Olmsted’s Seaside Park
The first public park commission where Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux collaborated outside New York City was in Bridgeport, CT along Long Island Sound. Invited by Nathaniel Wheeler who was impressed by the “artists of New York,” they developed a plan in 1867 for forty-four acres of a gravelly rocky area and a beautiful hilly grove of trees. The land gift was assembled by Wheeler and his neighbors, including PT Barnum, and donated to the new city of Bridgeport. This “Seaside” Park was the first and only “marine” park of Olmsted.
The city of Bridgeport’s Park Commission owns and regulates the park, which has been enlarged to over 400 acres with extensive landfill over the last century to include public beaches and ballfields. It is also the site for open air musical events and festivals. Of the original forty- four acres, less than half of that design remains. By the time of Barnum’s leadership in Bridgeport in the late nineteenth century, a large part of the park along Waldemere by his residence was changed into a trotting park, and a retention basin called Mirror Lake was installed. The trees surrounding what was originally a long, linear green were removed, and a bermed roadway along the seawall was completed.
In 2017, The Fairfield Garden Club began discussions with Resilient Bridgeport. This major project, federal and state funded, was instigated post-hurricane Sandy to begin to transform Bridgeport’s coast into “a living landscape.” In these discussions, The Fairfield Garden Club was introduced to The Nature Conservancy and to Groundworks Bridgeport. Groundworks is a youth education program for local high school students which is focused on landscape design and installation to instill civic pride.
With knowledge of the upcoming 2022 Bicentennial celebration of Olmsted, The Fairfield Garden Club is moving into designing and installing a tree canopy restoration plan with Groundworks and The Nature Conservancy. Using Olmsted and Vaux’ design principles for a one-acre portion of the park along Waldemere Avenue across from both where Barnum’s home once stood and Marina Park, the Club intends to install trees in 2019. This new tree canopy will extend to Park Avenue, Olmsted and Vaux’s original entry.
The design of looped pathways flanked by trees and understory is inspired by the contemporaneous design of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The Fairfield Garden Club members who are professional landscape designers have contributed their time to the design. The tree selection as well as the understory and ground story plant lists have been created by using three sources: the actual Prospect Park Brooklyn Plant Ordering List from the Olmsted Office in NYC, the lists from Douglas Tallamy’s The Living Landscape for New England and the Middle Atlantic, and the lists from the New England Wildflower Society’s Go Botany website.
The installation and funding will be a collaboration of The Nature Conservancy, Groundworks Bridgeport and The Fairfield Garden Club. Recent breakthrough scholarship of Charles Beveridge and Lauren Meier highlight a less well-known theme with Olmsted’s lifelong work: that is, that open space could also serve as a source of health for children and youth. With that additional consideration, The Fairfield Garden Club and its two nonprofit partners plan to include a fitness and wellness walking trail into the loops. The installation in phases will include the youth members of Groundworks Bridgeport as well as members of The Fairfield Garden Club.