Park Avenue Tree Lighting Event UES NYC
Park Avenue Tree Lighting Event Commemorates Sacrifice
I stumbled upon a holiday celebration this year, that is one of the little gems in the living history of Manhattan – the Park Avenue Tree Lighting event. It began in 1945, only months after the conclusion of the Second World War. It was dedicated to those who fought so bravely to defend our American rights and freedoms, and to those who made the ultimate sacrifice: their lives.
What follows is a history of the various people and organizations that have contributed to maintaining this living tribute to those American soldiers, as well as a real time account of the 2015 Park Avenue Tree Lighting event in the photos and video that accompany the story.
Several of the Upper East Siders with whom I conversed, told me that attending this holiday event has become one of their annual family traditions. The event is non-denominational where all are welcome, although it's worth mentioning that the event has some Christian cultural DNA embedded in the speeches and the music. But that said, the event is designed to be inclusive embracing all cultures and peaceful worship, which is one of the American freedoms for which those brave soldiers being commemorated tonight, gave their lives.
Click here to read about the history and see the video of the Park Avenue Tree Lighting event on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Park Avenue Tree Lighting Event UES NYC
Park Avenue Tree Lighting Event Commemorates Sacrifice
I arrived at Brick Presbyterian Church at 91st Street and Park Avenue around 6.30 pm, which was about a half hour before the lights were to be lit. It was a good thing too, because within minutes of settling in near the front of the church, literally thousands upon thousands of people filled in behind me.
Brick Presbyterian Church: A New York Institution & Founding Park Avenue Tree Lighting Participant
The podium was located on the steps to the entrance of the Brick Presbyterian Church at 91st Street and Park Avenue. The Brick Presbyterian Church was the site of the first Park Avenue Tree Lighting event in 1945, and it has been the ceremonial dias for the Park Avenue Tree Lighting Event ever since.
The Brick Presbyterian Church was founded in 1767 as an expansion of the First Presbyterian Church on Wall Street. According to the Brick Presbyterian Church website, they’ve been operating continuously since that time, except during the American Revolutionary War. The first Brick Pastor reportedly was a friend and correspondent with the nation's first president: George Washington.
The Brick Presbyterian Church has had three locations - the first of which was downtown on Beekman Street near present-day City Hall. In 1858 the Church moved to 5th Avenue and 37th Street, where it remained until 1940. In 1940 the Brick Presbyterian Church moved to its current location at Park Avenue and 91st Street. But I digress.
Park Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony - December 2015
As mentioned previously, I was astounded by how quickly and quietly the very large crowd had gathered around behind me. While the crowd was predominantly Caucasian, there was a genetic and ethnic mix, that included young and old alike and quite a few families.
The Brick Presbyterian Pastor took to the podium and introduced himself as Michael Lindvall. He was the Master of Ceremonies throughout the evening and he introduced and thanked a number of groups and people, a few of which I caught and will recite below. But before he launching into the ceremony, Pastor Lindvall gave a brief history of the Park Avenue Tree Lighting Event. I have augmented what he said with some additional information for your historical interest.
History of the Park Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony
Mrs. Stephen C. Clark [aka Susan Vanderpoehl Clark] is credited as the Founder of the Park Avenue Tree Lighting event. The story that has been passed on through the years is that Mrs. Clark along with her friends, neighbors and the kin of others who lost loved ones in WWII; got together and funded the tree lighting event held on the first Sunday of every December [possibly up until 1981].
Mrs. Stephen C. Clark: Wife of a Singer Sewing Company Heir
Mrs. Stephen C. Clark was married to one of the heirs [grandson] of one of the founding partners in the Singer Sewing Corporation. The Singer Sewing Machine Company was founded by a German immigrant, Isaac Singer, in the middle of the 19th century. Singer patented his machine inventions and marketed his brand around the globe, long before international marketing and branding had come of age.
A Brief History of the Clark Family: 1850 - 1945
Co-Founders of Singer Sewing Co & Real Estate Developers on the Upper West Side
Stephen Clark’s grandfather was a lawyer who helped Isaac Singer secure his patents and handled other legal issues for the company, for which he received a significant portion of Singer Sewing Company stock. In the 1870’s Singer and Clark began investing in real estate on the Upper West Side, and are credited with the erection of the Dakota.
The grandson, Stephen C. Clark, became an art collector / dealer, as did his brother, Robert Sterling Clark. The two brothers had a falling out over their inheritance and never reconciled. Sterling Clark founded the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute near Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Founder of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown
Stephen C. Clark founded the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in the late 1930’s. Stephen also became the Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan for a period of time in the mid 20th century. Stephen collected and subsequently donated to an assortment of museums, the artworks by many of the great masters of the late 19th and early 20th century including Picasso, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Manet.
While Mrs. Stephen C. Clark founded the Park Avenue Tree Lighting event, many others also contributed to keep alive the memory of the gifts made by these slain soldiers.
Brick Presbyterian Church & The Fund For Park Avenue
Pastor Lindvall gave a special shout out thank you to Barbara McLaughlin, who is the current President of the Fund For Park Avenue. The Fund For Park Avenue, as I was to subsquently learn, evolved through a decades long process, wherein several key contributors led the efforts of many, to not only keep the Park Avenue Tree Lighting event alive, but to contribute to the beautification of Manhattan and New York City by maintaining the Park Avenue meridian year round.
The following is a brief history of the evolution of Park Avenue beautification efforts.
Park Avenue Beautification 1950 - 1980
Mrs. Albert D. Lasker, NYC Parks Dept, Ronald D. Spencer & Carnegie Hill Neighbors
At the turn of the 20th century Park Avenue was site of the tracks where all of the northbound trains out of Grand Central Terminal traveled. When the trains became electrified, the trackes were covered over with streets mainly Park Avenue. In the first half of the 20th century America was drawn into two European Wars and suffered a significant economic depression.
In the 1950’s, following WWII, Mrs. Albert D. Lasker took an interest in beautifying Park Avenue by planting tulips in a few of the beds along the Park Avenue meridian in the springtime. She continued this practice through decades, eventually convincing the Parks Department to assume the role for it in the 1970’s.
By 1980 the Park Avenue meridian fell into disrepair. Ronald D. Spencer, President of the Carnegie Hill Neighbors, struck a deal whereby a small fee would be collected from each of the owners of the building units along Park Avenue, to pay for the meridian maintenance from 86th Street to 96th Street along Park Avenue.
Margaret Ternes & the Park Avenue Malls Planting Project
That same year  Mrs. Lasker teamed with Margaret Ternes in getting the Park Avenue Malls Planting Project to assume the role for the Park Avenue meridian from 86th Street all the way down to 54th Street. They employed the same strategy successfully employed by Ronald D. Spencer, by collecting contributions from the building owners along the adjacent lengths of Park Avenue.
The Fund For Park Avenue Now Oversees It All
In 1981 the Fund For Park Avenue assumed the year round beautification responsibilities from 54th to 96th along Park Avenue. They also took on the role of managing the erection and lighting of the 104 fir trees which line Park Avenue during the holidays, which is also known as the Park Avenue Tree Lighting event. The erection and maintenance of the fir trees is a project which begins in November and ends in early January. And, as mentioned previously, the Park Avenue Tree Lighting ceremony commemorates the memory of the slain soldiers of WWII with the lighting of these trees.
Barbara McLaughlin is the President of the Fund For Park Avenue. Ronald D. Spencer and Margaret Ternes continue to play roles in the effort as the current Board Chairman and a current Board Member, respectively. A longtime Park Avenue resident, Margaret Proctor, is cited on the Fund For Park Avenue website as leaving a bequest to continue Park Avenue beautification post mortem.
Park Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony
Pastor Lindvall continued with gracious notes of appreciation, which included to the Brick Church Choir which would soon perform, as well as to Boy Scout Troop 662 which was handing out programs and had done so since 1945. The Brick Church Choir began the communal singing of old fashioned Christmas songs with which most folks in the audience seemed well acquainted.
Pastor Lindvall arose after a few of the songs, made a few more remarks about the importance of the occasion, and then turned over the podium to trumpeter Thomas Hoyt. Trumpeter Hoyt played a beautifully mournful rendition of Taps ... and then on went the switch for the Park Avenue Christmas Tree Lights.
In prior years the crowd has been estimated in the 5,000 people range, but I believe, given the good weather it's possible that this year the crowd numbers could easily have been double that, possibly setting a new record. The police had cordoned off Park Avenue between 86th and 96th Streets. And as far as the eye could see, Park Avenue appeared to be filled with crowds of people.
Given the good weather, people lingered after the lights had been turned on, and the Church Choir continued singing holiday tunes. After a short while the crowd began thinning, providing enough room for me to maneuver my way out of it.
I left with a good feeling ...
a feeling that we are one giant human community ...
a collection of people who may have some differences in genetic and cultural code, but that we share far more than we differ ...
and that we all periodically need to be reminded of that ...
or more will go the way of the soldiers whose lives we remembered and mourned again tonight ...
these solidiers died fighting for the liberty of all mankind, so that we, the people, can live in a land where the legal framework has been structured to operate with malice and prejudice toward none ...
even though the folks operating that system don't always operate it as it was intended ...
but part of that is our fault ... because we, the people, too often let negligent officials rise to positions of public power by not paying attention, by not holding them accountable for their words and actions, and by not voting ...
remember that democracy can only work if the electorate informs itself and participates in the election / selection process ...
That is the cause to which these men gave their lives and for which we continually thank and remember them ...
Thanks for reading and may you have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.
Sources: Brick Presbyterian Church, The Fund For Park Avenue and Wikipedia.
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