Judy Shepard Staff writer
Section: LIVING TODAY,  Page: F1

Date: Sunday, December 4, 1988

When Albany Rural Cemetery was established in 1845, its romantic landscape soon became a popular destination for Sunday outings.

The Albany Evening Journal soon seized on this phenomenon to argue for a public park for Albany. The newspaper put the question to its readers: "Shall we do nothing for the living?"

By the late 1870s, Albany had the answer: Washington Park, a landscape inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted as a pastoral setting to provide a wholesome and soothing retreat from urban clamor and crowds.

After more than 100 years, the park survives as a durable but worn landscape encroached upon by a needy city in search of parking places and quick crosstown passage.

"There are a number of issues," says Patricia O'Donnell, a landscape preservation planner who is preparing a proposal for the park.

"It is a 100-year-old landscape, in significant, continuous use by the citizens of Albany."

O'Donnell has been working with Joy Kestenbaum, a landscape historian, and Charles Beveridge, a historian and Olmsted scholar.

Their work was commissioned by the Washington Park Conservancy and will be turned over to the city as a planning tool after the conservancy's planning committee reviews the proposal, according to Paul Bray, a member of the committee and the board of the non- profit park preservation group.

The first part of the project is a historic landscape report and preservation plan by Kestenbaum, a work that is central to any preservation and management proposal, according to O'Donnell.

"It is the benchmark of where we are headed," she says. "We will base the future form of the park on what still exists, address its diverse uses, maintenance and management, and have it continue to function as a loved public ground."

The involvement of a private group such as the conservancy in a public place is by no means new.

The park began when a group of private citizens hired Olmsted and Vaux, the country's most prominent landscape architects, whose work included Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

The architects' recommendations, made in 1868, called for using land in the area of Washington Square, a military parade ground along Willett Street that also was used for recreational purposes.

They suggested a meadow and ornamental body of water, a design conforming with Olmsted's philosophy of a park as a secluded, rural retreat from the city.

Although their plan gave impetus to local efforts, it was not Olmsted and Vaux who saw the work through; by 1870, construction had begun under the direction of Bogart and Culyer

& Co., associates with Olmsted and Vaux in Prospect Park.

Although the park took 25 years to complete, much of the major work was done by 1876, with the expanse of meadow and undulating lake articulating the Olmsted vision.

Rustic shelters of untrimmed logs, a refectory or shelter for dining, wellhouse, pagoda-like croquet shelter and the first lakehouse done in the stick style were in place.

By 1899 the last parcels had been acquired; entrances and borders were redesigned and planted, and ornamental gardens were introduced.

The completion of the park was overseen by William S. Egerton, who replaced Bogart and Culyer in 1873 and remained in charge of the park for 35 years.

In the main, Egerton was faithful to the Olmsted philosophy, which the park reflected in its dense boundary plantings of trees and shrubs, picturesque lake, open meadow, outlooks, rustic shelters, footpaths and carriage drives.

But Egerton also incorporated the "gardenesque" style popular with the Victorians; this more formal, ornamental approach was seen in the floral exhibits in the Willett Street gardens.

"Through Egerton, the tastes of Albany were reflected," O'Donnell says.

This contrast of styles is one of the things that makes Washington Park so interesting, as well as challenging, to historians and preservationists, O'Donnell adds.

"In an 80-acre park, there are a lot of diverse, individual compositions, and yet it is very compact."

The park's complexity poses difficulties for the preservationist, who will have to reconcile the park's original intent as a secluded natural place apart from the city with its present use.

"That blending, honoring its history and use, is the real challenge," O'Donnell says.

In addition, there has been the steady deterioration of landscape, death or removal of trees and other plants, the loss of shelters and the impact of traffic and parking.

The park predated the automobile, and in the earliest days of motor cars, a special permit was required to operate a vehicle in the park.

But in the 20th century the carriage drives were paved, and the park began to lose ground to the car. By the 1950s it was known as a parking lot, a reputation which remains today.

The dead-end drives at the east end of the park are especially congested, and cars are parked along either sides of the park's through roads.

In 1958, Lancaster Street, which dead- ended at Willett, was extended into the park to ease the flow of traffic from downtown. The Willett Street garden was eliminated and that part of the park lost its identity as part of Washington Park.

"Originally planned as a respite from the stresses of the city, the park now received the full-blown impact of citywide traffic," Kestenbaum observed in her report.

The meadow's sweep was interrupted by a playground, and the lilac shrubbery along Willett Street was removed in 1979.

Some holding actions took place in the 1970s when the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and some of the entrance roads and interior drives were closed to reduce the flow of through traffic.

"The park clearly has problems," O'Donnell states. "It has become a parking lot."

Any park preservation and management proposal must address that disruption, but O'Donnell recognizes that there are other issues as well.

"What we've tried to do is look at it from a park-centered point of view, but look clearly at the issues, to keep in mind multiple agendas and still stay true to why the park was created in the first place."