When businessman and philanthropist John F. Popp died in 1918, one of the first beneficiaries of his legacy was Audubon Park. His donation was to be used to “increase the recreative opportunities of the park for the benefit of the people” – a gift that created Popp Garden.
Planned and established at the same time as the zoo, the garden covered three acres close to Magazine Street. Within a few years, it became a popular and colorful outdoor destination featuring seasonal flowers cascading in a geometrical yet informal design. Dahlias, lupin, gladiola, plumbago, sunflowers, tulips, snapdragons, jasmine and many more covered the terraced garden. Hyams Fountain was added in 1921.
In 1922, Mr. Popp’s widow, Rebecca Grant Popp, donated $6,000 to create a memorial gateway to the gardens: brick and limestone walkways, benches and a large pedestal placed in the center with a plaque that reads “POPP GARDENS 1919.” The following year she donated the Diana statue and in 1924, the Odenheimer Aquarium opened in the Popp Garden.
Rebecca Popp was the largest individual donor ($7,000) to the Audubon natatorium (swimming pool) fund in 1926 and continued to make donations to improve and maintain the garden until her death in 1928. When the newspaper reported her death, they spoke of her great generosity, which had such a large impact on “the development of that beautiful uptown breathing place.” Some even referred to her as the Fairy Godmother of Audubon Park.
Improvements were made to the Popp Garden in the late 1930s and then again in 1970 after a period of deterioration. The Popp Garden is still there, as are the Diana statue and the pedestal plaque, though with a much smaller footprint after so many additions and improvements to Audubon Zoo.Diana of the Chase, a 1922 bronze sculpture by Diana Hyatt Huntington, was donated to the Popp Garden by Mrs. Rebecca Popp in 1923. Reported to have cost $25,000, the nine-foot-tall Diana was placed in the east garden, surrounded by roses and lilies. Noted for its unusual beauty, it took 1st place in the 1922 New York Academy of Design contest.