Upholding the Olmsted Plan

(Originally published asSociety Works to Uphold the Olmstead Planin the Adirondack Daily Enterprise Saturday, May 31, 2003.  Reprinted with permission.)

SARANAC LAKE – The National Association for Olmsted Parks is currently celebrating Olmsted Centennials with selected reprints of the landscape architect’s writings and individual Olmsted Park celebrations.

Among Frederick Law Olmsted’s prolific designs are Boston’s Fenway Park (“Emerald Necklace”), New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

In Saranac Lake a few forward-looking businessmen recognized early the need of a plan for the rapidly sprouting community and the potential beauty of the lake and river. They retained the Olmsted Brothers to make a study, dated 1908. Submitted to the village board in 1909, the Olmsted Plan for the Improvement of Saranac Lake was turned down as being too expensive and taking commercial property from the tax rolls.

Heartily agreeing that land is a resource and not a commodity, on April 10, 1910 a group of local women organized formally to bring the Olmsted Plan into reality. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise committed an entire issue to reprinting the Olmsted Plan, the formation of the Village Improvement Society (VIS), and a complimentary editorial comment.
“Coming to Saranac Lake last summer (1907),” wrote James Clark Whiting, the Olmsted architect assigned to the village, “I was struck almost immediately with the potential value of Lake Flower and its immediate surroundings as public property … there is no one step … that will be of greater permanent benefit to the village as a whole than the acquisition of complete control over this lake and its shores… all the undesirable buildings will be removed and the lake shores treated as a park.

“I realize fully the great cost of taking these lake shores and that many people will be opposed to spending public funds in that way. But I do not know of a case where parks or parkways have been built … that abutting property has not increased in values…”

The Village Improvement Society was up and running, distributing copies of the Olmsted Plan and exhorting village leaders to support it.

1912 – VIS purchased a triangle of land at the junction of Church and River streets and created what is now, with a considerable amount shaved off by street widening, the Veterans’ Triangle. This is currently owned by the village which shares maintenance with VIS.

1918 – VIS took its only mortgage to purchase its first Lake Flower property, a swampy, stump-filled area across from Triangle Park (River Street Park, later renamed Prescott Park).

1924 – The Jenkins property on Olive Street was given to VIS, left undeveloped until 1969 when Philip G. Wolff drew up a plan for an Arboretum (Sunset Park Adirondack Arboretum).

1925 – The mortgage finally paid off, VIS acquired the Callanan property on Lake Flower to develop Baldwin Park, (tennis courts and Korean Memorial) and bought a small strip across from St. Bernard’s convent to create Seymour Park.

1927 – The Mullen property, corner of River Street and Lake Flower Avenue (Mullen Park).

1936 – Riverside Park, purchased by the village after the Riverside Inn had been torn down. VIS assumed responsibility, retained Philip G. Wolff, then a Cornell landscape student, to design and supervise building the park in 1937-38.

The Saranac Riverbank

“I do most strongly recommend that both shores of the river from Lake Flower to the railroad bridge be taken and permanently controlled by the town primarily as a safeguard against undue encroachments into the river channel of buildings, refuse, dumps, etc…” the Olmsted Plan advises.

1949 – Having exhausted, at least temporarily, Lake Flower parksite potential, VIS turned to the Saranac river, purchasing the Denny property, at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Pine Street, (Denny Park).

1955 – VIS purchased the Newman property on Dorsey Street (Beaver Park) and, 1960 the Leggett parcel on Dorsey Street at the entrance to lower Main Street parking lot (Dorsey Street Park). When the village developed the lower Main Street parking lot, VIS agitated for and received permission to turn the river bank into a modest grassy parkland area. William Scopes donated six maple trees of which three still stand on the new River Walk.

By the late 1950s upkeep on the Prescott Park swimming beach and other Lake Flower parks were beyond VIS income and the Society turned over its Lake Flower parks to the village “to remain parks in perpetuity.” VIS remains in an advisory capacity.

1970 – Moving with the times, VIS opened its membership to men.

1972 – VIS bought a lot on upper Main and Pine streets plus adjacent property on the river for taxes, (Triangle Park, Herb Garden and riverbank).

1976 – VIS created the Church Street Extension Parklette on a small riverside strip of village property beside the new parking lot. The village reclaimed the Parklette in 2002 for the River Walk.
With the possibility of lakefront buildings being demolished to widen River Street into a four-lane highway then-VIS president Gertrude Woodruff campaigned persistently to secure Lake Flower properties for continuous parkland.

Surmounting opposition, VIS prevailed. On Nov. 27, 1977, the VIS president stood proudly with state officials on the podium as the new Riverside Park sweep was dedicated. VIS had at last realized one vital facet of the Olmsted Plan.

Small open spaces

“Small open spaces, scattered about a village … furnish the opportunity for people to rest outdoors … such small bits of park are very real and important elements in making for civic beauty and the joy of living…” the Olmsted Plan notes.

1972 – VIS purchased for taxes the 96-98 Main Street lot, now Vest Pocket Park and possibly VIS’ most heavily enjoyed public park.

1990 – Welcome Garden, Public property on Lake Colby Drive.

1999 – A small triangular garden, junction Prospect Avenue and Virginia Street (Prospect Corner).

How does VIS accomplish this? VIS has always worked on spare budget. Each of its parks and civic projects has an individual volunteer chairman responsible for overall maintenance, plantings and budget. Members plant, weed, pick up litter and oversee their parks. Perennials are donated from members’ gardens.

VIS’ 2003 budget is $6,500 to cover insurance, a groundsman, purchase of annuals and two middle school environmental camperships. VIS also receives generous in-kind support without which it could not accomplish its goals. VIS welcomes new memberships and always seeks new parks.