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

Park Place, looking west, Bedford Park on the right, 1907.

(Photograph: Bedford (now Brower) Park with the William Newton Adams House on the hill.)

Read Part 2 of this story.

By the middle of the 19th century, urban planners and the powers that be in government understood the importance of parks in the urban landscape. Parkland was important, and for many more reasons than just pretty grounds and flowers, or places where the well-to-do could promenade. Parks, and the recreation provided in them, were necessary to the well-being of the entire urban population, most especially the working poor, crowded into hot and close quarters in the tenements of the city.

In July of 1892, an article in the Brooklyn Eagle described the situation well. The headline read: “Brooklyn’s New Parks: Fresh air breathing spots for the people.” The article listed several new parks that were being built by the city. One of the most important new parks was Winthrop Park, which is now called Monsignor McGolrick Park, in Greenpoint. Building this park, according to Parks Commissioner George Brower, was vital to the people in the neighborhood, and illustrated the reason for Brooklyn’s small neighborhood parks.

“You have no idea how important these places are to the people,” the Commissioner told the reporter. “There is Winthrop Park, which is nearly completed. Why, just as soon as we threw it open, it was crowded, and families upon families took their pleasure in it. We had established a rule that it should be closed at 9 o’clock at night, but we found at that hour that there were so many people in it that it was almost cruel to drive them out, and so we allow them to stay an hour longer. You see, there are thousands of both sexes who do not get home from work until six o’clock, who later, when they have eaten their supper and changed their attire, cannot reach the park until almost 8, and we thought that to turn them out after only an hour’s enjoyment of these spots which have been selected and beautified for their sole enjoyment, would hardly be fair, and therefore we allow them to remain until 10 at night.”

The article goes on to describe Winthrop and Bushwick parks, as refuges for the masses living nearby in tenements. Ridgewood and Sunset Parks were praised for their topography and natural beauty, both of which allowed cooling breezes and rolling hills to define the parkland; features Commission Brower explained made them unique among Brooklyn’s parks. He emphasized that the parks would remain thus, and not leveled like formal gardens, that the natural beauty of the sites would make them some of the best parks in Brooklyn.

He especially was looking forward to Sunset Park, which was large enough to have a small lake, but cautioned that all of these new parks depended on the city spending the money to buy the land, and provide for the landscaping and upkeep that would make them what he and the Parks planners wanted them to be. His interview was really a sales pitch to the people to have their politicians support city parks. His next example was of a small park that was a great success, one that he felt was one of the city of Brooklyn’s finest small parks, and that was Bedford Park.

Bedford Park was already in limited use, when this interview was printed on July 7, 1892. The park had been open for a month or so for picnics and strolling, with special permission, but was soon to open to the general public. It was bordered by Park Place, Prospect Place, Brooklyn and Kingston Avenues, in a part of Bedford increasingly being called the St. Marks District, today, the center of Crown Heights North. It was unique in that there were mansions on one corner of the parkland, bordering St. Marks Avenue; in particular, the William Newton Adams House, which was at the time being used as a private sanitarium. Commissioner Brower said that when the lease for the sanitarium expired, the mansion would probably be torn down, and that land annexed to the park. In the meantime, the rent collected on the house would be used to pay for upkeep of the park.

Bedford Park soon became a very popular small park, partially on its own natural merits, and partially by association. Real estate, the eternal driving force of change in this city, was responsible for much of this. Bedford Park soon became a centerpiece in the sales pitches for new homes in the area. The Brooklyn Eagle has hundreds of real estate ads which use the park as a selling point for the building boom that took place in the last decade of the 19th century. Houses on Kingston Avenue, Park and Prospect Places, Brooklyn Avenue, and the new enclaves on Revere Place, Virginia and Hampton Places, all used their proximity to Bedford Park in their sales pitches.

And why not? The park was certainly a little gem. In September of 1894, an Eagle columnist declared, “The prettiest and probably the least known of the smaller parks of the city is the newest of them all – one in the 24th ward which has been named Bedford Park. It is in the heart of what is perhaps the prettiest residential section of the city, and is bounded by Park and Prospect Places, Brooklyn and Kingston Avenues. Unlike the other small parks, Bedford Park is not a level space in which trees and shrubberies are planted, with here and there a flower garden, which asphalt walks around it. There are quite a number of fine old trees distributed over the block, so that they form something like a grove. Then the center rises as so as to form an eminence, and although little or nothing in the way of landscape gardening has been done, it is, as has already been said, probably the prettiest park in the city.”

The park’s old growth trees provided natural shade, and curving pathways with benches were constructed amidst them. The rolling terrain provided natural interest and diversity, and the entire park was circled by a low iron fence. Unlike the Greenpoint or Bushwick parks, this park was not in a densely populated lower income neighborhood, this was a fine park in one of Brooklyn’s finest neighborhoods. Perhaps that is why when the lease for the William Newton Adams house was available in 1893, the city did not tear it down, as George Brower had predicted. The house was leased by the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Science, the organization now known as the Brooklyn Museum. The Academy obtained the lease of the large mansion which stood on top of the rise at the edge of the park, near St. Marks Avenue.

It was their intention to use the house as a temporary headquarters for some of their scientific departments while their brand new and grand facility was being built on Eastern Parkway. The organization had long ago outgrown their old facility on Washington Street, in Downtown Brooklyn. Soon, the departments of botany, geology, zoology, mineralogy, and entomology moved in, and began mounting exhibits, and sponsoring lectures for the public. The house was quite large, but it’s still hard to imagine how they fit all of that into that space. In 1894, they moved their library collection out of storage and put it up in the house as well, announcing that it would become a free lending library for the people. Bedford Park was becoming more important than ever. GMAP

Next time: The conclusion of the history of Bedford Park. Today we know it as Brower Park, named after its great champion, George Brower.

Park Place, looking west, Bedford Park on the right, 1907.

Photograph: nycgovparks.org

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