An Historic Michrocosm

by Christine Adams Beckett

Edgemont Memorial Park in Montclair, New Jersey is a speechless witness to our collective suburban American story.  A plains land pasture at the foot of First Mountain, the Park has endured and flourished through many defining American moments.  One might go as far as to say that a swath of the collective American personality is embedded into its landscape, and its usage.

The Park was used by George Washington’s Army as a place to camp during the Revolutionary War, as its intersecting Toney’s Brook conveniently provided fresh water for the troops.  Before our small corner of pastural elegance was ever dreamed as an area solely for recreation, before it was technically even American, it existed as a place of respite for those fighting to label its ground as American.  Later it provided pasture land for a farm, and by 1820 it was the vast expanse of a privately held estate owned by Moses Harrison.  Harrison’s stately house still stands at 249 Valley Road, its many porches providing a panoramic view of our Edgemont Park.

By 1896 the land was well under way of being encroached.  With the birth of Montclair, Bedroom Community to a Developing New York City, the Harrisons already had begun to cash in by selling off parts of their estate to become what is now Erwin Park.  They rented their pasture lands to the Montclair Athletic Club with the proviso that it not be mowed, making for one of the more challenging golf courses in history.  Perhaps all that hacking through the weeds provided for an acquired skill unmatched by even the most seasoned Scottish fairway walker.  Today, under our formidable oak that shades the center of the field there is a stone marker that reads, “NO GOLF,” a relic to our dear Edgemont’s VIctorian past.

The encroachment and precipitous development of Montclair’s open space was the catalyst for the formation of Charles Anderson’s Citizens’ Park Committee, preserving some of our open space to be breathing room and spots of beauty in our town.  In 1906, there where reportedly still die hard Mulligan McDuffers hacking away at the tall grasses with their clubs, hangers-on who remained on the Harrison tract long after the Montclair Athletic Club moved to West Orange.  By April of that year, a referendum was passed, creating a bond issuance for the acquirement of land for the purpose of preservation and the formation of parks.  The Harrison Tract was one of those purchased.

The development of Edgemont was tackled by none other than the Olmsted Landscape Architecture firm, largely given credit for creating the urban and suburban recreational American landscape.  Although their expensive plans never came to fruition, a predicament most likely due to a lack of funds, one can assume that the Town used Anderson Park, less than a quarter mile north of Edgemont and an Olmsted design, as an example for its more practically minded plantings.  Therefore it remains as an example of an offshoot of the nation’s first county park system, the famed Essex County Parks with its Olmsted pedigree.

In 1919 the mayor of Montclair, Lewis F. Dodd, sought out the services of J.C. Olmsted one more time, again to no avail, in search of a landscape architect to outline preliminary plans for our World War I monument.  Olmsted suggested the creation of a New England-style town common or green on which to showcase it.  Interestingly, the Firm thought many other locales a much more suitable arrangement for its situation.  “[They] looked at Edgemont Park with the thought that it might offer an opportunity for a site, but there did not appear to be a natural feature distinctive enough to be seized upon for the purpose.”  One can assume that the damming of Toney’s Brook and the creation of Edgemont Pond, done sometime between 1919 and 1924, was to create that distinction fitting to memorialize the many Montclair men who never made it back from the front.  But the dismissal of Olmsted — for a second time — was due to the understanding of the Memorial Committee that Olmsted “would submit a much more comprehensive plan and sketch and the Committee were very much disappointed that [they] did not.” (Source: Library of Congress, Olmsted Correspondence Files, Job 6659, Box B365, Reel 323).

Charles Keck’s award winning sculpture of our doughboys being protected by the angel of victory seems so at home today on its man-made island in the middle of Edgemont Pond as to picture it in the other Olmsted proposed locales — in front of the high school, on the triangle at a junction of Bloomfield Avenue, or the intersection of Church Street and Valley Road — seems preposterous.  The monument itself is the logo of our town as a whole, sits in the general vicinity of its dead center and has honored our fallen men for all conflicts since the Great War.  Raymond M. Hood, renowned architect who went on to create Art Deco masterpieces such as The Tribune Tower of Chicago and Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, designed its beautiful obelisk, with trademark eagles at its culmination and military insignia at its fundamental base.  One might speculate on the creative teamwork that went into this magnificent piece of art.  Edgemont’s war memorial was not the only project on which they worked in conjunction.  There is another example of their work in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a memorial for Placido Mori, a piece David Dunlap considers a reason for death to be proud in his New York Times article, “Forgotten Treasures in the Woodlawn Cemetery Archives.”

Aside from being witness to the display of admirable art, Edgemont has also seen The New Deal at work in its Economic Reform Act of 1935.  The one Master Plan in existence today reflecting many of the present plantings is a depression era one, a federal program designed to put struggling Americans back to work.  The oak tree that shades the center of the Park at the time was much younger, but perhaps old enough to have provided shade for those Montclair men given much-needed employment, perhaps seeking shade while they took their lunch break.

We know from this plan that the ball fields were there in 1935, firmly establishing Edgemont as a place of recreation for the children of our town.  On Saturdays, the park still bustles with children wearing a rainbow of Montclair T shirts, running the bases just to the north of toddlers romping in the All-Children’s playground.  A group of adults walk their dogs along its perimeter while young teens try to fish for the stocked brown bullheads in the waters of the Pond.  John Nolan, a notable member of that Victorian Parks committee, “felt that Montclair should make sure of more open spaces, that it should guarantee to every child and citizen all the fresh air, sunlight, and out-door beauty that health and pleasure could reasonably require.  He said, ‘Is not this the peculiar function of a community that attempts to provide permanent, away-from-the-city homes?'” (Source: Those Were the Days, The Montclair Historical Society, Volumes 7/9, 1900 – 1929).

Edgemont most certainly performs this function.  From the 1770s, when Washington’s Army drank from the waters of Toney’s Brook and rested their fighting bodies, to today’s children from the neighboring Edgemont Montessori School saluting our veterans in the shade of our imposing monument on Armistice Day, Edgemont Memorial Park has bore witness to the development of the typical suburban town, all the while appropriately honoring those brave Americans who died to ensure its preservation.  It has provided a respite from the bustle of the encroaching city and its periphery of development.    It deserves preservation and celebration.

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