This half-sunken residential plaza on the north side of East 71st Street between the F.D.R. Drive and York Avenue belies the conventional wisdom that below-grade spaces are necessarily dark and depressing. Good design is key. The space is a capacious courtyard covered in an inviting reddish brick. Its unusually wide and unobstructed street frontage guarantees that sunlight reaches some or all of the space during the day. A steady stream of people entering and exiting the hospital north enlivens the plaza and ensures that it never depends exclusively on its own qualities to generate pedestrian traffic. And, to be fair, the space is only seven steps below the sidewalk, not so deep as some of the less successful truly sunken plazas, for example, those at Paramount Plaza.
A mushroom-shaped polished granite fountain and pink-tinted pool occupy the center. The ledge deserves special praise as one of the few in the City’s public space inventory that allows users to drape their legs comfortably in the water. Nearby planters stocked with mature trees, flowers, and ground cover echo the curve of the fountain, and provide plentiful seating themselves on attached polished granite benches. The landscaped western edge has one of the longest linear stretches of polished granite bench to be found in any public space. When the sun bakes this side before moving eastward, users either abandon or descend upon the bench. The eastern side is crowded with movable glass-topped white tables and chairs that often find their way to other parts of the space. A café provides takeout food.
Two plaques are located at the top of the stairs, east on a planter wall. One dedicates the plaza to Mildred Hilson for her devoted service to the Hospital for Special Surgery; the other is the public space plaque. Ironically, the only evidence of sloppy maintenance at this space is the public space plaque, which is dull to the point of illegibility. The Mildred Hilson plaque is shiny and legible.