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Throughout 2022, parks and natural areas across the United States have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. Olmsted, who lived from 1822 to 1903, was an innovator and regarded as the “Father” of American landscape design. Parks, grounds and private properties all over the country look the way they do thanks to his approach of using the land to suit the needs of the people.
Essex County, New Jersey, is home to the nation’s oldest county park system. Established in 1895, the Essex County Park Commission was tasked with creating public lands for one of the state’s most densely populated, most urban and most industrialized areas. The original commissioners knew that time was of the essence to acquire parklands, as any available property was being gobbled up for residential or industrial use.
When the Essex County Park Commission was created, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. had reached his retirement. While he had visited the area much earlier in his career (in the late 1860s), he was not personally involved with the design of Essex County’s parks. However, he had created a landscape architecture firm that was continued by his two sons: John Charles and Frederick Jr. This company, the Olmsted Brothers firm, designed 16 of the 31 parks that comprise the Essex County park system today.
The Olmsted Brothers firm continued Frederick Sr.’s landscape design philosophy for decades after the founder’s retirement and later death. Their work can be found throughout the United States, including 40 different properties in New Jersey alone. Essex County, while not the largest county in the state, is home to a wide range of different types of Olmsted parks, giving patrons the ability to experience just how vast and varied the talents of the company, based on Frederick Sr.’s philosophy, could be.
Essex County contains several examples of Olmsted’s vision through urban parks, suburban parks and nature reservations.
As previously stated, Essex County is one of the most urbanized counties in the state. There are at least six municipalities that are categorized as cities, including Newark, one of the largest and most populous cities in New Jersey. During the late 19th century, both established citizens from rural areas and newly arrived immigrants from the processing center on Ellis Island came to Essex County in search of economic opportunities in the many factories and businesses located here. Different sections of cities, such as Newark, were packed with people with no access to fresh air and green space. This environment was not good for their physical or mental health, and Olmsted recognized this issue.
Now, scientific studies have proven that access to fresh air and green space results in healthier mental and physical outcomes for human beings. The Olmsteds knew this based on experience, observation and common sense. The urban parks that they developed suited the unique needs of the neighborhoods of those particular areas. Essex County boasts six such Olmsted parks: Irvington Park in Irvington; Monte Irvin Orange Park in Orange; and West Side, Riverbank, Vailsburg and Branch Brook Park in Newark. Riverbank, Vailsburg and Branch Brook Park also reflect the Olmsted design concepts of suitability, service and scenery.
Riverbank Park is one of the most heavily used parks in the Essex County system. This park was designed to provide neighborhood residents with facilities for active recreation rather than unused natural areas. However, it brought in nature through plantings of large trees for shade and small shrubs to prevent erosion. Riverbank Park also is the site of excellent examples of civic engagement for environmental justice, as its neighborhood residents protected it when it was threatened by overdevelopment to create a commercial baseball stadium and pollution through contaminated ground.
Vailsburg Park also is an excellent example of service to the community. Its very location was chosen so that it would be constructed on a site which, in 1917 (the date of its acquisition), was considered to be detrimental to the neighborhood. An amusement center located in this area was objectionable to many local residents. The creation of Vailsburg Park served the community more than a hundred years ago by creating a safe, useful space for local patrons. It continues that tradition today as it is modified to ensure that it meets the needs of people living in that area.
Branch Brook Park, the oldest park in the Essex County System, was established in 1897 and continued growing and evolving until its completion in the 1920s. Today, it stretches more than two miles through both Newark and Belleville. The Olmsteds, who were brought in after the original design firm did not meet the commissioners’ expectations, ingeniously used the concept of scenery throughout this park. This is one of the best examples of the Olmsted design philosophy of enhanced sense of space in in the county, with its indefinite boundaries constantly opening up to new views — particularly in the Middle Division, where patrons can experience playing fields, woodlands, a prairie and water features all in one section.
Outside of and adjacent to its major cities, Essex County also contains seven suburban parks designed by the Olmsted Brothers. Watsessing Park in Bloomfield, Yanticaw Park in Nutley, Verona Park in Verona, Belleville Park in Belleville, Grover Cleveland Park in Caldwell and Essex Fells, and Anderson and Glenfield Parks in Montclair bridge the gap between city and country to meet the needs of their neighborhoods just as the urban parks do. Additionally, there are excellent examples of the Olmsteds’ commitment to sanitation, style, subordination and separation in some of these parks.
Belleville Park shows the Olmsteds’ commitment to public sanitation. This park is an early example of urban rehabilitation where a formerly industrialized site was transformed into a natural site for the public. While the park still retains remnants of a former rock quarry that was on the site, it also boasts Olmsted design elements, including sweeping lawns, winding paths, and trees planted to divide the park into sections and to serve as a barrier from the noise of the surrounding street traffic.
Style was the guiding principle for the designs of Grover Cleveland Park. The location of this park, named for the U.S. president who was born in Caldwell, was chosen for its natural beauty and potential to provide space for relaxation. The Olmsteds were instructed to retain the natural areas, but also to develop plans that left large portions of the park usable for recreation purposes.
Originally called “Montclair Park,” Anderson Park is an excellent example of the Olmsteds’ understanding of subordination of the land for park purposes. Naturally, the land is low and swampy. However, the Olmsteds were able to drain the water to produce a usable area and created a landscaped park with shade trees and sprawling lawns. This is a quieter park and is used more for passive recreation activities, like walking and bird watching, meeting the unique needs of its home neighborhood.
Glenfield Park brings a bit of wildlife habitat into the bustling town of Montclair, an example of the landscape design philosophy of separation. Most of the Olmsted brothers’ designs for this park meet the community’s need for active recreation. However, the southeast corner includes a glen with natural stream vegetation. This area created a sanctuary for local wildlife, especially songbirds. The dense foliage around the stream also acts as a noise break between the park and the busy street beyond.
Additionally, the Olmsted Brothers designed three nature reservations for the Essex County Park system. A nature reservation is an area that has been set aside for the purpose of preserving certain animals and plants. Reservations are smaller than national parks and are specifically created for the protection of nature.
Eagle Rock Reservation is located in West Orange, Montclair and Verona. It was named after the rocky cliffs where bald eagles nest. It offers incredible views of the Manhattan and Newark skylines while still retaining its rugged, natural appearance.
South Mountain Reservation is located in Maplewood, Millburn and West Orange. It has been left primarily in its wild state and is one of the few parks that Frederick Sr. visited himself. He liked it and considered it some of the most beautiful and promising terrain he had ever seen.
What is now called Weequahic Park in Newark began its life as a reservation. Historically, the location of this park has been tied to lines of demarcation. Native Americans to the south of the park were part of the Raritan band of the Lenape tribe. The band to the north were the Hackensack. Additionally, the area was the dividing line between Essex County (Newark) and Union County (Elizabeth), agreed to by European settlers in the 1600s. The name of the park stems from the language of the Lenape, said to mean “the head of the cove.” The park originally was a wetlands; being preserved as a nature reservation with little park infrastructure made the most sense. However, the needs of the local community resulted in the Olmsted Brothers producing plans that developed the park more than a traditional reservation. What was one a “mosquito-ridden bog” was transformed into a park that holds the largest lake in the Essex County System, recreation facilities that meet the needs of its heavily populated area, and the first publc golf course in the country.
Essex County does not contain Olmsted examples of rural parks or parkways. There are no areas designated as “rural” in Essex County. Parkways in this context are defined as landscaped thoroughfares, primarily for pedestrian traffic. There had been plans drawn up by the Olmsted Brothers to create a “parkway” that stretched across the county and connected different parks; however, these plans never made it to fruition.
Thanks to the large Olmsted legacy in the Essex County Park System, the current 30 parks continue to be assets to their communities. While the current landscaping may not be exactly what the Olmsteds saw a century ago during the design phase, the spirit of their landscape architecture philosophy is kept alive as the parks adapt and evolve to meet the needs of their patrons.
To learn more about all the parks that are part of the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, visit essexcountyparks.org.
Maressa McFarlane is Records Support Tech and Grant Administrator for Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.