“These Men Were Prophets!”
On October 4, 1883 the following, small article appeared in the New York Times:
Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry, of Rochester, have offered to give that city 22 acres or land adjoining the Mount Hope distributing reservoir, with $2,000 worth of shade trees, for a public park, on condition that It be laid out and kept in order by Mr. Olmsted, the landscape gardener. The site is higher than any other ground in the vicinity and is approached by a number of pleasant streets leading directly from the heart of the city, and commands a broad view of the city, the lake and the Valley of the Genesee. The City now owns 42 acres of ground adjoining it. 1
Knowing that the Rochester of the time was still one of the fastest growing communities on the planet (as it was through-out the 19th century) and also that “The Flower City” lacked any sizeable public parks, from today’s vantage, we might expect to find that the generous intent of George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry was welcomed by Rochester’s political leaders and its general population. But Ellwanger & Barry’s gift was rejected. Four years later, members of Rochester’s Common Council maneavured to give another Ellwanger & Barry donation attempt another rejection , even while letting competitive offers to donate other important parcels near the heart of the city to languish until opportunity was lost.
It will surprise most present-day Rochesterians to learn that the Flower City of the <1870s and 1880s-> was extremely reluctant and backward in establishing public parks. Large expenditures on the water system, the sewers and streets, had created such a huge debt that many taxpayers opposed additional outlays. Moreover, the many tree-lined streets bordered by private lawns, a number of small neighborhood parks or squares, the easy accessibility of the shady and beautiful Mount Hope cemetery, and the facilities of several private amusement parks seemed to these folk quite sufficient for a city of 100,000 residents in 1885. Fortunately there were other citizens who cherished loftier aspirations for Rochester’s development and displayed greater confidence in its future. 2
Yes, as the 125th anniversary of the Rochester, & Monroe County’s Park System approaches, when we look back, we certainly might be surprised to find that the initial vision of our magnificent park system, starting with Highland Park itself, was shared by a relative few. In fact, that 1883 article in the Times, was not just a community news item, it was also a report from the front lines of a battle that lasted several decades in total. At times it appeared that battle was almost lost. So when we celebrate our parks, we really should give thanks to a group of relentless men who, over the years, kept the common good so much in focus, that they were finally able to outflank very powerful political forces. Many of these dedicated men are pictured above.
By the turn of the century, most Rochesterians and their elected officials had a far different view of the public’s needs for parks and recreational facility. And it was to that audience, which a “Veteran Reporter” addressed the following passionate summary of the long battle over parks which had just been fought by the proceeding generation…
The Rochester Park System, which is the glory and boast of our city to-day and the envy and admiration of visitors from distant parts of this country and Europe, is the achievement of persistent effort and unselfish zeal on the part of a group of patriotic citizens whose sole aim in their onerous labors was to provide pleasure and innocent diversion for the present and future generations, to add to the attractiveness of our beautiful city and by providing perpetual breathing places which might contribute to the moral uplifting, physical development and health of our inhabitants. The story of the origin and development of this park system is of deep interest to Rochesterians, containing as it does, many hitherto unpublished facts in regard to the early struggles of its champions, many of whom, have passed to the great beyond. It was not until 1888 that the efforts of these patriotic citizens to provide parks for Rochester met with Legislative sanction and authority granted for the organizing of a Board of Park Commissioners with power to acquire $300,000 for park purposes. This seemed like the crowning success of long effort to obtain a park system for Rochester. It was, however, only the entering wedge of unparalleled difficulties. For many years the park advocates had endeavored to mold public opinion in favor of the project but with small success. The people, for the most part, were opposed to the creation of parks, some from narrow minded reasons, such as fear of taxation and extravagant and useless expenditure in a city beautified by trees along its streets and many open spaces. Others regarded the creation of parks as a menace to the moral development of our youth. Others thought that the surrounding countryside afforded all the opportunities needed for the recreation of our people. Others—in the early eighties—-did not consider Rochester big enough to require a park system and gave no thought to the future when, as is the case now—our city became the center of enormous manufacturing and commercial activities having the greatest diversity of industries of any city of its size in the country. Others maintained that the advocates of a park system were actuated by selfish motives, or that they desired only to cater to the requirements of the rich. A vast number of people could not, or would not, realize that a group of our foremost citizens were acting solely for the benefit of the people at large and more particularly for the great army of industrials and work-a-day men, women and children who needed beautiful resorts in which to enjoy the delights of nature and breathe the pure air in seasons of respite from their daily toil. Yet this was exactly what the originators of the park system most earnestly desired. These men were prophets. Although Rochester was small and insignificant then compared with its present industrial and commercial development—they had the business experience and acumen to foretell the coming increase in our population. They foresaw the rapid influx of a cosmopolitan population crowded in tenements and congested streets—the building of countless factories, great blocks of business structures, colossal department stores, office buildings, theatres and hotels each contaminating the air with the foul gases of smoking chimneys and the health impairing effluvia of a vast sewage system to say nothing of the impurities arising from streets laden with mud and manure. The opposition to the park system was not confined to the general public,— it was expressed by the officials and the Common Council. No encouragement whatever was given by the municipal government at the outset of the park commissioners efforts. Under such conditions the reader may readily realize the disheartening difficulties the commissioners had to contend against in selecting the most desirable lands and putting them in condition for park purposes. 3
Some of the names that 1908’s “Veteran Reporter” then lists off the official records are familiar even today. Some still have monuments dedicated to them or institutions named after them within this city, many others do not..
The legislative act of 1888 was entitled “An Act to authorize the selection, location and acquiring of certain grounds for public parks and parkways in and near the City of Rochester and to provide for the maintenance and embellishment thereof.” The first section of,the Act reads: William C. Barry, Henry Bartholomay, James H. Brown, John Ewing Durand, George W. Elliott, James S. Graham, Halbert S. Greenleaf, John Greenwood, James W. Gillis, Henry F. Huntington, Joseph Cauffman, William S. Kimball, Matthias Kondolf, Bernard J. McQuaid, Edward M. Moore, George H. Newell, Daniel W. Powers, Mortimer F. Reynolds, Hiram W. Sibley, William See and Alfred Wright are hereby appointed commissioners of the parks, parkways and approaches thereto which may be created pursuant to the provisions of the Act with the name and style of commissioners. 3
On May 7, 2013 it will be 125 years since Rochester’s first Park’s Commission was formally empowered. I hope on that day ( if not sooner) you will join me in celebrating the success of the many local “Prophets” of our parks over time. For if you continue to follow their story in the cited references below, you’ll know that after 1888, Rochester’s Park Supporters faced years of skepticism, charges that the parks were becoming “White Elephants” and a Common Council which continually tried to undermine the whole concept of a separate park board.
The Board organized by electing Dr. E. M. Moore president in recognition of his having led the battle in behalf of parks. It then invited several landscape architects to examine the lands in and around Rochester, with a view to their adaptability for park purposes. From these architects it selected the elder Mr. Olmsted as its advisor.The statement that Dr. Moore had led the battle in behalf of parks is made advisedly, for in the early days there was much opposition to such a project. Many were opposed because they feared an advance in the tax rate; others dreaded lest parks might endanger the moral development of the youth; yet others thought them unnecessary, for was not the country all around us?
Thousands, in the early eighties, considered that Rochester was not large enough to be thinking of parks; and some even charged the advocates of a park system with selfish motives, or with the wish to cater only to the rich.
All this seems strange enough now; but twenty-five years ago there was bitter feeling on the subject, and it took men of courage as well as of foresight and of public spirit to champion the unpopular cause. At the City Hall a mass meeting was held to denounce the purchase of lands for parks. Even among city officials and in the Common Council there was at first no encouragement to the movement. Early in 1889, in fact, a resolution was introduced at a council meeting asking the legislature to repeal the Park Commission law, but it failed to pass. Wonder is sometimes expressed that the Park Commission is so large a body. The explanation is that it was necessary at the beginning, in order to secure confidence in the movement, to enlist actively in it representation of many different parts of the city and of many classes of the community. 4
But for the naysayers, the battle quickly turned as a the public increasingly was won over by the hard work and vision of the City’s first park commission, employees and designers. By 1890, there was a celebration in Highland Park as a grand Pavilion was dedicated to Rochester’s children. And in that year also the south slopes of Highland Park were planted with so many flowering shrubs that by 1897, 100 varieties of lilacs started blooming every spring. Lilac Sunday then started spontaneously among the public.
Rochester has now enjoyed its parks for an additional 120+ continuous years: Consider that time as a century’s worth of vindication for the men we should remember as Prophets of the Parks.
1 The New York Times Published October 5, 1883 © The New York Times
2 An Historical View of Rochester’s Parks and Playgrounds By Blake McKelvey in Rochester History Volume XI No.1 January 1949
3 The Origin and Development of Rochester’s Park System, by a Veteran Reporter. (Union & Adv. press, 1908, iIIust., 64 pages).
4 Rochester Park Commission:The 1911 Report, Rochester NY Dept of Parks
5 “Presentation – Ellwanger & Barry Memorial Pavilion Highland Park, Rochester, N. Y. Dedicated By Them To The Children Of Rochester,” Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County · Historic Monographs Collection