The Women’s Committee of Central Park Conservancy Celebrates the 41st Annual Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon

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The guests arrive! Photo: Jill Nelson/Annie Watt

Thursday, May 4, 2023. The day started out in the upper 40s with some more rain (brief). The weatherman said the Sun would be coming out and the temps would rising to the low 60s. This has been the forecast for what seems like a month. So what! 

Except when I got up yesterday morning I knew it was the annual Hat Lunch (our overall term for it) in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park up near 105th Street behind the Vanderbilt Gate (originally designed for the mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II where Bergdorf Goodman stands today). If if were going to be cold, the party is basically outside under a tent. Ugh.

The luncheon tents peeking out.

If you’re a regular reader, you know already what it will be like for it was the annual Central Park’s Women’s Committee luncheon that raises funds – now well into the seven figures – to keep the Park fresh, in shape and flowering, budding and just plain Mother Nature’s amazing.

The annual fundraising event has been at it for 41 years! It was the creation of several women who got together to find ways of spiffing up and restoring the Park. It’s hard to comprehend it now, but back in the 1970s when I first came to New York out of college, the Park was well worn out.  We were used to that for it was very popular and well in use, as it had been for almost a century. But it was worn out too.

Approaching the Vanderbilt Gate.

It’s easy to understand how that could happen. The 800+ acres of parkland was there for several million New Yorkers (and visitors) for the entire 20th century. Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all and, my dear, I’m still here.

Now these five women were all prominent members of the community either through their husbands or their personal social power. One of their method to fund-raise began with that little lunch in the actual Park.

They chose a beautiful location for the luncheon in the Conservatory Garden named for the glass conservatory that was built at this location in 1899 to offer seasonal plant displays to the public. By the time I first attended in the late ’90s, the guest list was in the hundreds.

I have no idea how the hats became a symbol and a fashion. Hats, back when the Park was founded and flourishing, were part of almost every man and woman’s costume when they went out in public — even to the grocery store. And then around the late 1950s, early 1960s, and especially during the Kennedy Administration, hats went out. Nowhere, nobody.

And so it has remained except for this fantastic tradition which is generally called the Hat Lunch, but it is the luncheon of the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy. In the ensuing years, the Hat became a symbol of fun and leisure. Now it is tradition and at yesterday’s Luncheon, where they raised $4 million to finance the upkeep and improvements, it was the most sold out with almost 1,400 attending. And of that 1,400 there were a number of men attending, maybe a couple hundred, including former Mayor Bloomberg who has always been a major contributor. But it’s the women’s lunch, and you can see they were having a good time.

But to the guests and to those reporters/photographers, like yours truly, it’s like going to a great party where all you do is look — at what they’re wearing — and the women all look great, but really great, having taken that extra step with a hat that makes you notice. It was a day or a moment of celebration, and fun for all. A reminder of what’s important and what we all need always.

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