By Jennifer Demeritt
Photography by Doug Young | April 1, 2015 | Lifestyle
Karen May and Anne Harrison spearhead one of the city's best known society events—the Central Park Conservancy's famous "Hat Luncheon." At the new Tavern on the Green, the site of the first luncheon over 30 years ago, they discuss the glamorous gathering, how it grew, and what it means for the park.
Anne Harrison (left) and Karen May at Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Anne Harrison and Karen May met while volunteering for the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy, whose mission is to maintain the city’s landmark urban park. (The Conservancy is responsible for 75 percent of the park’s operating budget.) Today, May is president of the Women’s Committee Board of Directors and Harrison sits on the President’s Council. As organizers of the annual Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon (nicknamed the “Hat Luncheon”), they’ve helped raise millions of dollars for the park, while overseeing one of the city’s marquee society events. In early May each year more than a thousand well-heeled donors flock to the park’s Conservatory Garden, decked out in Ascot-worthy millinery. During a recent lunch at Tavern on the Green (the restaurant recently underwent a renovation and has a new menu from acclaimed chef Jeremiah Tower), which hosted the first luncheon in 1983, they talked about the CPC’s history and how they’re working to carry Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision into the future.
KAREN MAY: When they restored the restaurant, the theme was to connect it back to the park. People used to ride horses out here—they’d tie up their horse, come inside, and have a drink.
ANNE HARRISON: Before that, it was a home to shepherds.
KM: Now [with the redesign], it’s like, let’s take Tavern on the Green back to what it was really like. Previously, they kept adding and adding, so they peeled it away…
[The waiter brings a Cobb salad with tarragon chicken, blue cheese, and duck eggs for Anne; the cave-aged Gruyère and ham toasted sandwich for Karen]
Lunch included Domaine d’Eole rosé and Cobb salad, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
AH: This salad can feed a group! It’s beautiful, and I’m happy to share. Isn’t that so pretty?
KM: Mine looks really good.
[They raise their glasses for a toast]
AH: You and I met through the Conservancy. That’s one of the pluses of the Women’s Committee. I joined the board in 1994, and you joined in 2008.
KM: We’re both Southerners, so we immediately had a rapport.
AH: The Hat Luncheon started in 1983, and it was actually here at Tavern on the Green. We had about 300 people attend and raised $175,000 dollars. So fast-forward—last year we raised $3.5 million and had 1,300 people attend. It’s our largest fundraiser.
The CPC’s annual fundraising luncheon features fabulous hats and a spring menu.
AH: And we take our food very seriously.
KM: We love to create a meal that’s visually lovely and springlike. We have often served a green or orange soup as our first course, which looks so pretty on the tables, which are draped in beautiful tablecloths designed just for this luncheon.
AH: We always have two signature specialty drinks. Last year we served a ruby raspberry Bellini and a cucumber ginger margarita.
KM: The hats are their own story. There are funny hats and beautiful hats, and every year people do hats that are topical. When Mayor Bloomberg was the honoree, there was a woman with a top hat with little flags that said Bloomberg.
KM: Since the date of the luncheon is when most things are in bloom in the Conservatory Garden, people come early to walk around. You’ve got flowers on the hats and flowers in the garden.
KM: And it’s a great opportunity for the committee to remind everyone that the Conservancy is a public/private partnership with the city. This year’s budget to run Central Park is $57 million. The private money raised by the CPC is $40 million, and the Women’s Committee raises $8 million of the $40 million. We’re very proud of that.
AH: One of the biggest reasons for outreach is to let people know that the city pays about 25 percent of the park’s budget and the CPC raises the rest.
KM: The park gets over 40 million visitors a year—more than the Taj Mahal, more than Times Square. That’s a challenge, maintaining a beautiful space for that many visitors a year.
[Dessert arrives: chocolate mousse with ginger cookies for Karen; raspberry tart with apricot glaze for Anne]
AH: I can’t wait to dig into this.
KM: Ginger is my favorite. This looks fabulous.
AH: A lot of people come to the reservoir to use the runner’s circle, so we’re finishing up that project. We’re also working on the entrance. Most visitors come in through the Columbus Circle entrance, so we’re making that easier and prettier.
KM: And we have an Adopt-A-Bench committee.
AH: The benches that have been endowed by people have plaques. My husband and I have two daughters, and they used to play on the Alice in Wonderland statue, so we bought a bench for them there. Now they’re 24 and 22, and they come back to visit their bench.
KM: People don’t realize that the park’s 850 acres [are home to] different kinds of landscapes—woodlands, ball fields, playgrounds—and maintaining them requires different kinds of expertise.
Anne Harrison and Karen May enjoyed a dessert of raspberry tart and chocolate mousse at the bar.
AH: It’s amazing, what the Conservancy has done since 1980. Central Park in the ’60s and ’70s was in terrible shape.
KM: New York City was almost broke.
AH: The Great Lawn was like a dust bowl. The Conservancy grew out of a dire need to take care of the park.
KM: The Sheep Meadow was another big open space that looked barren and sad. Now people take their trash out and the grass stays beautiful.
AH: People see how beautiful the park is now and they want to maintain it. So it’s been a very good story.
The Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon takes place May 6 at Conservatory Garden, Central Park, 105th Street and Fifth Ave.
opposite page: photography by Zach h/bFanyc.com (central park conservancy)