Branch Brook Park


Branch Brook Park is the largest and most famous park in Newark. Best known for its April-time "Cherryblossom Land", Branch Brook Park offers so much more. This feature is on the lower two-thirds of Branch Brook Park, or, as I dub it "Branchbrooklake Land."

Branch Brook Park was built on what used to be "Old Blue Jay Swamp." If you can imagine Branch Brook Park before it was developed as a park in the late 1890s, what is now the lake used to be a thicket of cattails cut by stretches of shallow open water, clumps of trees, plus a few naturally occurring fields.

The west side of the swamp was the Morris Canal. The southeast side of the swamp was taken up with tenements, the northeast with farms and then, beginning in the 1880s, the stately homes of Forest Hill.

During the Civil War, this part of northwest Newark was Camp Frelinghuysen. Camp Frelinghuysen was the gathering place for thousands of New Jersey Civil War recruits of the 13th, 20th, and 27th regiments. The encampment actually extended west to Roseville Avenue, well outside the boundaries of present-day Branch Brook Park. The location of this rock is just west of the Prudential Lions. I admit that this is a bad picture.

Soldiers here drilled for most of the day. Mornings were taken up with activities like swimming in the Morris Canal.

After the Civil War, Newarkers were enormously impressed with New York City's Central Park and, quite naturally, wanted something similar for themselves.

In 1867, Frederick Law Olmsted himself proposed to the Newark City Commission a 700 acre park in northwest Newark, starting at the intersection of Broadway (then Belleville Ave) and Clay Streets and going all the way up to the town of Belleville. Unfortunately, the $1,000,000 price tag for the land seemed too high, and this park proposal went nowhere. Thus, the land stayed as swamp and forest for another thirty years.

By the 1890s, Newark was desperate for parkland. At that time, the city's only parks were the downtown colonial era parks, Lincoln, Military, and Washington. The affluent residents of Forest Hill also desired parkspace, to add value to their neighborhood by making it more distinct from the rest of Newark. Parks were also believed to be a "civilizing influence" on the lower classes.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a county parks bill in 1895. The parks bill allowed counties to set up park commissions after a county's population reached 200,000 (meaning that most of the state's counties could not set up parks at the time). Essex County got started with its parks right away in 1895.

The centerpiece of Branch Brook Park was to be the 24 acre Branch Brook Lake. Excavated at great cost, the lake was first used for boat rides and fishing. Today, sadly, the lake seems to be used mostly for dumping old cars and drownings.

In the 1990s the Essex County Park Commission found a new franchisee for a boathouse. The new boathouse only stayed open for one season. Hopefully, as Newark's Renaissance gathers speed, someone will try again with boating on the lake.

These lions were carved by Karl Ritter for the entranceway of the old Norman-style Prudential building on Broad Street. When the old Pru was torn down in 1960, these lions were given to Branch Brook Park.
Another view of the boat launch with the lions. Camp Frelinghuysen was behind the lions, on what is now the broad lawn.
Branch Brook Lake is crossed by a number of elegant bridges, all designed by the same architectural firm that designed the New York Public Library, Carriere & Hastings.

Branch Brook Park is currently undergoing a $20 million renovation. Repairs are planned for all of the crumbling park bridges. The Park Avenue bridge, seen here, was the first to benefit from the renewed county interest.

Branch Brook Park was planned with recreational carriage drivers in mind. This ornamental bridge carries the carriage path over a deep pedestrian path.
I am disappointed that Branch Brook Park has fewer statues and monuments than Central Park. To me, statues and monuments are the gifts that the citizens of a town or city give to a park.

One of the few monuments to be found in Branch Brook Park is this small memorial to Felix Mendelssohn, the great Austrian composer.

During World War I, German-Americans virtually discarded their ethnicity, but prior to the Great War, German-Americans had scores of athletic and cultural clubs of their own.

One German activity was the saengerfest, or singing festival. The saengerfest was held in rotating cities beginning in 1848 by a group called the Northeast Singing Union -- Nordoestliche Sangerbund. In 1891, Newark itself was the host to 129 German-American singing groups.

A Newark singing society won first prize and a bust of Felix Mendelssohn in the 1903 Baltimore saengerfest. The Newark United Singers won first prize with their rendition of Reinhold Becker's "High Mass in the Forest" -- "Hochamt im Walde". In 1904, the bust was presented to Newark, which installed it near Barringer High School, on the east side of Branch Brook Lake. The sculptor is unknown, but bust was forged in Baltimore.

The bust remained on top this pedestal until it was the victim of vandalism in the late 1970s. The bust was knocked down, hacked, but not removed. The bust was taken to a county garage and then forgotten. People who noticed the pedestal in Branch Brook Park assumed that the bust had the same fate as the Hiker Monument (a totally lost Spanish-American War monument). In 1998, the bust was rediscovered and identified, but, obviously, not reinstalled. The bust may be installed in front of NJPAC, but nothing has been decided.

The majestic Ballantine Gateway is another gift to Branch Brook Park from a proud Newarker.

Located at Lake Street, the Ballantine Gateway separates Branch Brook Park from the wealthy neighborhood of Forest Hill. The Ballantine gateway is a memorial to Robert F. Ballantine, who died in Europe while on a vacation. The gateway was constructed in 1899 and designed by Carriere and Hastings, the official architect of the Essex County Park Commission. According to Charles Cummings, the gateway has a French inspiration, but I have also read that the gates are modelled on a structure in Scotland, the Ballantines' ancestral homeland.

Branch Brook Park also has its share of athletic fields.
This site, in the shadow of Mies van der Rohe's Colonnade Apartments, is now the rotunda skating rink, but it used to be a water reservoir, and before that a natural pond. Branch Brook Park was originally to be called "Reservoir Park," implying the importance of this body of water.

The long sewar-imprisoned First River used to flow from here to the Passaic River. In the late Nineteenth century, after Newark's water supply had become intolerably polluted (for the rich), a circular reservoir was excavated from the pond and clad in stone. The reservoir served a private association of well to do Newark citizens.

Today the reservoir is the home of a skating rink.

There are always hot dog trucks in and around Branch Brook Park. Jay Jay's hot dogs, usually to be purchased from a truck parked on Bloomfield Avenue, are worth sampling.

 

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