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September 20th, 2003, 09:34 PM
September 21, 2003


Olmsted Look Goes Beyond Central Park


IT took 10 million cartloads of soil from Long Island and New Jersey to create Central Park, the masterpiece of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, in New York City. It took Mr. Olmsted (1822-1903), as well as his partners and immediate successors, to create dozens of New Jersey's most notable parks.

The Olmsted parks in New York and New Jersey all contain signature combinations of rolling landscapes, curving drives, great lawns, dedicated recreation areas, and a variety of water features, like lakes and streams. But there is another, less tangible, thread that connects them. Kevin Moore, project director for the Weequahic Park Association, said all of Olmsted's parks were designed to foster a single ideal - the democratic use of open space.

That ideal is especially strong in Essex County, where there are 20 Olmsted parks, including two of the largest, Branch Brook and Weequahic in Newark. Others are sprinkled throughout the state. Warinanco Park, in Roselle, is a later example of the firm's work, and Cadwalader Park in Trenton is the only New Jersey park designed by Mr. Olmsted himself. All four continue to provide the urban oases envisioned by the designers, while evolving to meet the needs of surrounding communities.

Where Cherries Bloom

Tranquil Branch Brook Park, on Newark's western edge, was not always so peaceful. In the 1860's, New Jersey infantry regiments drilled in the park's southern end, near the present-day lake. Now one of Branch Brook's most dramatic vistas is the view from the old drill ground across the water to the rose window of the neighboring Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Designed and built between 1898 and 1911, Branch Brook is the oldest of Essex County's 26 parks. The original Olmsted design divided the 360-acre parcel into three distinct areas. A reservoir, lake and formal gardens dominated the south portion, gradually giving way to the middle section with its ball fields and recreation spaces. The park's northern area was designed in a naturalistic style with dense gardens and smaller bodies of water.

Most New Jersey residents know Branch Brook Park for one thing - the 2,700 cherry trees that bloom for approximately two weeks each spring, attracting thousands of visitors. The trees, donated in 1927 by wealthy Newark families, were not part of the original Olmsted design, but they have become a symbol of the park. The much-loved "Prudential Lions," statues that were once in front of Newark's Prudential Life Insurance Building, were installed on the west shore of the lake in 1959.

Faye Harwell, a Virginia-based landscape architect who has worked with the nonprofit Branch Brook Park Alliance, said that though a skating rink has replaced the reservoir, many elements of the original Olmsted plan are unchanged, especially in the middle and northern sections. The entire park, she said, remains "a magnet for the people of Newark."

The Alliance itself represents change in Branch Brook Park. The four-year-old organization was founded to raise public awareness and money needed for park restoration and preservation. Now the group has joined with the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs to create a cultural landscape management plan to guide future restoration and preservation efforts. Eline Maxwell, executive director of the alliance, said that a number of projects were on the drawing board, including revitalization of the lake, the return of pleasure boating, restoration of ball fields and replacement of trees lost to old age and disease. But the group's most important goal, Ms. Maxwell said, is to reinforce the bonds between the park and the community. "We want to reacquaint people with the park," she added.

A Younger Park

Warinanco Park in Elizabeth, dedicated in 1924, is young by Olmsted standards. The layout of the 204-acre tract features many of Olmsted's trademark curves and rounded shapes, including winding walking paths. The lake, soon to be dredged and restored, meanders like a wide stream

Deborah P. Scanlon, the chairman of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, said that the county has maintained most of Warinanco Park's original design elements, while making some changes to meet the needs of new generations of users. The bridle path was removed when horses became a rarity in the park, and outdated spectator stands near one of the ball fields have also been replaced with new ones. The handful of athletic fields included in the original design has been expanded, bringing the total to 11. Charles Sigmund, director of parks and recreation for Union County, said that the park's skating center, open from October to March, was added during the 1960's.

Though most of Warinanco's space is devoted to grass and trees, the park also features the Henry Summers Chatfield Garden, an octagonal space that the designers set in the middle of the rolling expanse. Bounded by clipped yew hedges and short stretches of white picket fence, the plot is full of impeccably maintained beds of colorful spring-flowering bulbs and summer-flowering annuals.

Mr. Sigmund said that his department has put in new trees when age or disease have made it necessary to remove older ones. "We plant two trees for every one that we remove," he said.

100 Years and Counting

The trees are magnificent in Cadwalader Park in Trenton. Huge old oaks, mature copper beeches and tall sycamores with trunks of peeling camouflage-colored bark are among the specimens that dominate Cadwalader, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Designed by Mr. Olmsted near the end of his career, the park is bounded on one side by the historic Delaware and Raritan Canal.

"Cadwalader Park is special because of the topography, the canal, and the streams and ravines both east and west of it," said Randy Baum, landscape architect for Trenton's Division of Natural Resources. Mr. Baum also praised the park's great lawns. "You can get lost in the park and not think you're in the city of Trenton," he said. Most of the original design elements, Mr. Baum said, have remained intact over the course of the century.

Cadwalader Park is dominated by Ellarslie, an Italianate mansion built in 1848 that now contains Trenton's City Museum. At various times before and after the park's creation, Ellarslie was a private residence, a restaurant and surprisingly, home to the monkeys that were among several species of animals kept on the grounds. Deer still occupy a paddock on the park's west side, and the remnants of an old bear pit are visible near Ellarslie.

The Division of Natural Resources has already initiated components of a master plan that include an analysis of the tree canopy, a survey of the historic buildings, realignment of park roads and a planting plan. Mr. Baum said that an advocacy organization, now in its infancy and as yet unnamed, will help to raise the funds necessary to keep Olmsted's vision alive in Cadwalader Park.

Trotters Yield to Joggers

Nearly 60 years ago, trotting horses raced around an oval inside a stadium in Newark's 311-acre Weequahic Park. The horses are long gone and the stadium was demolished several years ago, but Joe White, a Newark native who is now the public information officer for the Weequahic Park Association, still remembers the excitement generated in the space.

Now, park visitors walk or jog on a different track that rings the park's lake. Mr. White, who ran on the park's winding paths as a teenage athlete, said the new 2.2 mile track, installed two years ago, is the longest resilient track in the world. "People are on it from 4 a.m. until after dark," he added.

The track project is part of a larger effort to restore Weequahic Park Lake and the ecology of the park as a whole, a process that the association hopes will ultimately involve the entire surrounding community. "We want to develop the next generation of urban environmental voices," said Kevin Moore of the park association. This effort has also included developing a horticulture education and a job-training program for residents of a nearby halfway house, and working with the Newark public school district to create "environmentally sensitive after-school programs."

Mr. Moore, who referred to Weequahic as "the lungs of the community," linked the health of the park to the physical, mental and financial health of Newark's residents. "Everyone needs a sense of place," he said, "And we are working to let people know what kind of place Weequahic Park is."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company