The History of Bushnell Park in Hartford Ct

When Reverend Horace Bushnell proposed what has become known as Bushnell Park in 1853 he described his vision as “an opening in the heart of the city… a place where children play… a place for holiday scenes and celebrations… where rich and poor will exchange looks and make acquaintance through the eyes… a place of life and motion that will make us more completely conscious of being one people,”.

His proposal came in a time of drastic change for the town of Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford’s population doubled from 1850 to 1860 as it experienced the benefits of the booming industrial revolution economy. These benefits were accompanied by crime, crowded housing, poverty, pollution and poor sanitation, which fueled the concern of community leaders. In response to the growing need for open space in Hartford, Reverend Horace Bushnell proposed the creation of the first public park in any city in America to be paid for through public funds.

The suggested area for the park was incomparable to the scenic, serene, green space it would become. At the time of Bushnell’s proposal the suggested site contained two leather tanneries, pigsties and other livestock, a soap works and a garbage dump. Industrial waste polluted the Park River, which was also lined on both sides with overcrowded tenements whose outhouses dumped directly into the river’s waters. Reverend Bushnell described the location as “hell without the fire”.

Despite the unappealing condition of the site, Bushnell’s presentation in October 1853 convinced the Hartford City Council to unanimously approve the park in November of the same year. The City Council approved spending $105,000 in public funds to purchase the land that would become Bushnell Park. On January 5, 1854 Hartford residents voted to approve the City Council’s decision to purchase the park 1,687 to 683. This made Bushnell Park the first municipal park in the country to be conceived, constructed and financed by citizens through popular vote.

By 1860 the park was still yet to come together and it was becoming clear that new direction was necessary. Reverend Bushnell asked his life-long friend Frederick Olmsted, a Hartford native and famous designer of New York’s Central Park, to design the park. Olmsted, who was in the middle of designing Central Park and could not fulfill Bushnell’s request, suggested Jacob Weidenmann. Weidenmann was a Swiss born architect and botanist.

The 1861 plan, created by Weidenmann, was marked by an uncommonly natural style. Smooth boarders enclosed the park, which was decorated with several walking paths. Clusters of trees, both evergreen and deciduous, were used to pull the curtain on the sights and sounds of the city. Weidenmann chose 157 different species of trees and shrubs from North America, Europe and eastern Asia to be included in the park. All together, 1,100 individual pieces of greenery were planted to transform an area that was once described as “hell without the fire” into a lush green paradise in the heart of Hartford.

In the 1870’s Bushnell Park nearly became the home of the state’s capital building. Connecticut citizens voted Hartford the capital of the state in 1873, a role the city had previously shared with New Haven. The west side of Bushnell Park was set to be the home of the new capital building. Reverend Bushnell’s last minute protest coupled with a suggestion from the editor of The Hartford Times newspaper, Alfred E. Burr, resulted in the selection of an alternate site for the capital building, which opened in 1878.

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch was designed by Hartford architect George Keller, whose ashes were buried in the east tower upon his death in 1935. The Arch was dedicated on the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1886, to honor the 400 Hartford citizens who gave their lives fighting for the Union and the 4,000 Hartford citizens who fought in the Civil War. Brownstone from Portland, Connecticut was used to construct the arch. A terra cotta frieze on the monument depicts scenes from the Civil War. Midway below the frieze, eight foot tall statues portray the different kinds of residents who left their homes to fight in the war including a farmer, student, stone mason, freed slave, blacksmith and carpenter.

As part of a $1.5 million restoration project the original terra cotta angels that crown each tower, Gabriel and Raphael, were replicated in bronze and replaced in 1987. In the same year, research by a seventh grade Hartford student, Airron Bethea, resulted in the addition of a bronze plaque which honors the 128 African American Hartford residents who fought for the Union.

Bushnell Park saw another addition just before the turn of the century. The Corning Fountain was constructed in 1899 and was presented by John Corning as a tribute to his father, a Hartford businessman who ran a grist mill on the site. James Massey Rhind of New York designed the sculpture using a Native American theme. The 30 foot tall, marble and stone monument portrays a hart, for Hartford, surrounded by the city’s first inhabitants, the Saukiog Indians.

In 1940 one of the parks oldest features, the Park River, was removed. The waters that were once polluted by industrial waste were frequently flooding, taking lives and destroying property. In response to the high toll floods were taking on human life and property, city officials looked to the Army Corps of Engineers for help. The process of channeling the Park River underground began in the 1940’s. A 30 foot tall, 45 foot wide tunnel stretching 9 miles was constructed to push the waters underground and connect the Park River to the Connecticut River.

Another attraction came to the park in 1974 in the form of the Carousel. Bushnell Park’s Carousel is one of three Stein and Goldstein carousels still in existence. The Knox Foundation brought the vintage 1914 carousel to Hartford. Jack Dollard, the Knox Foundation director at the time, thought the Carousel would symbolize the restoration of the city. Today, visitors to the park can still take the three and a half minute ride for only one dollar, from May through October, Tuesday through Sunday.

The newest addition, the Performance Pavilion, was dedicated in October 1995. Located on the west side of the park, the pavilion blends the permanent stage masterfully with the beauty of its surroundings. A total of 3,200 square feet of stage is used for music, theater, and dance performances by local artists, community organizations and performing groups.

Much has changed since Reverend Bushnell’s time but Bushnell Park remains a sanctuary in the heart of Hartford. Bushnell Park has lost some landmarks, such as the Park River, but the addition of monuments celebrating Hartford residents and the stage for arts and music truly makes the park “a place of life and motion that will make us more completely conscious of being one people”.