Part 1 of 10: Origins
Utica's park and parkway system originates in the American Rural Cemetery Movement, which began in the 1830s.
As strange as it might sound, Utica's park and parkway system originates in the American Rural Cemetery Movement, which began in the 1830s, as Northeastern towns and their simple cemeteries became overcrowded. The idea was not only to create new cemeteries, but to design ones that seemed more natural than traditional New England ones—even though these new "rural cemeteries" were actually architectural constructions of the human hand.
Forest Hill, the first cemetery of this sort in Central New York, was built in 1848-50. Its roads followed the natural contours of the landscape, it contained picturesque ponds, and it was decoratively planted with trees, flowers, and shrubs. In so many ways, it looked like what we'd today consider a park, and that is how many people used it—like a park.
However, developments in larger urban communities were already changing the American idea of what a first-class city should look like. As Manhattan's population grew by leaps, it offered fewer and fewer open green spaces for its increasingly crowded population. In the 1840s talk began in Manhattan of creating a large park at least generally comparable to the great parks of Europe.
In 1858, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., won a competition to design this grand new park for Manhattan. Their approach was to create something much like the rural cemeteries that had gained popularity in the preceding decades: they designed Central Park to mimic nature, with trees and other plants scattered in irregular and apparently random ways, and trails designed seemingly to fit the natural contours of the land (in reality, they rebuilt parts of the existing landscape to make it look as they wanted it to look).
Central Park was unlike most European urban parks, in which paths, trees, and flower beds (containing showy, often exotic plants), were laid out along symmetrical and geometric patterns--that is, in ways that made it very clear that such European parks were human creations. In designing Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux created a new model for American urban living. They also helped to pave the way for what is known as the City Beautiful movement, which also inspired the creation of Utica's park and parkway system.
Forest Hill Cemetery
Forest Hill Cemetery (adjacent to Roscoe Conkling Park), the park-like "rural cemetery" that was the local precursor to Utica's Olmsted park and parkway system.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903)
Olmsted, Sr., and Calvert Vaux created New York's Central Park. Olmsted went on to design or (with Vaux) co-design parks across the United States. He did perhaps more than any individual to define what an American urban park should look like and to establish the notion that a first-class city should have such a park (or, better yet, a system of such parks, as he built in Buffalo and Louisville). In the late 1890s, he retired and turned his business over to his two sons, John Charles (1852-1920) and Frederick Law, Jr. (1870-1957), who renamed it Olmsted Brothers, which remained in business until the year 2000 (having been originally established by Olmsted, Sr., in 1858).
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870-1957)
Olmsted, Jr., apprenticed with his father and went into partnership with his brother, John Charles, after their father's retirement. Their firm, Olmsted Brothers, was based in Brookline, Massachusetts. Although John Charles was an accomplished architect, his younger brother, Olmsted, Jr., was very much his father's successor, and he became a figure of great prominence in his field until his retirement in the late 1940s. Olmsted, Jr.'s accomplishments were many and comparable to those of his distinguished father: at the invitation of FDR, he devised the landscape design still used at the White House; he was largely responsible for the creation of the National Mall in Washington; he was a driving force behind the creation of the National Park Service; designed suburban-style urban neighborhoods (including several in Utica); he wrote a number of pioneering urban development studies (including one for Utica, in 1908). Between them, father and sons, the Olmsteds were a dominant force in the field of American landscape architecture for nearly a century.
Forest Hill Cemetery
In 1848-50, Forest Hills became the first "rural cemetery" in Central New York. Its roads followed the natural contours of the landscape, it contained picturesque ponds, and it was decoratively planted with trees and shrubs. In so many ways, it looked like what we’d today consider a park, and that is how many people used it—like a park.
Early Utica, by the English artist W. H. Bartlett.
The intersection of Washington and Genesee Streets, as it appeared around 1838. At this time, Utica was home to around 8-9,000 people, and as this picture suggests, they were never too far from trees and the countryside.