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1936 Olympic Prize

A map of the Lay plan published in the New York Times, 1932 (New York Times Archives).

During the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Charles Downing Lay, the initial designer of Marine Park, came home with a silver medal in “Town Planning” for his work on the park. He was the first American to win a medal that summer. How was this possible? Until 1948, art was an official class of competition in the Summer Olympics, although all submissions were required to be related to athletics. Lay’s vision of Marine Park exceeded that requirement by far. A Harvard-educated landscape architect, Lay received one of the first formal degrees in landscape architecture, a field first developed in the mid-nineteenth century.

Painted by Lay in oil on a forty-five square foot canvas, his plan was magnificent. Filling in hundreds of acres of salt marsh, Marine Park was to be larger than Central and Prospect Parks combined. Its grounds would feature typical park amenities like picnic areas, athletic fields, and a canoe harbor, but also included more grandiose ones like a skating rink, a zoo, and even a casino.

One of the most well-touted facilities was the Knute Rockne Memorial Field, a football field named after the recently deceased famous Notre Dame football coach. If built, the stadium would’ve been able to hold 125,000 people, making it one of the biggest stadiums in the world at the time. Hired by the city in 1931, Lay’s official plans were released publicly in 1932. Despite his vast vision of Marine Park, the Lay plan was not to be. With an estimated cost of construction of $40,000,000 dollars, the cost was simply too high for the city, eventually drastically scaling back his design.

Enough money was appropriated to complete the Pratt-White athletic field, which remains true to Lay’s vision today by Avenue U. More evidence can be seen in the wooden pilings visible outside of the Salt Marsh Nature Center at low tide, which were intended to provide the bulkhead line of the canoe harbor. Despite the ultimate failure of Lay’s vision, he was still celebrated for his bold and ambitious proposals for the park by the Olympics.

Upon hearing of his victory, he remained modest, saying “…I did not win the Olympic medal in a contest…It was much more of an exhibition. My Marine Park drawings were lying finished years ago. I sent them to Berlin. Now I am very glad indeed that they were successful.”