Photos and editorial by Caryn B. Davis


Elizabeth Park in full bloom photo Caryn B. Davis

Parks, squares, piazzas, and green spaces are a necessity for most urban dwellers where cramped accommodations are not always conducive for entertaining or spending great periods of time. In cities, life moves at a different pace and rhythm than in the suburbs. Suburbanites often take for granted the easy accessibility they have to barbeque grills and backyard havens. But within a metropolitan setting, most residents don’t have private outdoor areas at their disposal. Thus, the city itself becomes an extension of their living quarters as they meet friends outside at street side cafes, or sunbathe, read, play, and relax in public locations.

The first parks appeared during medieval times in England. English deer parks were favored by the aristocracy and members of the royal family for hunting. Thick green hedges lined the perimeter to “keep the game in and the people out.” During the sixteenth century, these private preserves were transformed into formal gardens and meticulously designed landscapes that blended with the natural environment to accentuate the grandeur of the imposing castles and mansions surrounding them.

As cities became overcrowded, many of these outdoor paradises became communal spaces. Additionally, with the onset of the industrial revolution, city planners began setting aside parcels of public land to protect it from development and to “preserve a sense of nature in the cities and towns.”  The need for landscape architects developed significantly during this period.

Fredrick Law Olmsted

Fredrick Law Olmsted

Born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, Frederick Law Olmsted is considered by many to be the “father of American landscape architecture.” Over the course of his lengthy career, he designed hundreds of college campuses and parks in Canada and in 22 states. Some notable achievements include Stanford University in California, Central Park in New York, Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, and American University in Washington D.C., just to name a very few.

Hartford was once known as the City of Parks, boasting the largest park acreage per capita in the United States. It has 10 major parks, and each one is uniquely different. Bushnell Park was the city’s and the country’s first, and was established in 1853 by Reverend Horace Bushnell. He dreamed of a natural setting that would provide a respite for the city’s workers who labored long hours and lived in congested, concrete tenements. Bushnell Park became the nation’s first municipally funded public park and also the site for the state capitol building. (This park, along with Central Park, is credited with establishing the American Park Movement that changed the way parks were utilized and created).

“Unlike previous communal cattle greens and parade grounds, these two parks were planned with the express purpose of enjoyment and personal refinement, which redirected American thought about the meaning of urban green space. A new standard was now born, by which public funds would pay professionals to design outdoor spaces. Born primarily through the ideals and efforts of the Reverend Horace Bushnell; and appropriately taking his name, Hartford’s park provided residents with a centrally-located ‘outdoor parlor,’ as described by Bushnell, which allowed all classes to mix, socialize, and generally become better citizens as a result,” wrote Todd Jones for the Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library on the website.

Today, Bushnell Park has music, theater and dance performances, art exhibitions showcasing local artists at the Pump House Gallery, a century old carousel, an arboretum featuring rare and native trees, and a 30 foot stone and marble fountain designed by sculptor James Massey Rhind that was presented to the city by John Corning, the heir to Corning Glass Works of New York.

Keney Park on Hartford’s north end encompasses nearly 700 acres and is the largest park in the municipality. Olmstead used to explore a forested section known as Ten Mile Woods when he was a child. Later on, Ten Mile Woods became part of Keney Park, which Olmstead’s company coincidentally designed.

Most of the land for Keney Park was bequeathed to the city by Henry Keney, a wealthy merchant who owned and operated a neighborhood grocery store along with his brother, Walter Keney. Henry remained a bachelor throughout his life; and with no heirs to whom he might leave his fortune, he gave away the family farm at the suggestion of his cousin by marriage, Francis Goodwin, who also resided in Hartford.

Elizabeth-park-grounds-ink-publications“On account of the Goodwin family’s vast financial holdings, especially from real estate, Francis was able to direct his energy toward more philanthropic efforts in life. He gained a particular interest in both building and landscape architecture; and after viewing the grand public estates of Europe and Boston’s emerald necklace, Goodwin soon wanted to emulate in his home city the beauty he had witnessed.  With a seat on the Board of Park Commissioners (the Park Board) beginning in 1880, he would, over the course of the following thirty years, help make Hartford’s park system one of the best in the nation. Goodwin’s greatest and quickest success for the parks came during what was later referred to as the “Rain of Parks,” a time from 1894 to 1895 when the city gained the land for most of its large parks (it was said that parks “rained” on the city),” wrote Jones.

Keney Park has a combination of nature, fitness and hiking trails, tennis and basketball courts, outdoor pools, grilling and picnic areas, and baseball and cricket fields. It is also home to coyotes, beavers, bats, birds, and a variety of species of damselflies and dragonflies.

Goodwin was also instrumental in convincing Elizabeth Colt to donate 106 acres of land to the park system, which she did in 1900. Elizabeth was the window of Samuel Colt, who founded Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford and whose revolvers were used by the Texas Rangers in the Mexican- American War  and by Confederates and Yankees during the American Civil War.

Today, Colt Park offers residents and visitors an array of recreational facilities that include swimming pools; handball, racquetball and basketball courts; baseball, football and soccer fields; swing sets; playgrounds; and a 9,600 seat stadium where concerts and sporting events are held.

Elizabeth Park’s 101 acres borders both Hartford and West Hartford. The land was donated to the city by Charles Murray Pond upon his death in 1894, again at Goodwin’s urging. Pond had inherited the farmstead from his father; and even though his career as state senator, state treasurer, and businessman kept him busy, he still sustained the cattle and horse farm his father had originally established. But Pond’s will had one stipulation: that the park be named after his wife Sarah Elizabeth Aldrich, who died three years prior to his own death.

Pond’s will stated: “I give to the City of Hartford, this gift of about ninety (90) acres, to be forever held and used as a public park. My wish is that this land may be associated with the name Elizabeth, in memory of my beloved wife.”

Elizabeth Park was designed by Theodore Wirth, who consulted with Olmstead’s firm to infuse the natural landscape with European formal gardens. It opened in 1897 and is considered to be “the botanical gem of the Hartford park system.” It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Elizabeth Park has all the usual amenities in the form of recreational fields including croquet and lawn bowling where the Thistle Lawn Bowling Club has played for over 100 years. But it is the greenhouses and gardens (particularly the rose garden) that attract  thousands of visitors a year including horticultural societies and garden clubs that help maintain the grounds in conjunction with the Elizabeth Park Conservancy, the City of Hartford, and countless volunteers.

The Rose Garden was planted in 1903 and is the “first municipal rose garden in the United States and the third largest rose garden in the country.” It has more than 15,000 bushes with 800 varieties of roses and costs over $100,000 to maintain each year between the fertilizer, mulch, lime, and general upkeep. It is laid out in a square on 2.5 acres in 475 beds, separated by eight main paths each adorned by 82 rose covered archways. The roses are in bloom from late June, with some retaining their blossoms until early fall.

Elizabeth Park also has ponds, bridges, a shade garden, a perennial garden, a tulip garden, an annual garden which is planted after the tulips have passed, an herb garden, a dahlia display garden maintained by the Connecticut Dahlia Society, and iris beds looked after by the Connecticut Iris Society.
Parks are vital to the health and well being of a community. They bring people and families together, instill civic pride, and offer a safe place for people to gather. They provide recreational, educational, and cultural opportunities, and preserve the environment from over development and urban sprawl.

It is interesting to note the contribution of Francis Goodwin to Hartford’s park system. Because of Goodwin’s foresight and persuasive powers in getting the city’s more prominent citizens to donate their land, millions of  lives have been enhanced.

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