Ancient Play

With its sandy expanses and climbable pyramids, the Ancient Playground was designed to evoke empire. As a kid, I spent countless afternoons ducking through the piss-fragrant tunnels of the Giza-inspired play structures. During the summer, I’d dash through the sprinkler as if Moses himself had just cracked it open. In all seasons, teenagers made out behind the concrete obelisk.

The playground is one of several Egyptian architectural features in the stodgy, patrician neighborhood where I went to school. A quarter mile west is Cleopatra’s Needle, a 3,500-year-old obelisk (it’s a long story) that shrouds itself in pink blooms during springtime.  Across the street, the Metropolitan Museum exhibits a transplanted sandstone temple (also a long story, but I’ll get to it later) in an all-glass wing. On some days, this is nothing short of majestic, and on others, you feel like you are peering into the world’s largest dining room cabinet.

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The Ancient Playground was built in 1973, one of several “adventure playgrounds” constructed in New York City during the 60s and 70s. These were considered antidotes to the philistine playgrounds erected during the tenure of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Though outdoor play spaces proliferated under Moses (municipal, not Biblical), they were uniform and Spartan in design: a slide, a swing set, a row of monkey bars. A patch of the outdoors for drilling gross motor skills. The spatial equivalent of drinking a glass of milk for strong bones. Grip, lift, climb.

Richard Dattner, who designed the Ancient Playground and other avant-garde recreational spaces, had some choice words for these average traditional playgrounds: “there could not be a more hostile environment for children’s play if it had been designed for the express purpose of preventing play.”

Dattner’s adventure playgrounds, in turn, were meant to condition the imaginative muscles of the New York City child. European children, as legend would have it, forged their own play spaces from the rubble of World War II—and in true American fashion, the grown-ups decided that their children could learn a thing or two from other people’s misfortune. The resulting playgrounds touted themselves as theatrical stages rather than gymnasia, opulent and seamless ecosystems of make-believe. In a 1973 feature that heralded this new, innovative generation of playgrounds, the New York Times reported that architects aimed to provide “physical or psychological separation of the children from their parents” and “promote indulgence in a child's sensory experience and fantasies.”

The construction of the Ancient Playground was bankrolled by the Estee and Joseph Lauder Foundation ($225,000) and a cohort of Upper East Side mothers who called themselves the 85th Street Playground Association ($75,000). The project was ostensibly a six-figure investment in the strange and unconquerable inner lives of children. In the New York Times piece, one mother marveled: “In this kind of playground, for an adult to walk in, it's almost like interfering.”

This no-grown-ups-allowed ethos was inscribed in the design of the playground. Until the renovation, all of the slides and tunnels and pyramids sat in a massive, central pit of sand that smelled like rust and always felt a little bit damp. Mothers and nannies sat at the periphery and only traversed the sacrosanct boundary in case of blood or bruises. Standing atop peaks of concrete, the Upper East Side’s youngest denizens could see the park unfold at their feet, tasting something like imperial power for the first time.

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Sometime in the early aughts, I found myself the indentured best friend of a classmate known for her clinginess. It all started innocuously enough: at the Ancient Playground (where else?) with some make-believe game that seamlessly incorporated lots of sliding. (The architectural motifs rarely had any bearing on the games that were played; girls at my school were partial to variants of tag that also involved pretending to be Dickensian orphans.)

When recess ended I asked this classmate, with a frankness I wish I could still access today, if I had to do this again tomorrow. She looked down at me from the top of the pyramid and gleefully informed me that we would be doing this every single day. And so we did.

I’ve since come to associate little blonde girls and wide blue eyes with pleading and persuasion, but in that fateful, unflinching every single day there was no room to negotiate. It was an ironclad contract I could never quite explain to my parents. So it was on the Playground: languid afternoons, some artificial sense of the old and majestic, little blonde girls and their forceful, lawless fantasies.

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The Ancient Playground is Egyptian in the same way that Mandarin oranges in salad are Chinese: vaguely, and with a certain 1970s flair. But Dattner didn’t just pick the Egyptian theme out of a hat. The playground commemorated the Temple of Dendur, a sandstone structure that was built during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The temple was dedicated to Isis and Osiris, and it was fully relocated to the Metropolitan Museum, one block away from the playground, in 1978. In its original iteration, the temple was not a congregational place of worship; it was designed to house the deities and the offerings their worshipers extended. No one would have imagined the crowds it weathers today.             

The 800-ton transplant was largely the doing of Jacqueline Kennedy. The construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge several sacred sites along the Nile, and the First Lady urged her husband and Congress to join an international effort to save them. As a thank-you, the Egyptian government gifted the Temple of Dendur to the United States in 1965. The Met won the monument in an inter-city bidding war that journalists termed the “Dendur Derby.”     

It took more than a decade to dismantle, transport, and reassemble the temple. Thanks to a hefty donation from opioid magnate Arthur Sackler, the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving, built an artificial “Nile” to encircle the temple. Floor-to-ceiling glass paneling made the monument visible to all passersby. Though the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy had wanted to reconstruct Dendur (a remembrance of her husband’s foreign policy) on the banks of the Potomac, she got a pretty convenient view of the temple from her Manhattan apartment right across the street. The lights stayed on in the glass-enclosed Dendur wing all night, even after the museum closed.    

A few years ago, a guide on a trendy “unofficial” museum tour told me that in some circles, the temple was nicknamed “Jackie’s Night Light.” At the time, I thought the image was adorable: eight hundred tons of sacred sandstone keeping the widow’s nightmares at bay. I imagined the stony likeness of Horus at the foot of her duvet and the hem of her silk pajamas brushing the mighty columns.  

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I’ve never entertained the idea that Cleopatra was white, but I’ve devised this strange mythology of Manhattan’s Egyptian and “Egyptian” structures in my head, and it crawls with terrifying, wealthy, and beautiful white women. They are at once tiny and giant, swarming the ruins like ants and then holding the sandstone in their fingers like teacups. There are pyramids and pillbox hats and pleated uniform skirts—oddities of the Upper East Side’s “Egypt” and the white women who make playthings of it.

The whole scene has the effect of a diorama or a snowglobe collection or some other artifact of the postwar affinity for stuff. It is an indulgence in fantasies I didn’t invent. It is an investment in the daydreams of Jacqueline Kennedy, my elementary school classmate, and the concerned mothers of the 85th Street Playground Association.         

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According to family lore, I took my first steps in the Temple of Dendur. I’m not quite sure that this is true, but at the very least it makes for a picturesque thing to say about growing up in New York. There are photos of me at a year old, arrested in some intent waddling motion toward the massive arches. I am wearing green corduroy overalls.   

Somehow, this unlikely meeting of the ancient and the infant feels fitting. It is a surprisingly humble encounter between site and visitor: the sandstone looms high and majestic and indifferent to the development of gross motor skills happening below. There is little room for games or adventure or imperialist fantasy in learning how to walk; there are only steps and stumbles and the incomprehensible, enormous things ahead.