Conservancy works to rehabilitate and restore Utica’s historic parks system

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UTICA — With land that comprises 70 percent of Central Park in New York City, Philip A. Bean, executive director of the Central New York Conservancy, said even local residents who have lived in Utica most or all their lives don’t realize the significance and impact of the city’s park system.

Formally incorporated as a non-profit in 2002, the conservancy is comprised of members from Utica and New Hartford who are concerned about the state of disrepair of the Utica parks system, which is comprised of the Memorial Parkway, Roscoe Conkling Park, T.R. Proctor Park and F.T. Proctor Park. After decades of neglect and a lack of funding, the small group is working to rehabilitate and restore a large piece of the city’s pride and history.

Bean, who once taught part-time at Hamilton College, is hoping that he and his group of volunteers will get the word out about not only what his organization does, but also bring a local awareness to the aesthetic and recreational park system that’s located in so many central New Yorkers’ back yards. He said he hopes to soon have an informational booth located at Clinton Farmers Market to let neighbors know the opportunities available through the park system that’s just a few miles away.

Thomas R. Proctor, a native of Vermont who moved to Utica as a young man after serving in the Civil War, was a successful and influential banker and entrepreneur who donated much of his money and land. A prominent member of the Republican Party, his influence in politics was responsible for bringing about the nomination for James S. Sherman as vice-president.  

According to the Oneida County History Center, “Pre-eminent among the Proctors’ (also his half-brother, Frederick T.) gifts to the City of Utica was its expansive urban park system. The Proctors donated 6.5 acres in memory of (wife) Maria’s father, James Watson Williams, in 1897, and created Watson-Williams Park. In 1904, Thomas purchased almost 400 acres of farm land and contracted with the famous landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects, to design Utica’s park system.”

Olmsted was famous for his contributions to the National Park System, which included projects in Acadia, the Everglades and Yosemite.

“Walking paths and driving roads were laid out and Thomas R. Proctor Park and Roscoe Conkling Park officially opened to the citizens of Utica in 1909,” according to historical documents. “In 1908, he gifted the city four more parks, totaling more than 31 acres, and named the parks after prominent Uticans: Horatio Seymour, Addison C. Miller, Truman K. Butler, and J. Thomas Spriggs.”

Members of the Central New York Conservancy are “concerned about the bad state of repair into which the Parkway and other parks had lapsed after decades of neglect or budget cuts,” Bean said. “It’s no fault of any mayor, past or present — it got that way and they’re still in need of improvement.”

In sharing the Utica Park System’s rich history, Bean described the Proctors as having “deep pockets and good tastes,” which is why he sought consultation from the son of the man who co-designed New York’s Central Park. Olmsted Jr. also helped with the wording of the bill that resulted in the creation of the National Park Service.

The Proctors “got the best guy, and Utica became the smallest city in the country to have a park system,” Bean explained. “It was built between 1906-1920, but unfortunately the Proctors didn’t endow it — just their art museum. They got the land and had it designed, and then turned it over to the city with the assumption that it would be inclined and in a position to keep the parks in the proper state of repair. But already by the 1930s, there were problems.”

Today the conservancy is working in partnership with Utica to put its parks in a better state of repair — with the ultimate goal of restoring them to what they were in the beginning. A large part of his group’s efforts are now focused on the eastern-most park, F.T. Proctor, Bean said.

“F.T. Proctor was quite a gem, but its original features disappeared or fell into great disrepair,” he said. “F.T. Proctor is beautiful to go walking in, but the trails have been long neglected, and there’s stone work that has fallen apart and needs repair. In the lower level, there’s a ravine that goes into Starch Factory Creek, and the Proctors built a pond and neoclassical temple” at that location.

“It was really the most beautiful part of the park system, but it flooded,” Bean continued. “So the WPA (Works Progress Administration) came in the 1930s and created a lot of jobs for people who were unemployed. One project was to drain the pond and reinforce the walls of the Starch Factory Creek. Now there’s technical and legal challenges, and obstacles in the way” for making repairs today because what the “WPA did” in the 30s “is considered historical. We need to knock out a wall, and no one will provide us with funding to do that.”

On June 15, the Central New York Conservancy gathered about 20 people to help clean up F.T. Proctor Park. The organization is sending another group out on July 12 to target the part of the park where “it’s clearly been neglected, up near the Masonic Home,” Bean said.

That part of F.T. Proctor, “used to have a beautiful system of walkways, and there was a road” that circled “with a column that had an eagle statue on it,” Bean shared. “The eagle statue was stolen years ago, and the whole place is just overgrown. There’s a lily pond on the other side of the creek that’s all filled in now, but you can still see the foundations of it, and then there’s a nature pond further on from there. There’s a stairway down to this pond that needs repair.”

He said, “If properly restored, that would be a beautiful spot. Not a lot of people go back there now, but we’re hoping to clean that up. We have a verbal understanding with the city that if we clean and stake” a part of the trail system in the park, “they’ll (Parks Department) go in and put down stone. If they follow that, then that’s Stage 1 of our rehabilitation.”

In sharing more of Utica’s history, Bean explained how Olmsted Jr. came to Utica and completed a study with suggestions in how the city could build its park system that was published in 1908.

Olmsted “gave an overview of what Utica needed to do to grow its park system sensibly in a way to avoid mistakes other cities suffered from,” the executive director explained. “But unfortunately much of what was recommended was not implemented. By 1909” the Proctors “would have the Parkway built up to Elm Street where Swan Fountain is” which was created by famous and well-respected American artist Frederick McMonnies (known for his sculptures on the archway in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and on the lawn of City Hall in NYC). “By then the parks were open and largely designed at that point. They extended the Parkway from 1909-11 and went up to” what is now “Mohawk Street, and from 1911-19, they went up to Culver Avenue to connect the parks.”

In total, Utica’s parks system is more than 600 acres.

“To give some perspective, Olmsted’s Parkway system covers 70 percent of Central Park, so it’s an unusually large park system compared to the size of the city, which is an important part of the visual landscape and quality of life” for the city, “but presents its challenges for upkeep,” said Bean. “The diversity is pretty impressive too. You’ve got the tennis courts at Conkling Park and then they eventually had the ski slope. The zoo was put in in 1914, and for years it was run by the Parks Department. For a small city to have a zoo that has school groups coming from as far as Albany to see, is quite impressive. And as you go through Conkling Park, you have some preeminent views of the Mohawk Valley.”

As for Conkling Park located in the south side of the city, Bean said there is now a large pavilion people can now rent through the city. There are also switchback trails at South Woods that zigzag through part of the woods that’s canopied by trees.

“You feel like you’re in the middle of a forest, and periodically, you run into the golf course,” Bean said. “You can take a number of trails up there if you’re into hiking.”

As for Thomas R. Proctor Park, “That was always intended to be a super playground so when go in there and see the playing fields, that’s what it was intended to do,” he said.

As for Olmsted’s design, “It’s very much human-engineered, but it was intended to look natural — the Olmsteds weren’t into French formal gardens or English gardens — it was meant to be very green and have formal plantings and views by the water,” Bean explained. Proctor “wanted European gardens and Olmsted spent a lot of time educating Proctor and said, ‘they’re fine, but there’s a better way to build gardens for the public.’ So very few people know or understand the immensity” of Utica’s parks.

Being a non-profit, Central New York Conservancy is responsible for the landscaping — shrubbery and flowers — of Utica’s park system, which includes historic statues and monuments along the Memorial Parkway.

“There’s a small endowment, but what we do is largely paid for by voluntary contributions,” Bean said. That money goes into funding plantings for the spring that includes between 30-60 trees, as many as 10,000 bulbs and enumerable annual flowers that are even planted in the Parkway’s medians.

Bean said in the near future he’s hoping to organize more volunteer projects in the parks, especially F.T. Proctor Park. The group is also looking to turn their organization into one where contributors may “become a friend” of the parks, in which they can collect regular contributions — even for as little as $5 at a time.

“Our mission for this year is to raise awareness for the parks’ historical significance, their diversity, importance to the local identity and to the quality of life” for area residents, the executive director said. “How lucky we are to have these beautifully parks that offer a lot of fun possibilities. We also want to help people understand how we keep the parks in the state they’re in and what they could be if we had the resources to do it. We’re hoping to get more volunteers, but we just ask that people understand it takes a little while to get things up and running.”

“Utica has taken a lot of knocks, so has Rome, and I’m not sure if Rome went through the same, but there’s been lot of negativity” over the years, Bean continued. “...It had been dismal for a number of years, but now the city has much optimism and a certain can-do spirit and pride. There’s a sense of local identity that’s positive that was lacking years ago, even when I was growing up here in the 70s. So I think people are interested in hearing this story” and in trying to make things better.

The conservancy is also considering hosting tours of the parks in the future. Those interested may make financial contributions toward the Central New York Conservancy online at www.uticaolmstedparks.org.

If anyone is interested in giving some of their time toward the clean-up and rehabilitation efforts, “They can write us an email on our website,” Bean said. “But (potential) volunteers just need to be aware that it may be weeks before we have an expedition organized and you’ll need to bear with us because it does take time, but your interest would be greatly appreciated.”

Volunteers are encouraged to attend the F.T. Proctor Park clean-up on July 12. Attendees are advised, however, to wear long-sleeved shirts, pants and insect repellent.

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