Tulips blooming on Park Avenue are a sure sign of spring. While this color explosion seems magical, the work of some benevolent spirit waving a wand to coax blooms from bulbs, this annual flower show involves a lot of hard work and organization. As President for The Fund for Park Avenue, Barbara McLaughlin is the force overseeing this display that fills the medians on America’s most famous thoroughfare from 54th to 86th Streets. “This was a long winter,” McLaughlin said. “It’s nice to turn the page.”
This year, the tulips are bright orange, Blushing Apeldoorns, to honor the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York harbor. When the tulips appeared, they looked yellow rather than orange. McLaughlin spent a sleepless night until she reached the grower and discovered that the tulips don’t reach full color until they are in full bloom.
Walking on Park Avenue with McLaughlin, nothing escapes her notice. The tulips, all 60,000 of them, are indeed turning orange and she is ecstatic. When she sees a sign has fallen down at Park and 86th Street, she speed dials the city’s Department of Transportation to have it fixed. There’s no doubt that she takes her responsibilities seriously. We sigh with relief. Park Avenue is in good hands.
McLaughlin understands that Park Avenue is a showcase for the city. “The display makes people smile,” she said. “People love it, and not just the people who live on Park Avenue, but people from all over, people who have spent time in New York.” Recently, The Fund attracted a new donor from Michigan who enjoys the sight when visiting the city.
Even though the tulips are up, McLaughlin’s work never ends. Begonias follow the tulips, from May through October. New bulbs are planted in the fall. Then, in November, on Veteran’s Day, trees are brought in from Nova Scotia to be planted on Park Avenue’s medians. The tree lighting, originally founded to honor those who died in World War II, happens the first Sunday in December. Installing the trees and lighting them is a big job, and McLaughlin praises the professionalism of those who tackle this project each year. “The people who have done work on the malls and the lighting have been there since the get-go,” McLaughlin said.
For twenty-nine years, The Fund has taken care of Park Avenue’s medians, from 54th Street to 86th Street. (Carnegie Hill Neighbors is responsible for the plantings from 86th Street to 96th Street and midtown corporations handle the medians below 54th Street). The Fund relies on annual contributions from the buildings facing the avenue, as well as donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations. Fund-raising is a constant concern, particularly this year. Recently, McLaughlin was heartened by a donor who upped her contribution. A selling point for The Fund is the visibility of its work. “Donors can see where their money is going,” she said, adding that she will continue to “get the word out.” The Fund now has a modern, eye-catching logo, a tree flanked by tulips, and a large mailing soliciting donations went out recently.
McLaughlin took over as The Fund’s President last June, bringing with her stellar credentials. Previously, she was Executive Director for The Society, at Sloan-Kettering. Born in Minnesota, she moved to New York in 1985 and worked at Christie’s for thirteen years. “I started as the sales clerk standing next to the auctioneer,” she said with a laugh. She caught the eye of Kevin McLaughlin, who often attended the auctions. One day she was shopping in his store (Kevin and his brother Jay own J.McLaughlin clothing stores) and he asked her to dinner. They now have two children, Madeline, 13, and Hugh, 5.
Scully & Scully on Park Avenue hosted a reception to celebrate the blooming of the tulips. McLaughlin wore a bright orange dress made for her by her husband’s company. Her quest to find tulip buttons, she said with a laugh, was unsuccessful.
McLaughlin doesn’t describe herself as a gardener, but she is digging into her new job. “I’ve stayed for a long time in all my jobs,” she said. “This one is very interesting and I have a lot to learn. You are really close to the earth.”
If you would like to donate to The Fund for Park Avenue, you may go to the website, www.fundforparkavenue.org
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop:
I’m not a big clothes shopper – almost all of my clothes come from J.McLaughlin (which is owned by my husband and his brother). What I do like to shop for is food and my favorite places for doing this are the Farmer’s Market in Union Square and the Chelsea Market (especially Eleni’s cookies). I even like to go and just look.
Favorite Place to Eat:
Again, I don’t eat out much – unless you count Island (which is also owned by my husband and his brother). I do have periodic cravings for the sautéed chicken livers at Fred’s in Barneys though and you can’t beat Bergdorf’s 7th floor for a ladies lunch!
Favorite New York Sight:
Aside from the tulips? The Park Avenue Memorial Trees at dusk when the lights come on – preferably when it’s snowing.
Favorite New York Moment:
Walking into Central Park/Wollman Rink at dusk in the falling show after having seen The Producers (original cast) and had a leisurely lunch at the Gramercy Tavern – - a great New York afternoon!
What You Love About New York:
The energy that attracts people from all over the world but also the “six degrees of separation thing” that can make the city seem like a small town. I’m originally from Minnesota and I love it when I meet people from “home” here.
What You Hate About New York:
Traffic and hot subways – especially when I’m in a hurry.