Charles Downing Lay, the Man Who Won an Olympic Medal for Town Planning

Charles Downing Lay
Charles Downing Lay / Photograph: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Background: Toa55, iStock via Getty Images

The further back you go in Olympic history, the stranger some of the competition categories can seem. There was pistol dueling with wax bullets and athletes who were pronounced theoretically dead; alpinism, which rewarded attempts at difficult mountaineering feats, often to people who didn’t survive them; and art competitions, which attempted to make paintings an objective accomplishment.

In the halls of these strange Olympics stands Charles Downing Lay, the man who earned a silver medal for the rather unathletic pursuit of town planning.

It was during the art competitions that landscape architect Lay cemented his place in Olympic history. In the 1936 Games held in Berlin, Germany, Lay was one of several entrants in the Designs for Town Planning category. His 1932 plans for Marine Park in Brooklyn, New York, featured ideas for yacht parking and various sites for sporting activities, as well as a 100,000-seat stadium.

Lay decided to submit his plans after being asked by the American Olympic Committee for material of a sports-related nature.

Upon his win, he remarked he was “very glad indeed” his drawings were a hit.

What makes Lay’s medal particularly remarkable is that his was the first medal given to an American during the Berlin Games, which were notorious for pro-Nazi propaganda. He would be one of the few medalists in the category overall, as it was open only from 1928 to 1948. The gold and bronze medal winners that year were, of course, German, a predictable outcome for a contest hosted by something called The Sports Office of the Third Reich.

Lay, who was born in Newburgh, New York in 1877, would have had a distinguished career even without the medal. The Harvard University graduate spent 44 years in New York, published a magazine titled Landscape Architecture, and set about a series of projects. His plan to plant 2500 cherry trees near Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan’s Sakura Park was implemented circa 1912; he also worked on Forest Park in Queens and for the New York City Department of Parks, lending his expertise to the city on how to best make use of public park property. Lay also had a hand in design for the 1939 World’s Fair and military bases during World War II. He died in 1956 at age 78.

As for why Lay seemed to break through a German-dominated field: The architect lived in Germany for a period of time to study their architecture and apparently picked up some tips that Olympic judges appreciated.

The Olympics of Town Planning didn’t necessarily consider whether something was ever implemented, which was a good thing for Lay. His plans for Marine Park would have cost an estimated $30 million to $50 million, so they never came to fruition. With the first section unveiled in 1939, the 430-acre parkland is now home to a golf course, baseball diamond, and other amenities. The 100,000-seat stadium didn't make the cut.