By W. Phillips Barlow
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Spring 2022
At the northern end of Bridgeport is a beautiful park that today reads as a well-preserved piece of unspoiled nature. But it took tens of thousands of labor hours, wheelbarrows of money, and remarkable creative effort to design and build Beardsley Park. The park exhibits the high level of craftsmanship of park construction then sweeping the nation.
The property that became Beardsley Park was owned by successful cattle farmer James W. Beardsley. In the 1877 transaction Beardsley stipulated that the city “shall forever accept and keep the land as a public park.”
The nation’s foremost park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, was engaged by the city to produce a plan which he delivered in 1884. By this time the elder Olmsted was in partnership with his nephew and stepson John C. Olmsted. Frederick Olmsted opined in the preliminary report to the park commission that “the want of Bridgeport is a simple, rural park.”
As with most Olmsted-designed park plans, the Beardsley plan was brilliant. It transformed the hilly, forested land to a park by carefully sequencing a visitor’s experience (which at the time was generally carriage driving, strolling, and picnicking). Working largely with the site’s existing topography, the Olmsteds set the meandering carriage drives and walking paths along the sloping hillsides. They added large areas of trees and shrubs so that the plantings appeared as natural scenery and added peripheral planting to screen the sights and sounds of the expanding city.
Views were enhanced through exquisite adjustments to the topography and location of carriage and walking paths. For example, a space would be enclosed with plant material and rolling hills and then dramatically opened as visitors rounded a corner or entered a meadow. One of the most satisfying views would have been across Bunnell’s Pond to the adjacent countryside (now Route 25).
Nothing was left to chance, with every experience carefully crafted. Olmsted gave the park what may be considered the ultimate compliment, stating in the preliminary report to the park commission that “It is a better picnic ground than any possessed by the city of New York City, after spending twenty million dollars for parks.”
Additions were later made to the original park plan. In 1884 the casino building was constructed, and in 1909 the sculpture of James Beardsley by Charles H. Niehaus was added at the park entrance. The Anne Hathaway Cottage followed in 1916 and, in 1918, the stone-arch Setzer Memorial Bridge. The beautiful Island Bridge, a stone-arch pedestrian bridge that connects to a small island in Bunnell’s Pond, was designed by Joseph Northrup in 1921. Northrup was a successful Bridgeport architect who had trained with the renowned Hartford architect George Keller. NOT a part of the Olmsted vision was the appropriation of 56 park acres for the zoo in 1920.
The stewardship of Beardsley Park continues with an updated master plan by the Olin Partnership, completed in 2015. The Olin plan provides a framework to restore the park’s historic integrity, which the city hopes to execute in the coming years.
Phillips Barlow, ASLA, is the founding principal of To Design LLC, a landscape architecture and urban planning firm in New Britain. He last wrote “Site Lines: Monument to Connecticut’s Borinqueneers,” Fall 2020.
“Frederick Law Olmsted in Connecticut,” Spring 2018
Connecticut commemorates Hartford-born landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday (April 26, 2022) as part of the national Olmsted 200 celebration. For more information visit olmsted200-ct.org.
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