to remove the animal art comes only weeks after city officials aggressively removed a group of modernist horse sculptures outside an Upper West Side public housing complex, infuriating locals. However, the New York City Housing Authority, which moved the sculptures into one of their buildings, said that the horses’ removal had nothing to do with the Parks Department or its play sculpture plan.

The history of New York’s animal sculptures

Animal sculptures were first introduced into New York City playgrounds by former Parks Commissioner Stern, an eccentric city official who was obsessed with animal themes in architecture, according to his former employee.

animal sculptures
Kids love the bear play sculpture located in Bay Ridge’s Leif Ericson Park Playground.Photo by Meaghan McGoldrick

“The animal art goes to one of his hobbies, which was observing animals in architectural ornaments,” said Adrian Benepe, a former New York City Parks commissioner who previously worked under Commissioner Stern. “He was so obsessed with it he created a sort of joking society that he called the ‘Seven A’s’ — the American Association for the Advancement and Appreciation of Animals in Art and Architecture.” 

Stern named Benepe the “co-top dog” of the Seven A’s, and asked him to lead tours of the city’s animal architecture, he said.

Meanwhile, Stern’s fascination with animal architecture spilled over into playground design. Stern insisted that all playgrounds renovated or built during his tenure — which lasted from 1983 to 1990, and 1994 to 2002 — feature at least one animal-themed play sculpture. The Parks honcho also ruled that playgrounds had to have a compass rosette in the ground and a flagpole with a yardarm that flew the American flag, the city flag, and the Parks Department flag, according to Benepe, who now heads the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

The new rules were controversial — particularly among members of the city’s public design commission, who were miffed that Stern’s team installed the structures without their permission. One member even sued the city as an independent citizen because she viewed the flags’ yardarms as a “visual blight,” Benepe said. 

It didn’t help that the Parks Department would often erect pre-made commercial statues in playgrounds, rather than designing original works of art.

“What happened was that the design division, just to satisfy these demands, would just order stuff from a catalogue,” said Benepe. “You have a hodgepodge now of stuff. [In some cases] they just put whatever they could find up, and then there’s some really fine, true works of art, which should absolutely not be removed.” 

In total, the city must have hundreds of these animal sculptures, Benepe theorized.

“There’s got to be hundreds and hundreds of them,” he said, adding that the Parks Department would renovate at least a couple dozen of the city’s 1,000 playgrounds each year. “Henry Stern was commissioner for 15 years, and during the last eight years he was really ramping this up, which also coincided with a major period of park expansion. Budgets were healthy, and there was a lot of money going into parks.” 

While current Parks Department Commissioner Mitchell Silver’s plan for the sculptures remains unclear, Benepe noted that the monuments don’t just give playgrounds an identity — they also reflect a fascinating period of city history.

“Wherever I go, I see them,” he said. “And whenever I see them, I think of Henry Stern.”

Update (March 30, 3:16 pm): This story has been updated to include new information from a Parks Department representative.

Clarification (March 30, 1:20 pm): This story’s original headline has been updated to make clear that the Parks Department is “looking into” relocating the city’s animal statues, and that nothing has been finalized as of publication.