Elizabeth Park continues to sparkle as a “jewel of West Hartford”!
by Krystian von Speidel
photography by John Mattia & Earle Stone
ometimes it takes a disaster to remind people how special memories are. Parents in Sunday’s best, posing their children for a snapshot; a bride and groom enjoying wedded bliss; that epic game of ball with friends long moved. These are the memories evoked by Elizabeth Park. Home to the oldest municipal rose garden in the U.S., Elizabeth Park sparkles as a jewel of West Hartford. “There’s something about the park. People are kinder and gentler when they’re here. Cars don’t rush through. People say hello. It brings out the best,” says Friends of Elizabeth Park president Kathy Kraczkowsky.
Mother Nature reminded the community last autumn just how much this park means. The freak October blizzard damaged eight of the 72 rose arches. Those original arches dated from 1904 and succumbed to the weight of the heavy, wet snow. Photos of the collapsed arches—the still-leafy vines supporting the fallen center spans—ran in local papers. The Friends of Elizabeth Park, stewards of the park and its beloved Rose Garden since 1977, sent out an appeal to 5,000 citizens.
The response was great; letters poured into the office of Executive Director, Karen Tomasko. Newly appointed, Tomasko had just settled in when the storm struck. The testimonials that accompanied the checks reiterated why Tomasko had taken her role. “The Rose Garden provides much enjoyment to us. We hope this helps restore its beauty,” wrote one donor. “Enclosed please find a small donation to help fund repair of the arches”, wrote another donor. “Perhaps if enough people respond to the appeal, there will be sufficient funds” added another. The appeal tugged at heartstrings. “Elizabeth Park represents a living, breathing place of solitude for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from,” says Tomasko.
That was the intention of Charles Murray Pond, who bequeathed his 90-acre Prospect Hill Farm to the City of Hartford in 1894. Born into a prominent family—father Charles Floyer Pond directed the Hartford & New Haven Railroad—Pond expanded the 66-acre farm he inherited in 1869. Pond served as treasurer of the Railroad, founded the Hartford Trust Company, was elected to the State Senate in 1872, and became State Treasurer in 1876. He married Sarah Elizabeth Aldrich in 1870 and the couple lived in a sprawling 20-room, Second Empire home facing Prospect Avenue.
According to park historian Martha Lyon, Pond raised livestock on the property. The farm’s Ayrshire cattle were exhibited at the Connecticut State Fair. By 1873, Pond divested his other interests and dedicated himself to the farm. His passions now included tobacco, poultry, and thoroughbreds. Pond built a horse track and advertised racing stallions in 1889. The term Gentleman Farmer was never more apt.
Pond spoke to Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of American landscape architecture, in 1870 about the conversion of Prospect Hill Farm into a public park. Hartford native Olmstead designed with Calvert Vaux, the country’s first public park, Central Park in New York in 1857. Consumed with Central Park, Olmstead had earlier declined the commission to design Bushnell Park. According to historian John Alexopoulos, Bushnell Park set in motion a long-term effort to build seven public parks, sited throughout Hartford to serve all citizens.
Charles Murray Pond died without children in 1894, three years after his wife. Pond left 90 acres, the house, livestock and a trust valued at $100,000 for the care and maintenance of a public park. His only stipulation was consideration of his beloved wife Elizabeth in the naming of the park. Following a protracted dispute over the bequest by younger brother Anson, the city opened Elizabeth Park to the public on July 8, 1897.
The design of Elizabeth Park and its Rose Garden engrossed Theodore Wirth, Hartford’s first superintendent of parks. Swiss-born Wirth immediately began to improve the layout. He relocated farm buildings to a central area, constructed two greenhouses, and built a road that meandered throughout. Wirth ornamented the grounds with flowers and shrubs. He remodeled the mansion, converting the downstairs into a community center and the upstairs into his private residence. Two bridges were built over brooks from the spring-fed lake. The greenhouses soon supplied plants and flowers for the city’s remaining parks, firehouses, schools and even City Hall. In 1903 Wirth broke ground for Elizabeth Park’s Rose Garden.
The Rose Garden now occupies two-and-a-half acres in West Hartford and displays over 650 varieties of a total of 15,000 roses. Wirth designed the gazebo from which the grand arches radiate. According to Elizabeth Park’s rosarian, Marci Martin, of the original 100 beds planted in 1904, 10 still survive. Martin became rosarian in 2008, following the death of long-time rosarian, Donna Fuss. Martin loves roses and everything about their growth and care. “We are a world-class rose garden, and we are known throughout the world,” says Martin.
Elizabeth Park had 100 dedicated gardeners overseeing the Rose Garden, the lily pond, and other gardens dedicated to herbs, dahlias, irises, perennials, annuals, heritage roses, and orchids, as well as three greenhouses, playing fields and lawns, tennis courts, a baseball diamond, ice pond, and playground. For 100,000 visitors every year, the City of Hartford now employs four full-time gardeners at Elizabeth Park. In 1977, the renowned Rose Garden—third largest in the US—was threatened with destruction. Facing financial constraints, the City of Hartford planned to plow it under.
Enter the Friends of Elizabeth Park. Established June 22, 1977, the Friends stepped in to save the Rose Garden and oversee all park efforts. “By the time the Friends became involved,” notes Kraczkowsky, “the roses looked like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.” Working in conjunction with the City of Hartford and with a grant provided by the West Hartford Town Council, the Friends stabilized the park from the brink of collapse. In 1983 Elizabeth Park was named to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, Ethel Donaghue—who resided for 60 years in an abutting Prospect Avenue estate—left one million dollars in trust to support the park. The addition of the popular Pond House Cafe has helped the park’s sustenance. Without the work of the Friends of Elizabeth Park, the park would simply not exist as it does today.
Yet as last October’ blizzard proved, Elizabeth Park’s financial situation remains precarious. The Friends rely upon a dedicated group of volunteers to supplement city staff. Days of Caring brings corporate volunteers to the park for hands-on work. According to Martin, these volunteers ensure the park’s success and beauty.
The Friends of Elizabeth Park offer a popular lecture series in the winter, a concert series in the summer that draws thousands to the park, and walking tours. “I think the concert series is just marvelous,” says Kraczkowsky. “It’s wonderful to see people from all over Greater Hartford. Some bring chicken in a bucket, others bring tables with candelabra. Elizabeth Park welcomes everyone.” Kraczkowsky continues, “our first goal is the maintenance of the park, our second is horticultural education, and our third is making the park an urban gathering place.”
The season culminates in Rose Weekend: June 22-24. The celebration begins with a casual garden party on Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, the Friends of Elizabeth Park welcome many thousands of visitors with family activities, lectures, demonstrations, and a gala concert. Thanks to the spirited efforts of volunteers and numerous donations that followed the October storm, the Rose Garden will look as glorious as at its debut 108 years ago!
Krystian von Speidel is a member of the board of the Friends of Elizabeth Park.