Part 4 of 10: Enter Olmsted
Thomas R. Proctor's vision realized - The creation of Utica's expansive park system.
Thomas R. Proctor decided to ignore the critics and not wait for the City of Utica to act. He owned an approximately 100-acre farm in East Utica at which he used to grow food for Bagg's Hotel, one of several hotels he had owned in Utica; having left the hotel business, he decided, as an experiment, to invite the public to use this farmland for recreation in 1899. Satisfied by the results of this experiment, the Proctor family donated two new parks to the people of Utica in 1907, both located west of Genesee Street (and neither designed by Olmsted): Addison Miller and Horatio Seymour Park (the latter is locally better known today as the home of Murnane Field). These were the first public steps toward realizing Proctor's dream of an elaborate system of parks and tree-lined boulevards in Utica. Indeed, both are located on Burrstone Road, which became an extension of the Parkway.
Proctor began quietly buying up farmland on Utica's southern border and corresponding in 1906 with Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who was rapidly becoming the most widely respected landscape architect in the US. In 1909, Proctor donated two additional, larger parks to the people of Utica, both designed by Olmsted: Roscoe Conkling Park, covering approximately 385 acres in South Utica, and Thomas R. Proctor Park, which was built on the 100 acres of former farmland in East Utica that Proctor had begun permitting the public to use informally as a park in 1899.
In addition to designing these two new parks for Proctor, Olmsted was also hired by the Chamber of Commerce to produce a report on Utica, which was published in 1908. It called (as had Proctor) for tree-lined boulevards, most notably on the city's east-west axis— the thoroughfare that would become known as the Parkway—and leading from downtown to Deerfield, to the immediate north of the city limits. City Hall was persuaded to build the Parkway using designs created by Olmsted. The Parkway was completed from Genesee Street to Elm Street in 1909 (the first two legs of the Parkway were built to mirror Pleasant Street, thus creating two identical, two-way roads, separated by a swath of parkland). The second leg of the Parkway was built from Elm to Mohawk Street in 1911, and the third was completed from Mohawk to Albany Street, where it converged with Culver Avenue, in 1919. Early newspaper accounts also spoke of Burrstone Road, westward from Genesee Street to York Street, as part of the Parkway, which was consistent with the vision laid out in Olmsted's 1908 report.
In 1913 Proctor added to Conkling Park by purchasing the Jewett Farm, which was located along Oneida Street. He also bought more land in East Utica, four blocks from T.R. Proctor Park, which he hired Olmsted (after initially hiring and then dispensing with a Buffalo-based architectural firm) to transform into the most beautiful but smallest park, at 62 acres, in Utica's Olmsted system: F.T. Proctor Park. Particularly notable about F.T. Proctor Park was its upper level (which is similar to the meadow in Central Park), cement-construction Lily Pond, and two naturalized ponds on the lower level, which were later removed (as will be discussed in Part 8 of this series).
A group of Italian immigrants had wanted to purchase that same property to create a park that they could have as their own. Although Proctor beat them to the punch, many would agree that F.T. Proctor Park nevertheless became Utica's Italian park, as so many Italian American families picnicked, swam, walked, and had wedding photos taken there for many decades.
An early Olmsted sketch of the Parkway, from Genesee Street (at right) to Elm, dated “11th July 1908”
Improving and Beautifying Utica
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., produced this 70-page report in 1908 for the Chamber of Commerce (at Proctor’s urging), which assessed public spaces, neighborhoods, and roads in Utica and advocated for careful planning for Utica’s future development that would include an elaborate system of tree-lined boulevards and parks around much of Utica, much of which was achieved.
The Proctors as Guests of Honor
Thomas R. Proctor is the bearded man in the left front, and further to the left, also on the platform, is his wife, Maria Watson Williams Proctor, beaming at him; at far right is Utica Mayor Thomas Wheeler. Behind the clergymen are Frederick T. Proctor (Thomas’ half-brother) and Frederick's wife, Rachel Watson Williams Proctor (Maria Proctor’s sister, in the white dress and hat).
The Switchbacks, the zig-zagging roads in the South Woods, a perennially popular section of Roscoe Conkling Park (circa 1945-50)
An early view of the second leg of the Parkway, built in 1909-11, near Elm Street (circa 1910-15).
The blueprint for the bandstand shown in this postcard will appear in Part 6 of this series.
Composite photo of the eastern reaches of the Parkway.
A view of the Parkway shortly after its initial construction and before the area was populated with homes (circa 1920).
Drawing depicting F.T. and T.R. Proctor Parks, Culver Avenue, and the Parkway near Sherman Drive
Commissioned by the City of Utica in 1934.
F.T. Proctor Park Gate (circa 1914-16)
F. T. Proctor Park was Thomas Proctor's his park-building masterpiece--in close collaboration, eventually, with Olmsted, whom Proctor brought into the project after initially employing a firm in Buffalo to assist him, to his dissatisfaction. This park was also his tribute to his younger half-brother, Frederick. For his part, Frederick suggested the design of an entry gate to the park, which was eventually built, albeit with some reservations from Olmsted.