It’s not uncommon for Thomas Dougherty to meet strangers at Branch Brook Park in Newark. Two weeks ago, he had a particularly memorable encounter with a visitor who shared that he had once spent 20 years behind bars. The park was where he came to “free his mind of the past.”
“The park is a place for him to be at peace,” said Dougherty, the chief operating officer at the Branch Brook Park Alliance. “It brings us joy to know that when we are maintaining the Olmsted legacy, his vision continues to come to life today.”
Branch Brook Park, founded more than a century ago, is for many a deeply spiritual place — and for that, we owe to Frederick Law Olmsted, who is being celebrated this year on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Olmsted revolutionized the idea of what a park should be — a restorative place that people from all backgrounds and social strata could enjoy. Today, the 19th-century landscape designer is best known for Manhattan’s Central Park. But his legacy can be seen in all four corners of Newark— Vailsburg, Independence, West Side, and Branch Brook parks — where he built open spaces in tenement neighborhoods.
“The Olmsteds wanted there to be areas where you could be refreshed from the dirt and the hustle-bustle of the city,” Kathy Kauhl, archivist for the Essex County Parks Department.
In 1867, inspired by Olmsted’s Central Park, the New Jersey state legislature founded the Newark Park Commission, to build the nation’s first county park system. The commission hired Olmsted to conduct the preliminary study for what would become Branch Brook Park. By the time construction began, though, Olmsted had since retired. His two sons would prove worthy successors, founding the Olmsted Brothers, which included Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John Charles Olmsted. In 1898, their firm began work in Essex County, finishing Branch Brook Park, as well as 19 other county parks.
The mark of an Olmsted park is the ability to transport the visitor someplace more remote than a busy city. To achieve this, along the border of a park, the Olmsteds used a scrim of trees and embankments to block out the city beyond its borders. This is especially noticeable in the north of the park where the roadway winds through an urban forest.
The Olmsted legacy can also be seen in the county’s street grid. The initial goal was to link all of the county parks and reservations with a series of scenic boulevards called “parkways.” The Oraton Parkway in East Orange and Newark’s Passaic River Parkway were examples of that concept but were later destroyed in the mid-century era to accommodate the Garden State Parkway and Route 21 respectively. Park Avenue, which connects Branch Brook Park to Llewellyn Park in West Orange, is one of the few remaining parkways, although much of its scenic aspects were stripped away to accommodate more traffic.
The effect Branch Brook Park still has on visitors might best be encapsulated by the words of Arleyn Levee, a historian for the National Association for Olmsted Parks, which is celebrating the 200th anniversary with events.
“The beauty within the Branch Brook Park of today reverberates with ghosts and echoes,” Levee wrote in the poetic preface of a study from 2002. “Shimmering waters, shadowy woods and rolling greenswards, punctuated by bridges and buildings, laced together by sinuous roads and paths, and seasonally enhanced by a spring-time ‘froth’ of cherry blossoms.”
As the Cherry Blossom Festival returns to Branch Brook Park, from April 2 to April 10, after being closed for the first two years of the pandemic, park-goers have a renewed appreciation of the therapeutic nature of open spaces. This anniversary year is much more than the celebration of one man’s life.
Upcoming events at Branch Brook Park.
Essex County Family Day
Saturday, April 9th, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Concert Grove
Sunday, April 10, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Cherry Blossom Welcome Center
Cherry Blossom Talks
Every Wednesday in April, 11 a.m. Cherry Blossom Welcome Center
Newark-born historian Myles Zhang designed an interactive map of historical photos of Branch Brook Park.