Elm Park’s Claims to Fame: The Real Story

Originally a swamp and site for traveling carnivals and circuses, Elm Park today is Worcester’s best known and loved green space. It’s also in dire need of restoration. Heavy public use combined with decades of tight maintenance budgets have left the once elegant public park looking tattered and neglected.

That situation will begin to be remedied this summer, when the city commences the first phase of Worcester Mayor Joe Petty’s plan for Elm Park’s restoration. Work is slated to begin around July 1 to improve lighting, the popular playground, and the restroom and skating building. With a $500,000 state grant plus other funding, the city has more than $1 million to begin work. Total renovations are estimated to cost as much as $5 to $6 million.

Maybe Not the First, but Among the First Purchases for a Public Park
It’s a significant undertaking, and much needed, because Elm Park is not only a Worcester treasure, but also national landmark. Purchased by the city from Governor Levi Lincoln and John Hammond for $11,257.50 on March 20, 1854, the park is distinguished as one of the first, if not the first, pieces of land purchased by a municipality for the explicit purpose of creating a public park.

Worcester used to assert that Elm Park was the first such land purchase for a public park in the nation. When I researched Trees at Risk, however, I found some evidence that called that claim into question.

In particular, citizens in Hartford, Conn., voted to approve a plan by the Reverend Horace Bushnell to create a park in the center of town on January 5, 1854, and the contracts for land purchase were executed shortly after. I did not dig further into this research to find the exact date of the contracts, but it’s clear that Worcester and Hartford were within months, if not weeks of each other in buying public park land.

Other public parks predate Elm Park and Bushnell Park, such as Brooklyn’s Washington Park, established in 1847. However, Washington Park was built on land that was already publicly owned, the site of Fort Greene, a Revolutionary War fortification.

New York City began acquiring land for Central Park by eminent domain in 1856, two years after a contentious legislative and legal dispute was settled over the park’s location. It took eight years of power struggles, political skirmishes and $4 million in cost overruns before Central Park’s major landscaping and construction was completed in 1866—seven years before serious work finally began on Elm Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted, along with Calvert Vaux, designed and guided the creation of Central Park.  Which brings me to the next clarification of Elm Park’s history. Elm Park has an Olmsted legacy, but not involving Frederick, as is often assumed.

Who Really Built Elm Park
Elm Park’s main architect was Edward Winslow Lincoln, Governor Lincoln’s youngest child and Worcester’s first parks commissioner. A curmudgeon who railed against vandals, utility companies and trollies for damaging newly planted city trees, Lincoln urged, cajoled and shamed Worcester’s city politicians, business leaders and tax payers into parting with enough money to develop the land that had lain fallow for nearly 20 years.

Work on the park began in earnest in 1873, and included the creation of a drainage system and ponds to manage the natural swamp, extensive plantings and pathways. Lincoln made certain that the ponds were shallow enough so a child would only fall up to his knees if he broke through ice in the winter, and he sheltered tender plants in his own home during the coldest months. Completed in 1882, Elm Park was a showcase arboretum and the most popular place to stroll and be seen in Worcester.

The Olmsteds Behind Elm Park’s Olmsted Legacy
Though Frederick Law Olmsted was never directly involved with Elm Park, his sons were. The Olmsted Firm of Brookline, Mass., was first engaged by the city in 1910 to assess Worcester’s recreational spaces. From 1910 to 1918, the firm consulted extensively on Elm Park and guided improvements, including refinements to the shape of what was then the South Mere and islands, new curbing for the ponds, modifications of bridges and rhododendron plantings, a new location for the playground and creation of paths for newly acquired Newton Hill.

At the end of the Great Depression, the Olmsted Firm was again involved with Elm Park’s design. From 1939 to 1941, they landscaped the triangular plot at the base of Newton Hill, bordered by Highland Street and Park Avenue, that surrounded what became the site of the Rogers-Kennedy Memorial.

So far, Elm Park’s restoration task force reportedly hopes to retain much of the park’s original design, to preserve its Olmsted legacy. I certainly would agree, and I look forward to seeing this green treasure treated once again with the care and respect it deserves.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at treesatrisk.com. She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.