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Part 8 of 10: Changes in the Parks

Utica's parks have been an evolving landscape reflecting the changing times

Bathhouses in F.T. Proctor Park; the WPA built identical structures in T.R. Proctor and Conkling parks.  The Olmsteds typically built few structures in their parks, but when they built, they favored using natural stone.

The Parkway wasn't the only aspect of the original Olmsted design that was altered over the past century.  During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency created during the New Deal to put the unemployed to work, carried out several projects to upgrade Utica's Olmsted system.  WPA workers paved many miles of roads in the parks and built the six iconic "bathhouses" that served for many decades as restrooms in all three parks.  The WPA also built the stone fireplaces in Conkling's Switchbacks, a bandstand near the Parkway, and new Parkway tennis courts.

Hoping to reduce flooding along the Starch Factory Creek, the WPA straightened the creek and lined it with stone walls through T.R. and F.T. Proctor parks.  The WPA also eliminated two ponds that were central to F.T. Proctor Park's original design, both in the park's lower level.  The first pond had been built into the creek, and perhaps its elimination was needed to diminish seasonal flooding.  However, the second pond, also in the lower level of the park, was fed by a natural spring that continues to this day to generate water, so the field where this second pond was located in the lower level is boggy much of any given year, and water pools there at times.  It's debatable whether the elimination of this second pond accomplished much good, and it deprived visitors of what used to be one of the most picturesque elements in Utica's system.

The largest alterations occurred in Conkling park, which was originally organized around several focal points.  First, there was the Plateau, which has been dominated since 1923 by the Eagle statue.   The other focal points consisted of a few buildings located around clusters of trees of certain varieties: "The Maples," located in the northwest, near the current Parkway Recreation Center; "The Hemlocks,"in the east, which occupied the area around where Valley View clubhouse and its parking lot were later built; "The Elms," located in the center-east of the park, near the small parking lot that overlooks the current golf course and reservoirs.

In 1916, the City announced it was going to create a golf course in the eastern part of Conkling Park, which was supposed to open on May 5, 1917.  With Thomas R. Proctor's approval, the main building at The Elms, overlooking the new course and the reservoirs, was designated to become the course's first club house.  However, the city's first golf course was not built until the mid-1920s (as will be discussed in Part 9 of this series).

In 1914, the Utica Zoo originated as a collection of deer imported into Conkling Park (these days, there is no need to import deer to Utica, as they openly wander across the southern part of the city, probably due to the elimination of their natural habitat by suburban development over the past 30-40 years).  By 1917, the zoo, which then occupied less than an acre of parkland, had also become home to bears, leopards, lynxes, pheasants, raccoons, and possums.  In 1923, the zoo had to install mesh over the bear cages to "prevent further disturbances between the animals and visitors who persist in aggravating the captives."  The City Parks Department ran the zoo until the early 1960s, when its care was turned over to a private nonprofit organization, which then pursued an ambitious program of expansion, including the creation of a Children's Zoo in 1967, the opening of which was marked by a visit by Marlin Perkins, host of the popular television show, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

Amidst these changes, some aspects of the original road system in Conkling Park also disappeared:  one road that looped westward from the Eagle, down the later ski hills, and then eastward, past the Maples (the Rec Center), ending near the current zoo entrance; another in the far northeastern corner, which was removed, evidently in the mid-1920s to make way for the golf course and the still later, in the early-1960s, for the Valley View clubhouse and parking lot; two smaller roads, one in the center-eastern part of the park and another immediately below where the Eagle is located.  Nevertheless, the layout of the surviving roads through the parks is fundamentally consistent with the Olmsted design.

In the late 1970s, 1980s, and 90s some of the most devastating changes came to Utica's Olmsted parks and parkway as a result of budget cuts and neglect.  The biggest loss occurred in F.T. Proctor Park, where dead and decaying trees lining the main loop were not replaced, much of the extensive system of stone staircases and walls collapsed, the iconic bathhouses became targets of vandalism, and the equally iconic Lily Pond was silted in and inoperable.  An arguably bigger loss occurred on the once-elegant north side of the creek, across the bridge from the lower level.  Olmsted designed a series of walking loops and carriageways in that part of the park, including a circle with a pillar topped by one of the "Proctor eagles" (the others being Charles Keck's Eagle statue in Conkling Park and the less well known Tiffany eagle atop the Bagg's memorial on Main Street).  The other side of the creek was also home to a cement pond like the Lily Pond, which has silted in and become filled with trees and shrubs.

The establishment of the Central New York Conservancy in 2002 began the slow process of turning around the neglect.  The Conservancy has restored the ruined stone staircases and walls and two historic WPA-era bridges in F.T. Proctor Park that were in danger of collapse.  It also restored the Swan Memorial fountain on Elm Street and began appropriately landscaping the Parkway.  And throughout the system, it began replacing dead and dying trees at the rate of 30-60 per year--all thanks to the generosity of its supporters.  A good working relationship with the City of Utica has also been beneficial to these beautiful historic parks, as was the City's decision to pedestrianize F.T. Proctor Park, which has made it more amenable to the many visitors who simply want to walk and enjoy nature.  Much work still needs to be done--notably, the north side of the Starch Factory Creek in F.T. Proctor Park remains a ruin few people choose to visit--but these are important steps forward, changes of a welcome and positive sort.