Russell Sage (1816-1906) was a financier and a railroad tycoon who amassed a fortune of $70 million by the time he died. He began as a clerk in his brother’s grocery store in Troy, New York, and in 1839 opened his own wholesale grocery business. He acted as treasurer of Rensselaer County from 1844 to 1851, and in 1852 he was elected to Congress on the Whig ticket. He served until 1857 when he took over as vice president of the La Crosse Railroad in Wisconsin, a company to which he had lent money while in office.
Through mergers and stock manipulation, Sage controlled 15,000 miles of railways by 1883, including the entire New York City elevated railway system. He also shared control of the Western Union Telegraph Company with fellow financier Jay Gould (1836-1892). In 1891, a man entered Sage’s office and demanded $1.2 million, threatening Sage with dynamite. When Sage refused, the man unleashed an explosion that left him dead but Sage mostly unharmed.
At the time of his death in 1906, Sage’s massive fortune went to his second wife, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (1828-1918). It is largely due to her efforts that so many social and cultural institutions benefitted from his fortune, some of which still bear his name. Olivia donated large sums to the YMCA, the YWCA, Women’s Hospital, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a memorial to her husband, she had built the First Presbyterian Church of Far Rockaway, at 1324 Beach 12th Street, where they used to vacation. The neo-gothic church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sits on grounds designed by the Olmsted Brothers and with trees that may originate from this time.
Olivia also founded the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 for “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.” The foundation’s early projects targeted low-income housing and labor reform. Notably, it sponsored the Regional Plan Association’s (‘RPA’) project to develop a regional plan for New York City in 1929. The plan sought to revitalize the urban core and to control suburbanization. Specific projects under the plan were the construction of the World Trade Towers, Citicorp Center, reviving downtown Brooklyn, and redeveloping the region’s waterfronts. This plan brought together many pioneers of urban planning and allowed them to produce one of the most in-depth studies of a metropolitan area ever conducted, with details ranging from transportation to business to open space. The plan was released on the eve of the Great Depression and met with numerous obstacles, although it would provide Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) with many of the basic ideas that shaped his career.
The land for the park, located on Booth Street between 68th Avenue and 68th Drive, was acquired by condemnation for recreational and educational purposes in 1950. A portion of the land became the footprint of the Junior High school, and on January 27, 1957, the playground opened on an adjacent parcel. In 1985, the playground adopted the name of the school, Russell Sage.