Tuesday, December 06, 2022
Barnum's Bridgeport, Construction and Development, Featured, Featured Article, Parks

Bridgeport’s Olmsted Parks

SEASIDE PARK

Seaside Park comprises two and one-half miles of gently curving shoreline on Long Island Sound. Long considered one of New England’s premier urban parks and Bridgeport’s “front yard,” it has an important place in the annals of American landscape and social history. For here is what is thought to be the very first of the waterfront “rural” parks, the forerunner of Chicago’s Grant and Lincoln Parks, Portland’s Eastern Promenade, Detroit’s Belle Isle, and all the great marine landscape designs that were to follow. It was also the first Olmsted park to be laid out after the initial triumphs of Central and Prospect Parks, and the last of the firm’s commissions to be laid out by the triumverate of Frederick Law Omsted, Calvert Vaux, and Egbert Viele.

Seaside was the brainchild of showman P.T. Barnum, who had chosen Bridgeport as his place of residence in 1846 and devoted considerable effort to developing along progressive lines. He wrote in his autobiography, “From the time when I first settled in Bridgeport and turned my attention to opening and beautifying new avenues, and doing whatever lay in my power to extend and improve that charming city, I was exceedingly anxious that public parks should be established….I dwelt upon the absurdity, almost criminality, that a beautiful city like Bridgeport, lying on the shore of a broad expanse of salt water, should so cage itself in, that not an inhabitant could approach the beach.” At the time Barnum was a daring innovator–only recently Americans had considered the shorefront a wasteland, a place of storms, insects, and pestilence that was home to the poorest of the poor and the most polluting of industries. The belief in the health-giving qualities of sea air and the delights of sea bathing were cutting edge indeed as Barnum formulated his bold plan.

Barnum advanced his idea in a series of Letters to the Editor of the local newspapers beginning in 1863. He procured much of the land himself–worn-out pastures farmers were happy to be rid of for $50 an acre–and talked other leading businessmen of the town into doing likewise. He advanced the concept of “profitable philanthropy:” donating parkland for the greater public good while retaining adjoining acreage that would accrue in value as desirable house lots as the park became a reality. By 1865 the entire peninsula between Bridgeport Harbor and the Fairfield town line at Division Street (soon to be renamed Park Avenue) was secured. The City accepted the gift and created a Parks Commission. Spurning men of lesser abilities, the commissioners at once sent for the men responsible for the new parks in New York and Brooklyn that were the talk of the nation.

The shorefront of this tract comprised an eroding bluff with a morass of boulders and rocks at its base. Civil engineer Viele set to work designing a sea wall at the water’s edge that would deflect storm damage and support a shoreline drive. Inland was a wooded area that contained good specimens of oaks, hickories, and tulip trees. Christened the “Sea Grove” by Olmsted and Vaux, this area was thinned to frame vistas of the Sound and curved carriageways were laid out eminating from a rise of land designated as the location as a memorial to the Civil War dead. A plaza at the foot of Main and Broad Streets would welcome visitors from the terminus of the street railway, and a grand formal entrance was projected at the foot of Park Avenue.

The original 44 acres of the park grew over time to a total of 375 acres today. By 1876 a dyke extended west to Iranistan Avenue and a salt marsh became a polder with “Mirror Lake” at its center for drainage. A trotting park was laid out around its periphery. In 1884 Barnum Dyke created another polder and extended the park another half-mile westward. Finally, in 1911, Fayerweather Island at the mouth of Black Rock Harbor was acquired, and a boulevard was constructed atop tidal mud flats to reach out to it by 1919. The water side was to become a great bathing beach; the marsh on the inland side would become a dumping ground for the city’s refuse for some 80 years.

Barnum built his own house overlooking Seaside Park in 1868, and, as he foresaw, the land adjoining the park became an enclave of homes for the city’s Victorian-era elite. In 1917 the Perry Memorial Arch, designed by Henry Bacon, was constructed at the Park Avenue entrance and another component of the initial vision was realized. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to the Civil War was set in its designated location, and over time other statuary was placed to honor Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, and P.T. Barnum himself. Today the Olmsted and Vaux portion of the park remains remarkably true to its original plan. The later additions–almost an encyclopedic agglomeration of land reclamation techniques of the last 150 years–have made Seaside a vital part of the modern city, with a beach, recreation fields, concert venues, and playgrounds placed mostly away from the core of the historic portion. The Sea Grove and Soundview Drive remain intact to exhibit to the modern world the landscape genius of Olmsted and Vaux.

BEARDSLEY PARK

Beardsley Park is one of the premier examples of Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs in Connecticut. The plan dates to 1881, a time when Olmsted was hitting his stride on his own with Boston’s Emerald Necklace project on his drawing boards. And, in contrast to Seaside Park, he was responsible for the layout of practically the entire tract, rather than a relatively small portion of the total as it exists today. Beardsley Park occupies 181 acres (225 prior to the construction of an expressway in the 1960s) of hilly terrain in the northerly upland part of Bridgeport. The free-flowing Pequonnock River with its alternating pools and rapids and a scenic lake were major elements of the site that became key focal points of the design.

The park was a gift to the city of James Walker Beardsley (1820–1893). Beardsley is almost always described in historical accounts as a “wealthy cattle baron” when in fact he was neither. He was a cattle drover of quite modest means and the “mansion” he is said to have occupied was in reality a crude four-room saltbox that was already 150 years old and far from fashionable at the time of his donation. He never married and shared his home with his older half-sister. He was passionately interested in the genealogy of his family and used whatever funds he was able to put aside to purchase piece by piece the tract of land the town of Stratford had granted to his Beardsley ancestor in the late 17th century. This, he determined, would be his legacy–a sacrosanct parcel of territory to be preserved for all time to carry the family name to future generations.

The swift-flowing Pequonnock River had been dammed to power a grist mill and sawmill as early as 1691. In 1828 a Philadelphia entrepreneur by the name of Daniel Thatcher bought up the mill rights and initiated Bridgeport’s first large-scale industrial development: a four-story stone mill building to manufacture wool carpets replete with a workers’ village known as “Thatchersville” comprised of granite row houses. The power for this enterprise was to be provided by a 33-acre impoundment of the Pequonnock River that came to be called Bunnell’s Pond. The venture was a success only as long as a protective tarriff imposed by President Andrew Jackson prevented cheaper European products from being imported. When the tarriff was removed the mill went bust and by the time James Beardsley was assembling his holdings it was a crumbling burned-out ruin. The dam, however, and the pond behind it remained intact.

Beardsley’s initial gift was made in 1878 and construction commenced in earnest three years later. Olmsted brought in Oliver Crosby Bullard, who had been instrumental in the development of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, to oversee the operation. The well-meaning James Beardsley tried to assist the project by planting trees he had raised himself in neat rows and matched pairs, activities that had Bullard tearing his hair out while diplomatically trying to assuage the feelings of the great benefactor. Bullard’s “unofficial collaborator” throughout this phase was his daughter Elizabeth, who was to become only the second female member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Bullard’s work was held in such high esteem that Bridgeport named him Superintendant of Parks in 1884. When he died in 1890 Olmsted himself recommended that Bridgeport name Elizabeth as his successor. She was, however, passed over in favor of a male of somewhat lesser credentials.

Beardsley Park was laid out with a peripheral drive along the pond and river with branch carriage roads that curved up the hillsides through alternating meadows and wooded groves. Boulder-strewn drumlins were planted with white pines in one case, white birch and hemlocks in another. The pond was dredged and the dredgings used to form a quarter-acre “South Island” connected to the mainland by a rustic bridge (replaced in 1906 by the picturesque stone Perry Setzer Memorial bridge). An exhausted gravel pit was transformed into a steep hill used by generations of Bridgeport children for sledding in the winter months. A second stone “Victory” bridge was erected over a glacial ravine in 1918 to commemorate the end of World War I. A Shingle Style Casino (originally built as an open-sided picnic shelter) and a brick horse barn remain from the 19th-century origins of the park and a major public greenhouse from the 1920s..

Over the years Olmsted’s plan has remained remarkably intact despite the transformation of many of the meadows to ball diamonds and other athletic facilities and the addition of a sprawling zoo beginning in 1922. The roar of traffic on the expressway on the opposite side of the pond and river has insinuated a jarring note that is a potent testimony to the heedless destruction of a city’s priceless assets by the planners of the 1960s. One can only imagine how Olmsted could have handled the planning of such an intrusion through the serene parkland, and hope that in the future some landscape designer with a similar gift will be given the opportunity to mitigate its presence.

Charles Brilvitch
Charles Brilvitch is the former Bridgeport City Historian and is the foremost expert on the architectural history of the City of Bridgeport. He is the author of Walking Through History: The Seaports of Black Rock and Southport, and A History of the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe.