Olmsted at 200: How a famous park designer left his mark on Montclair
By DARREN TOBIA
For Montclair Local
If you wander down into the meadow at Anderson Park, you feel somewhere farther away than Upper Montclair. That’s the magic of an Olmsted park — the illusion of a neverending countryside that anyone can enjoy.
The legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, who is being honored by the National Association for Olmsted Parks this year in the 200th anniversary of his birth, is not only the beauty of the parks he and his sons’ firm designed, but a philosophy that nature and public spaces should be available to anyone.
“A century ago, if you lived in a tenement neighborhood, you didn’t have access to a green space,” said Lisanne Renner, historian for the Friends of Anderson Park, which will celebrate the bicentennial with an event on May 14. Anderson is one of five Olmsted-designed county parks in Montclair — along with Glenfield and Brookdale parks, and the Mills and Eagle Rock reservations (which includes a portion in the township, though most of the land is in West Orange). “Olmsted wanted all people to be able to congregate in a healthy green space. That democratic idea is what these parks are all about.”
The municipal Edgemont Park also appeared in the firm’s project list, said Kathy Kauhl, archivist for the Essex County Parks Department, though she didn’t have other details on its involvement.
That conviction that parks should be for everyone was the driving force behind Manhattan’s Central Park, where Olmsted revolutionized park design by constructing paths for winding carriage rides through an urban forest, to give the visitor the impression of being in a Hudson River School painting.
Olmsted rose to fame in the 19th century, around the time Essex County was set to become the first county in the nation to create a park system. The park commissioners wanted Olmsted to design their parks, and he visited Newark to evaluate what would become Branch Brook Park, Kauhl said.
But in 1895, when the first plot of land was bought, Olmsted passed the torch to his two sons — John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. The two siblings would form the Olmsted Brothers firm, which would go on to design 20 Essex County parks, including Anderson and Branch Brook.
“While Olmsted retired in 1895, his sons carried on the firm’s visionary work and values, creating thousands of parks and other landscapes to give urban dwellers access to nature and to provide a space where all people could come together,” Dede Petri, president and CEO of National Association for Olmsted Parks, said.
The beauty of the Olmsted Brothers’ designs is more apparent in larger parks, like Branch Brook Park, where they could employ some of their father’s innovations. The Park Avenue bridge spans a roadway underneath that gives the passenger a ride uninterrupted by cross streets or lights. The dense woodlands in the northern half purposely conceal Newark’s city environment beyond its borders. The picturesque views near Newark’s Sacred Heart Cathedral can rival the sight of the San Remo towers from the lake in Central Park.
“Sight lines were important to the Olmsteds,” Kauhl said. “They liked the idea that you could come around a corner and discover some view or scenery.”
For Kauhl, there isn’t one quintessential Olmsted park in Montclair. All five bear the mark of their designers.
The rolling meadows and natural streams at Anderson Park and Glenfield Park were prominent in Olmsted designs. At Brookdale Park there is an even larger meadow, which the designers walled in with trees, giving visitors the feeling of being somewhere bucolic.
The two reservations, Mill and Eagle Rock, were left wild except for their overlooks of Manhattan. The Olmsteds intended to connect these parks and reservations with a series of “parkways,” or scenic boulevards. One of the few that remains is Park Avenue, which runs from Branch Brook Park to Llewelyn Park.
By the time Olmsted Brothers developed the Mills Reservation, founded in 1954, none of the family members were at their namesake firm. But that is not to say it shouldn’t be celebrated all the same, as it still encompasses the Olmsted spirit, Kauhl said.
“The goal of the National Association of Olmsted Parks, I think, is to take a renewed look at parks — even ones designed by other firms and to take a look at the democratizing value, the mental health value,” she said.
Not all of Montclair’s Olmsted parks, though, have aged gracefully. The bridges that span the brook at Glenfield Park were once stylish in typical Victorian fashion. Today, they are crumbling. Fallen trees block the pathways. The park is in a “severe state of disrepair,” Robert Crook, president of the Glenfield Park Conservancy, which formed about a year ago, said.
“Why has Glenfield Park not received the same funding and upkeep as Brookdale Park, Anderson Park, Verona Park, Watsessing Park or even Branch Brook Park? Only Essex County can answer that question,” said Crook. “Given the past two years of COVID, parks have been a place that residents have sought out to walk, run, and play to escape the solitude of being quarantined indoors.”
Crook has criticized the county for upkeep at Glenfield before, saying, for instance, overgrowth in the Glen area had gotten out of control and asking county officials to address it so PSE&G could replace lights that had been out of service for years. County commissioners last summer said they would have their professionals do what’s needed to get the lights back on.
Currently, a Little League and softball field is undergoing improvements, including turf replacements and lighting upgrades, Kyalo Mulumba, the commissioners’ spokesperson, said. Weather permitting, the project should be completed in mid-April, he said.
The county is also planning a 10,000 square foot replacement for the park’s Wally Choice Community Center, a spot used by youth programs and senior groups alike. That project would include the modernization of the park’s football field, with a synthetic grass surface and sports lighting.
“I think this will be the crown jewel of the county park system,” County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident, said late last year.
The county’s recreation department budget doesn’t have breakouts for specific parks, Mulumba said — just for overall maintenance.
Olmsted’s anniversary, for the residents of this historically Black neighborhood, is a reminder that his vision is never fully realized, Crook said.
“Everyone deserves a safe and maintained county park to use in their neighborhood, no matter where that neighborhood is located,” he said.
On April 7, from 7 to 8 p.m., Renner, the historian for the Friends of Anderson Park, will give a Zoom presentation for the Montclair History Center, “Olmsted’s Imprint on Montclair.”