Walkabout: Brooklyn’s Small Parks: Tompkins Park, Part 1

Olmsted & Vaux’s plan for Tompkins Park. 1871. From savebedfordstuyvesant.org.

Read Part 2 of this story.

Prospect Park is famous for its landscaped vistas designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, but did you know they also designed Tompkins Park? This was one of Brooklyn’s first parks, and our story begins on June 17th, 1857, when the Common Council of the City of Brooklyn voted to open Tompkins Park, whose boundaries were Marcy, Tompkins, Lafayette, and Greene Avenues, in the growing neighborhood of Bedford. The Brooklyn Eagle noted that this was one of the fastest growing new areas in the city, and when the park was done, would be the location of some of the most desirable homes in Brooklyn. Back in those days, one didn’t just get the privilege of living across the street from a park, you had to pay for it, and the assessment for a lot next to the park would be $100, while those far from the park, but still in the ward, would be charged $4.75 per lot. The new park would take up seven acres.

One might think that this park was doomed from the start, as the Common Council lost the incorporation papers, which meant they had to postpone a hearing to fund the park for six months while they looked for them.

More time passed without much being done, and then, in 1870, the city moved control of all of the parks to the office of the new Parks Commission, led by James Stranahan, the first, and most influential of Brooklyn’s park commissioners. Unfortunately, when they did so, they left Tompkins Park off the list. By the time they figured that out, it was too late to get city money for that year, and nothing was done in the park until spring of 1871. The budget for the Parks Department for 1870 showed over $47,500 spent on Prospect Park; $5.00 on Tompkins Park.

Brooklyn didn’t have a lot of parks in 1871, perhaps five or six in all. The new Prospect Park was the biggie, the favorite of Commissioner Stranahan, who worked miracles getting it funded, designed and built, and by this time, parts of it were still unfinished. It officially opened in 1873. Much of the city’s budget for parks was going to Prospect Park. The oldest, and formerly largest park in Brooklyn was Washington Park, renamed Fort Greene Park in 1897. It had been proposed in 1845, and was completed in 1850. The park was the site of the Martyrs’ Tomb, the final resting place of thousands of prisoners who died in British hands aboard prison ships in Wallabout Bay during the Revolutionary War.

This was not only a favorite site for strolling and enjoying nature’s beauty, it was sacred ground, and many felt that Stranahan was ignoring Washington Park in order to complete his pet Prospect Park project. In 1871, when the fledgling Tompkins Park received more funding than the Martyrs’ Tomb did, because it hadn’t gotten any money the year before, the Brooklyn Eagle received letters of protest from many corners, most of them demanding that the sacred ground of Martyrs’ Tomb be tended properly. Tompkins Park became a convenient scapegoat for these angry Brooklyn patriots. But Commissioner Stranahan, who lasted in his job for 22 years, longer than any park commissioner since, was pretty thick skinned, and took it all in stride.

Tompkins Park, like Tompkins Avenue, the street that runs along its eastern border, was named for Daniel D. Tompkins, an ardent abolitionist who served as New York’s governor for four terms, from 1807 to 1817. He was also vice president of the United States for two terms under James Monroe, from 1817 to 1825. In 1871, Commissioner Stranahan commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to submit a plan for Tompkins Park. In addition to Central Park in Manhattan, and Prospect Park, in 1867, the duo had also taken on the redesign of Washington Park. New York City’s parks had proved to be quite good to them, although Olmsted and Vaux broke up their partnership after Prospect Park was opened, in 1873.

Tompkins Park was not a large work, but they planned every inch of the park in a plan submitted in 1871. Their park was extremely symmetrical, with precise formal walkways, with a patterned grouping of shrubs and flowered borders. It was claimed that trees and winding walks would invite the wrong element into the park. The park would then be used “for clandestine purposes by people of bad character.” At this time, the park served as a public square, used for little else than public ceremonies and military reviews.

But in spite of that, the park was eagerly embraced and used. The Eagle mentions the Tompkins Park Croquet Club on several occasions in 1875, and later that year, the alderman for the district proposed to the Parks Commission that paths be laid through the middle of the park, so people could walk through it easily. Commissioner Stranahan took a very dim view of this, saying that a path only benefitted the “indolent people” looking for a shortcut. He wanted the park to remain as it was, a safe playground for nurses and their charges, not, as the paper put it, “an inducement for loafers to congregate there and squat themselves on the grass.”

Three years later, the same Alderman Fisher proposed and received a new shelter for the park, a large building which would accommodate ladies and children, with rest rooms and dressing rooms for the ladies, a live-in apartment for an attendant, and room to store croquet equipment and picnic baskets. There would also be a verandah for the ladies and children to rest out of the sun. This shelter would be especially popular with the many croquet parties which took place in the park.

Meanwhile, as the years passed, the Tompkins Park neighborhood was being built up, with homes and churches on the blocks bordering the park. Lafayette Avenue was home to the mansions of several wealthy people, including Charles Froeb, a millionaire wine merchant turned banker, who had his mansion built at 671 Lafayette Avenue, in the middle of the block across from the park. A large church, the Puritan Congregational Church, stood on a large lot of the corner of Marcy and Lafayette, across from the park’s entrance. Large, rich looking, wide brownstone rowhouses were built on Lafayette, yet, oddly, most of the housing stock on the other side of the park, on Greene Avenue, is very ordinary. One would generally expect better on a park block.

The park was becoming a very popular gathering place for civic events, too. In 1879, the Eagle reported that the people of the 23rd and 29th wards celebrated the Fourth of July at the park. In an unintentionally amusing comment, the paper opined, “They had an old fashioned gathering, at which an oration, putting forth thoughts appropriate to the occasion, was made. It is a vast improvement upon the senseless Chinese custom of making the atmosphere stink with saltpeter; to assemble in a rational way and listen to music, hear the Declaration of Independence read, and attend to some intelligent gentleman while he points the moral, and adorns the tale of the struggle for Liberty made by the Fathers of the Republic.” Those Victorians really knew how to have fun. GMAP

Next time: A famous painter in the park; changes, a new name, and the 20th and 21st centuries for Tompkins Park.

(Above photo:nycgovparks.org)

Olmsted & Vaux’s plan for Tompkins Park. 1871. From savebedfordstuyvesant.org.

1886 map. New York Public Library.

Across from the park, Marcy Avenue at Lafayette Avenue. Froeb mansion is in center of the block at far right.

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