After the great successes of New York City’s wonderful parks, such as Manhattan’s Central and Riverside Parks, as well as Brooklyn’s Prospect and Fort Greene Parks, every city in the country was envious.
Cities are judged by their public buildings and public spaces, and by the beginning of the 20th century, almost every municipality and its civic movers and shakers wanted to have exemplary parks. Parks were places that every citizen, high and low, could enjoy the beauties of nature, fresh air, and room to relax.
For many urban areas, that was key to a better quality of life and a happier populace. Thanks to the philosophies of the City Beautiful Movement, city fathers also thought that parks, like great public buildings, would inspire the lower classes to civic pride, and therefore industrious behavior, better citizenship and moral uplifting.
Parks were also a chance for city fathers, committee heads, wealthy donors, and ambitious landscape designers to shine. They all knew they were creating places that would live on after they were long gone.
Part One of our story outlines the creation of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It then goes on to the desire of the city of Troy to also have a fine naturalistic-style park. By the time plans were being made to do so, the city’s assistant civil engineer was a man named Garnet Douglass Baltimore.
A son of one of Troy’s most active Abolitionist families before the Civil War, he was the first African American to graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy’s famous science and engineering school. His family history and early career is also the topic of Part One of this story.
Troy already had several parks by the time the idea for a park on top of Mount Ida, the city’s highest point, was born. The city’s first park consisted of three lots given to the fledgling village of Troy by Jacob D. Vanderhayden in 1796, before the village was even officially incorporated.
Today, that park land makes up Seminary Park, in front of Russell Sage College, between First and Second Streets. By the turn of the 20th century, there were several other parks in town, as well as in Lansingburgh, but there was no one great park, like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A committee called the Citizen’s Association was formed to plan and then secure land for a great park for the city of Troy.
They ended up planning a large park in the northern part of the city, called North Park. That eventually became Frear Park, and was quite different that the original planned park. A South Park was planned for South Troy, joined by a scenic roadway, but never got beyond the talking stage.
Instead, the Committee decided to concentrate on the highest point in the city, on Mount Ida, a plateau where one could look out and see for miles around, as far away as Albany and the Catskills behind it, as well as across the Hudson to the towns there, as well as north, towards the Adirondack Mountains.
This was an incredible view and a great place for a park, but the land had always been in private hands. A house on top of the mountain had once belonged to the Wilson family, of Uncle Sam fame, and then had passed on to the Vail and Warren families, who built new and lovely suburban villas on the property, with wide welcoming porches so they too, could take in the stunning vistas.
By the turn of the century, the Warren family was ready to sell, and in 1901, the Troy Chamber of Commerce met to consider the plan to buy the land and establish a public park. The land was now called Warren Hill.
Some of Troy’s wealthiest and most powerful men sat on the committee to choose a park site. One of them noted that the city had never spent a dollar to improve its parks, and it was about time they did. He wanted to buy the Warren property, which he said was otherwise an eyesore to the city.
Others wanted to build parks elsewhere, and still others thought that the best use of city money was to improve the lands it already held, and not go out and buy more. Several of the committee men thought it was imperative to have a water feature in the park, and several of the other sites mentioned already had natural ponds. Warren Hill did not have a lake or pond. The debate raged on.
Garnet Baltimore sat in on these meetings, and he advocated for the Warren Hill property. He said it was in a central location and accessible to most people. It also had that incredible view. He had visited all of the proposed sites, and the Warren Hill location was the best, in his opinion, and could be improved to have whatever features it was lacking.
The danger of landslides was always in people’s minds, as dangerous slides had killed people in the past, but he thought that a wall could be constructed to take care of that problem.
He didn’t want the committee to rush to a decision, however. As a landscape engineer, he could deal with whatever they chose. He simply advised the committee that Troy proceed with building a new park.
The debate went on. Those were opposed were really opposed, and were very vocal to the press on that point. They felt the site cost too much to buy, and would be too costly to develop. One committeeman called the hill a 75 acre inaccessible sand pile, which he thought would probably come down on the city.
Another individual accused those who wanted to buy the Warren property as being secret agents for the Warren Estate. Personal remarks were made, apologized for, and then vociferously rebutted. Trojans have always been very good at this.
Several others wanted the city to have several new parks; a northern park for those in Lansingburgh and North Troy, a more central Warren Park, and a southern park for those in South Troy. Why did it have to be one or nothing, they asked?
Those who were concerned about the poor tended to advocate for the Warren Park. Rich people were not going to use the park that much, they argued. They left town in the summer, and didn’t visit the park when they were home.
Any city park needed to be for those of lesser means, so they could get out of the sweltering heat of the city in summer and enjoy nature’s bounty. The Warren Park site, high above the city, would be the ideal place to do this. In spite of this worthy argument, there was still one official who didn’t want any parks at all, anywhere, as he said they “were the gathering places of vagrants and hoodlums.”
In the end, in spite of the rancor and disagreement between all concerned, the measure was passed, and the city paid $110,000 for the Warren property on top of Mount Ida. The sum was considered a good deal, as the land had been appraised for $30,000 more several years before. After all of the costs were considered, the land surveyed, and more experts consulted, the city handed over a check to the Warren estate, and Warren Hill Park now belonged to Troy.
Garnet Baltimore was appointed the official landscape engineer for the park, and work began as soon as the ink on the deed dried. It would take many years to complete the park, which was opened before very much was even done. After dithering around, and arguing about the park for years, Troy was now fully committed to the park. The grand opening was planned for July 4th, 1902.
That day, bands and regiments marched, a large American flag was planted on top of the hill, there were fireworks, a cannon salute from across the river at the Watervliet Arsenal, and patriotic fervor all around.
The local paper editorialized, “The local celebration of the Fourth of July, with the flag raising in the new park on Warren Hill, stands for freedom. It means free air and free parks, and what boon of liberty is greater than to have the earth and the sky free?”
Garnet Baltimore had his work cut out for him. In preparation for transforming this former farm into a modern city park, he went on his own Grand Tour. He visited Central Park in Manhattan, the Bronx Zoological Gardens and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He also toured the city parks in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island.
He noted in a report he prepared for Troy’s officials that the popularity of the parks in these cities were enhanced by opportunities for music, boating, tennis, croquet, and other activities. He also noted that the best of these parks allowed nature to be nature, only subtlety and masterfully guided by the hand of man.
He wrote in his 1903 Report of the Landscape Engineer on the Parks Systems of Various Municipalities “It is the calling and duty of the Landscape Engineer to devise ways of arranging land and its
accompanying landscape so that whatever the particular purpose in view may be, the result shall be as thoroughly beautiful as possible.”
Of course, that meant that he needed money and staff to do the job. Baltimore filed several reports asking for the staff and money to get the job done as quickly as possible so that people could enjoy the park.
Unfortunately, from a logistics standpoint, people were already up in the park from the very beginning. The old Warren and Vail villas on the property had been appropriated into the park.
The Vail house was now called “the Casino,” and was a refreshment stand and respite station. The Warren house, a beautiful Carpenter Gothic mansion designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, was renamed “the Cottage,” and was used as a museum and school.
The city had just thrown open the doors to the Casino, without any improvements or modifications. Baltimore was not pleased. He wanted the Casino closed until it could be modified and fixed up. He noted in a report that he didn’t want any part of the park to look shoddy and substandard, and the Casino was a mess. This was just the beginning of a long process in turning Warren Hill Park into Prospect Park. The story will conclude next time.
A great deal of my research on the park itself came from four expansive articles penned by the great Troy historian Don Rittner. They can be found on his Times-Union blog linked here. They are worth taking the time to read in full, as they are chock full of information well told, with lots of illustrations.
(Postcard of Prospect Park, Troy)