STILL HAVING A 'FIELD DAY'NOW, AS THEN, ALBANY MAKING THE MOST OF ITS PARKS

Bruce A. ScrutonThe Knickerbocker News
Section: MAIN,  Page: 4A

Date: Wednesday, April 23, 1986

"Men are wiser, better, more temperate and loving, when they have wandered amid trees and by waterfalls, and heard birds sing and children laugh and play."That was the message in 1863 as the Albany Institute pressed the Common Council to create a 250- acre park in the northwestern section of the city.Because of several delays, it was 1869 when the council created a park commission and what now is known as Washington Park by setting aside the Washington Parade Ground, the old State Street burial grounds, the alms house farm and the penitentiary grounds, "with such other property as might be acquired by purchase or otherwise."The official ground-breaking for the park was in July 1870 at the old parade grounds, bounded by State, Willett and Knox streets and Madison Avenue.The park formed a patchwork, dodging around privately owned properties and forming a misshapen "H," according to a map of the original park.In an 1893 report, William S. Egerton, superintendent of parks, wrote, "Subsequent purchases of contiguous real estate enabled the board yearly to add to its area and to remove unsightly objects from the immediate surroundings of the portions improved."The report showed the city spent $26,730.73 on all its parks in 1891, with all but $3,000 of it spent on Washington Park.Other parks at the time included Academy, Bleecker, Hudson Avenue, Clinton Square, Rensselaer, St. Joseph's and Townsend.The park commission maintained Western Avenue, from its intersection with Washington Avenue near Sprague Place west to Manning Boulevard. It also maintained Manning Boulevard itself along its winding route from Western Avenue to Central Avenue.There were plans in the 1870s to extend Manning Boulevard to Tivoli Lake, also owned by the commission. While some preliminary work was done, the plan was dropped, Egerton wrote, because the estimates were so large the "project was temporarily abandoned and all work suspended."In addition to the formal parks, the commission held title to the county hospital, alms house and penitentiary, as well as the ravine that was to become Beaver Park and later be renamed Lincoln Park.In 1891, the commission owned a total of 402 acres within the city, 140 of them improved as park land.The jewel of the city's parks, then as now, was Washington Park. Included were lawn-tennis grounds at one corner near South Lake and Madison avenues, a large central croquet lawn and attendant's building, a children's playground and swings.The swings, which lasted until the 1950s, were large wooden affairs, designed so as many as four persons could swing back to back.The lake house included a bandstand on top. Washington Lake's aquatic garden was a source of pride for Egerton.The park encompassed 90 acres. There were 65 acres of lawn, a six- acre lake, three miles of carriage drives and six miles of walkways.Egerton ended his essay with a description of the plans for Beaver Park."The former topographical conditions of the site of Beaver Park were exceedingly picturesque," Egerton wrote. "It is possible to restore these in a measure. The native thorn and azalea may bloom again upon the steep banks, and although the Buttermilk Falls may not be restored, for want of an adequate water supply, a ramble through the gorge formerly eroded by the stream, may, by proper treatment, and a judicious restoration of the indigenous flora, be made exceedingly attractive."He also envisioned "a stroll through improved public grounds, extending from Philip Street on the east to Lake Avenue on the west, a distance of one mile and a quarter."The restoration of Beaver Park to its natural state never occurred. The young men in the South End used one corner as a ball field; the remainder was a landfill.By 1913, the city was moving to cover the dump and create a flat parkland.Somewhere along the line, its name changed from Beaver to Lincoln Park.In the early 1930s, the city, with its own and state money, improved the park.At 3 p.m., July 4, 1931, 1,500 people were in the swimming pool. It was the official opening day.Things were moving at other locations in the city, too. Two years before, concrete had been poured over Washington Park Drive and the old Bleeker Reservoir was drained.The city and state again chipped in to create a playing field and seats, known as Bleecker Stadium. The federal government later provided Works Progress Administration funds to build the field house.Today's parks commissioner, Richard Barrett, is responsible for "2,001" acres of city-owned park land. The figure is an estimate, Barrett said, because "nobody has ever really sat down and counted it all up."Parks have also taken on a more active role. Some, such as Westland Hills, came into being because of use by neighborhood youngsters.The department does, however, count 11 major parks, 13 community parks and numerous other facilities for both indoor and outdoor activities.There are 39 playgrounds and 22 ball fields scattered throughout the city, he said.Barrett's department also keeps watch over and has provided some equipment for unofficial parks, vacant lots that neighbors have adopted as their playgrounds.Tastes in activities also have changed, according to Barrett. While Washington Park once boasted lawn tennis and croquet grounds, Barrett said he now is searching for suitable areas in the city because of an increased interest in cricket and rugby.