PLANS TO RESTORE PARK'S HISTORIC LOOK TAKE ROOT

ELIZABETH BENJAMIN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, August 19, 1999

Correction: ***** CORRECTION PUBLISHED AUGUST 20, 1999 *****A story Thursday about bringing elm trees back to Washington Park contained an inaccurate headline. The city of Albany, not the Washington Park Conservancy, is in charge of the restoration plan.

In the 1950s, hundreds of stately elms that shaded the city's streets and parks fell victim to a deadly microscopic fungus borne by a tiny beetle. Today, almost all of Albany's elms have been removed. Among the hardest hit by Ceratocystis ulmi, known as Dutch Elm disease, was the city's crown jewel -- Washington Park. Elms had figured prominently in the 90-acre park's design, conceived in 1868 by Frederick Law Olmstead and built at the turn of the century by two disciples of the renowned landscape architect, John Bogart and John Yapp Culyer.


Plans to restore Washington Park in keeping with its ``Olmsteadian'' character have been discussed over the years. Now, the city is moving forward with a long-term project to return at least part of the park to how it looked long ago.


``The park is a social and environmental art form that is as much of a landmark as the state Capitol, and it needs to be preserved,'' said Paul Bray, a member of the Washington Park Conservancy, the citizens group whose mission is to preserve, promote and protect the park.


On Wednesday, the city applied for an $80,000 state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation grant to help pay for the first phase of the restoration -- replanting and widening the promenade from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on State Street to Madison Avenue. If it is awarded the grant, the city will match the funds with ``in-kind'' services -- by using its own materials and employees.


Mature elms once lined the promenade, forming a verdant canopy that stretched across the park. After the dying trees were removed, they were replaced by crab apples, which are pretty but do not achieve the effect the park's planners most likely intended, said Jim Rathmann, president of the upstate New York chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The local members have adopted the park in honor of their society's centennial this year.


``Elms gave a sort of cathedral look, and they made a big statement,'' Rathmann said. ``Crab apples have a totally different overall effect. You lose that grand appearance.''


It will take 20 to 40 years before the elms are tall enough to create a full canopy over the promenade, city Forester Tom Pfeiffer said.


The crab apples will not be ripped out en masse -- a scenario that caused controversy over the years, according to Conservancy President Sandra Baptie. But some that are small, old or weakened will be replaced with a disease-resistant variety of elm. As the other crab apples also grow old, elms will be planted in their place. Trees that were planted along the promenade in someone's memory will be transplanted in the park.


The restoration plan also calls for more than doubling the width of the promenade to about 30 feet and putting in packed gravel that will be truer to the park's original design than the current paved path. Later on, an in-depth study of the vegetation around the lake, which is now being done by volunteer landscape architects, will offer ways to stabilize the shoreline.


``We're advocating a sensible restoration plan that takes into consideration modern needs,'' Baptie said. ``Returning the lake to its historic plan, for example, is impractical. The original design called for waterlilies, which are today considered aquatic pests.''


Meanwhile, Pfeiffer is engaged in a personal crusade to save one of the park's few original trees -- a weeping beech more than century old near the Moses fountain. One of the tree's main limbs recently split, but rather than cutting it down, Pfeiffer filled in the crack with insulation and shored it up with a wooden strut.


The limb is still alive, Pfeiffer said, and is even beginning to re-root some of its branches into the soil.


``The whole area surrounding the fountain has lost trees in recent storms,'' Pfeiffer said. ``Keeping those big trees is key to maintaining the character of the area. And this really is a specimen tree -- we couldn't even begin to calculate its value.''