Part 8 of 10: Changes in the Parks
Utica's parks have been an evolving landscape reflecting the changing times
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.
Conkling Park Map Circa 1910
This shows how Conkling Park was originally designed and therefore how it has changed over the past 110 years, as some roads and buildings that were part of the original design have disappeared through either neglect or conscious choice.
Conkling Park, Area of Change 1
Conkling Park, Area of Change 1—part of the southwestern section of the park as it appeared in 1909. “The Plateau” has been the site of the statue known as “The Eagle,” by Charles Keck, since 1923 (Keck also designed exterior relief sculptures on the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a statue of Father Duffy in the center of Times Square, and a number of other celebrated sculptures). At least one of the looping roads to the left and the road that led down to the Parkway (toward the top of this picture) have disappeared, as has the area of the park called “The Maples,” which was located approximately where the Parkway Recreation stands today.
Conkling Park, Area of Change 2
This is the northeastern end of Roscoe Conkling Park, at the corner of the Parkway and Valley View Road, as it appeared in 1909. Note two roads that loop up from the top of the illustration, off the Parkway. The one by The Hemlocks, at far right, has disappeared (and the correspondence between Olmsted and the Utica Parks Commission in the second decade of the twentieth century suggests that Olmsted never wanted this road anyhow). The road to the left still exists; its entrance is on the Parkway, just past the entrance to the Utica Zoo, and it loops up (by the spot identified as "The Crossings")to a parking area that still offers a beautiful view of the golf course, reservoirs, and the eastern hills of Utica.
Conkling Park, Area of Change 2
Conkling Park, Area of Change 2— the eastern part of the park, at the intersection of the Parkway and Valley View Road, as it appears today. Master Garden Road, leading up from the Parkway, Steele Hill Road, and what is now known as Utica Zoo Way are all parts of the original Olmsted design, as is the viewing area over looking the reservoirs and what is now the Valley View Golf Course.
Conkling Park, Area of Change 3
This depicts what would eventually become the northwestern corner of Roscoe Conkling Park, at the intersection of Oneida Street and the Parkway, as it appeared when the park opened in 1909. At that point, this part of the park was still private property, the Jewett Farm. Thomas R.Proctor purchased it and donated it as an addition to Conkling Park, and he did so in the hope that it would provide a space at which people could pursue summer and winter sports. Today, the lower part of this parcel is occupied by the municipal tennis courts.
Conkling Park, Area of Change 3
Conkling Park, Area of Change 3—the western corner of Conkling Park, at the corner of the Parkway and Oneida Street, as it appears today. This corner, up to the site of the present Parkway Recreation Center on the east side and up to New Forest Cemetery (along Oneida Street) on the south side, was the Jewett farm. Thomas R. Proctor purchased the farm and donated as an addition to Conkling Park in 1913 with the hope that it would provide a site for skating and other summer and winter sports.
Olmsted’s design for the “Lily Pond” in F.T. Proctor Park, an iconic part of the park that still exists.
Postcard of the park’s first two bears.
In 1923, the zoo had to install extra mesh fencing (barely visible in this postcard of the park’s first two bears, “Paint Up” and “Clean Up”) to stop visitors from harassing the animals.
Trough for watering horses in the Switchbacks
Trough for watering horses in the Switchbacks, the zig-zagging roads in the South Woods section of Roscoe Conkling Park (circa 1920).
A Mystery in The Switchbacks
This old structure in the upper section of the Switchbacks is thought to be the foundation of a watering trough similar to the one in the previous photo located in the lower part of the Switchbacks.
Works Progress Administration
The federal Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that put unemployed men to work in Utica during the Great Depression, carried out an impressive array of projects (mostly improvements) in Utica’s Olmsted park system.
The Park Bathhouses
The Utica City Engineer's Office designed a set of two "comfort stations"--later known as "bathhouses"--in each of Utica's three Olmsted-designed parks. These structures were built for the City by the WPA during the late 1930s. Although they were not original features, they were constructed with rough stone, which was consistent with the Olmsted family preference for stone structures in the parks they designed.
The Lily Pond as it appears today. In the background one of the park’s two Depression-era bathhouses can be seen.
Fireplace in Roscoe Conkling Park
One of the fireplaces the WPA built in the South Woods/Switchbacks section of Roscoe Conkling Park during the 1930s. None of the fireplaces is today functional, and making fires in the park is now forbidden. They remain in semi-ruined state as picturesque reminders of another era.
The lower level of F.T. Proctor Park
The lower level of F.T. Proctor Park showing the location of its two original ponds, both in the park’s lower level. The pond at the top of this drawing involved an expansion of the Starch Factory Creek to create a moat, an island, and a dam. This pond and the pond at the lower left of this drawing (which was located near the ravine created by a stream that feeds into the creek) were eliminated by the WPA during the 1930s as part of a flood prevention program. Nevertheless, the spring that fed the lower pond is alive and well, and part of the old moat that created the island in the second pond (specifically an area near the word “proposed” in this drawing) still exists, on the other side of the creek.
F. T. Proctor -- Lost Pond 1 (west end)
Lost Pond 1—the west end (facing in the direction of Lily Pond and the Rutger Street parking lot), as you would have seen it while walking into the lower level from the Lily Pond. To control flooding, the WPA eliminated the pond and the moat it created around the island to the right (and therefore the island itself), and it also walled in and straightened parts of the creek. The bridge in this picture and at least one more like it was removed, as it had lapsed into a bad state of repair, and it was replaced by a stone bridge further to the east (one of two WPA bridges recently restored by the Conservancy).
F.T. Proctor Park -- Lost Pond 1 (east end)
The east end (facing in the direction of Bleecker Street), on the lower level of the park. Olmsted designed this feature by damming part of the Starch Factory Creek (as shown here), layering Pennsylvania slate on each side of the dam to create the illusion that the falls had been created over time by erosion, building a white latticework bridge, and widening the creek slightly to the west to create a pond.
Lost Pond 2
Lost Pond 2—this pond was also located in the lower level of F.T. Proctor Park, adjacent to the road that runs next to the creek. This pond was filled in by the WPA during the 1930s. The circular neoclassical gazebo in the back had fallen into neglect by the 1930s and was removed, along with the original lattice-work bridges over the creek, by the WPA.