“Rediscovering Old North” at Hartford Public Library

Among my favorite things about Hartford are the parks. I walk through portions of Elizabeth Park on an almost daily basis. When biking downtown, I often ride through Bushnell Park (it is perfectly fine to ride on these sidewalks, it’s part of the East Coast Greenway). I don’t have too many opportunities to visit the others, but they are all beautifully designed.

Lately, at my “other job,” I’ve been working on a finding aid for the Hartford Parks collection. For this reason, I was quite interested when I learned the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library would be presenting a program on the city’s Old North Cemetery and one of its most famous inhabitants, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822. Yes, 190 years ago yesterday, the day of the program. This year (perhaps every year, I haven’t done the research) his birthday fell during National Parks Week. Neither Old North nor any of the parks in Hartford is a National Park, but they are all worthy of a celebration.

The program was to include three speakers: Norma Williams, Philip Barlow, and Andrew Walsh. Unfortunately, part way through her presentation, Williams, a landscape architect and President of the Connecticut Olmsted Heritage Alliance, became ill and was unable to continue. She gave us a brief overview of the history of cemeteries in New England, but did not get to the history of Old North. Brenda Miller, Curator of the Hartford History Center, and Andrew Walsh did go through the remainder of Williams’ PowerPoint slides, so we were able to pick up a few nuggets of information. What follows are my notes from the program. Please excuse anything I may have remembered incorrectly!

Cemeteries went through three stages of growth, all of which are visible in Hartford. The first style can be seen at the Ancient Burying Ground. The oldest cemetery in town, the Ancient Burying Ground holds the remains of Hartford’s original settlers. By 1806 there was a need for a new cemetery, and Old North was begun. Among those buried at Old North are Rev. Horace Bushnell, Olmsted and many members of his family, and members of the 29th Connecticut, Connecticut’s African-American regiment in the Civil War. As attitudes toward death and dying changed in the nineteenth century, so did cemeteries. The third style is evident in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Old North has been neglected over the years and now Philip Barlow and his firm, TO Design, are in the process of rehabilitating the cemetery. Among their tasks is restoring the iron work, including a seven foot high fence on the perimeter and ornate fences around family plots. Barlow was saddened to have to take down trees, but they were rotten and it was necessary. Nineteen trees were cut down and they plan to replace all of them.

The firm has also been reestablishing the historic driveways of the cemetery. Maps have provided some of the details, but they are also able to determine the paths based on the locations of markers and trees. Tree roots and water have proven to be obstacles. An arborist has been onsite to ensure no damage is done to trees as the roads are restored.

The original entryway into the cemetery contains two brick columns. Unlike columns today, which are made with a concrete (I think) core, these columns are completely made of brick. Old mortar is being removed and replaced. Broken bricks are being replaced with the most similar bricks they could find.

Roads in the cemetery are constructed of asphalt pavers. Authenticity being key to the entire project, Barlow and his crew requested that replacement pavers be “tumbled” (think clothes dryer!) to look older.

Three kinds of low mow, low maintenance grass are being tried at Old North. They plan to monitor the patches, and whichever works best will be used in the rest of the park system.

Next on the task list is the restoration of 87 monuments this summer. Barlow stated that this is a small percentage of those that need it.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College, provided background on Frederick Law Olmsted and his vision for parks. Olmsted’s Hartford was much different than 21st century Hartford. The families had all been there from the time of the city’s founding (Olmsted was the 8th generation of his family) and, more or less, had spent the previous 150+ years trying to transform the wilderness into farm land.

The key to understanding Olmsted, Walsh told us, is that he believed people shape landscapes. The land reflect peoples values. To that effect, Walsh related, when Olmsted was asked what a proper epitaph for New York’s Central Park might be, he replied, “See what our fathers have done for us.”

For Olmsted, exposure to nature was the essence of life. He had spent his childhood wandering around the Connecticut River valley. Park designs, both Olmsted’s and other designers, would ultimately reflect this.

Around the time of Olmsted’s birth, Hartford residents began to head west to the Connecticut Western Reserve (now Ohio). The city at this point was leaning toward manufacturing and was in need of workers. The labor shortage was filled by immigrants from Ireland.

There was a great amount of contention between Irish and Yankees. Hartford’s wealthy, well-established residents looked down upon the poor new arrivals. Rev. Horace Bushnell decided this needed to be changed, and set about to create a park where the newcomers would be able to see and emulate their more proper neighbors. Olmsted would ultimately be influenced by Bushnell, but was much more open to change.

Walsh continued by discussing images of the Connecticut landscape, as it might have appeared to Rev. Thomas Hooker and his followers when they first arrived. Unfortunately, at this point I had to stop tweeting (my source of note taking), and the details from that point on are fuzzy. The evening ended with a question and answer session.

The two books Walsh referenced during his talk were Changes in the Land by William Cronon and A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski.