Sunday, March 25, 2018

Library Park History

Plans to renovate Library Park were announced this weekend (Rep-Am, 23 March 2018), so it seems fitting to spend some time delving into the park's history.

Library Park was created during the 1890s and expanded during the early 1900s. The expansion was part of a civic improvement project that eventually led to the redevelopment of all of Grand Street. Cass Gilbert, the architect for City Hall and four neighboring buildings constructed for the Chase family, worked with the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm to beautify Library Park during the 1920s. The most recent improvement to Library Park was the installation of the Harrub Performing Arts Pavilion in 1985. Library Park's history begins, however, with a colonial-era burying ground.

Library Park in 1899, when the park was a rectangle extending straight back from Grand Street. There was a steep drop-off to a low retaining wall which isn't shown in this map. Hall, Livery, and Cedar Streets were removed during the early 1900s, making room for an enlargement of the park. (Detail of a map in the collection of the Library of Congress)



Grand Street Cemetery / Burying Ground

When the village of Mattatuck (now Waterbury) was developed in the 1670s, Grand Street formed the southern-most boundary of the small community's residential area, with pastures for livestock in the meadows beyond. A fence ran along the boundary-line to keep the settlement's residential area separate from the pastures and at least a little bit protected from invasion in times of war.

The village burying ground was located on the outside of the Grand Street fence, where the library building is today. Over the course of two centuries, the burying ground was subdivided into four sections: one for the Congregational church, one for the Episcopal church, one for people of color, and one for Catholics.

The cemetery was four acres in size, with one acre owned by the Roman Catholic diocese of Hartford and the rest by the Town of Waterbury. The diocese purchased their acre of the cemetery from J.M.L. Scovill in 1847.

Map of the Village of Mattatuck, published in Bronson's History of Waterbury, 1858.
North is to the right. The road at the top is West Main Street. The road at the bottom ("to Farmington") is East Main Street. Pine Hill on the map was removed during the 1800s.


Riverside Cemetery opened in 1853, featuring a beautifully designed and landscaped park-like setting. Waterbury's wealthiest families purchased large plots and, in a few cases, relocated their ancestor's remains from the Grand Street cemetery to Riverside Cemetery.

The Grand Street burying ground became run down by the 1880s. Although there were still families actively caring for areas of the cemetery, much of it became overgrown with weeds. Despite being surrounded by stately homes, the cemetery was "daily marred by acts unfit to mention" and the tombstones were being vandalized and even stolen (Annual Message of His Honor Mayor Baldwin, Delivered in Court of Common Council, January 5, 1891, Waterbury Municipal Register for the Year 1891, p. 18).

Grand Street Cemetery, March or April 1891. View looking northeast.
Collection of the Mattatuck Museum.


During the 1880s, a movement began to turn the burying ground into a public park with a new library building in the middle. A map of the burying ground was created, showing the location of every grave that could be identified.

The City of Waterbury took ownership of the burying ground in 1891 with the intention of converting it into a park. The Town of Waterbury, which at that time was a separate government, donated their three acres of the cemetery to the City, while the Roman Catholic diocese sold their acre to the City for $12,000.

The plan to convert the cemetery into a park was extremely controversial. Angry letters by descendants of the town's earliest settlers were published in the Waterbury newspapers, calling the planned park a desecration. The protests were in vain; the City moved forward with the project on April 26, 1891.


Sturges Judd's map of the Grand Street Cemetery, showing the locations of every grave he could identify. Some graves had no markers -- grid E1 was the plot for people of color, where dozens of people were buried, but Judd's map shows no indication of individual graves there, because no tombstones were present. The map is in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum.



The original plan called for the removal of all remains, but only some graves were relocated. The City established a committee to oversee the project, but put the burden on the families and friends of the deceased to request the transfer of the remains to new cemeteries: "Any one having relations or friends buried there can, on application to the committee in charge, have them removed to other cemeteries at the expense of the city." (Annual Message of His Honor Mayor Baldwin, Delivered in Court of Common Council, January 5, 1891, Waterbury Municipal Register for the Year 1891, p. 18)

Of the more than 750 graves in the cemetery, the City paid for 63 to be relocated. An unknown number of others were exhumed at private expense. It is presumed that all of the Catholic burials were relocated, but I have not yet found documentation for this.

Most of the graves were left in place, the tombstones buried lying flat a few feet under the surface in random locations. Those with no tombstones were also left in place, as there was nothing to identify the remains.


Silas Bronson Library

The Board of Agents for the Silas Bronson Library took ownership of the four acres of former cemetery land in December, 1891. The City had spent a little over $17,000 purchasing and converting the cemetery to buildable land,  but did not charge the library for the expense, which meant that the library to use that much more of its endowment fund for the construction of a new building.

Construction of the new library building started in June, 1893 and took just over a year to complete. Excavation for the library's basement unearthed a number of tombstones that had been buried by the City. No efforts to preserve them had been planned, so the construction crew tossed them on the ground, where some were crushed under cart wheels (Anderson's History of Waterbury, Volume I, p. 674). Exhumed bones were reburied in the southwest corner of the library's plot of land.

The most interesting tombstones unearthed during construction, or at least, the ones that were destroyed by carelessness, were placed in storage in the library's basement.


Silas Bronson Library, c. 1910
Collection of Mattatuck Museum



Union Station

Grand Street became the main entrance to Waterbury with the construction of Union Station in 1906. Designed by the premiere NYC architectural firm of McKim, Meade, & White, the train station's construction involved significant changes to the streets in front of it. City Engineer Robert Cairns oversaw the landscaping: Meadow Street was widened and elevated, and West Main and Grand Streets were raised up to meet it; the entrance to Grand Street was widened; "unsightly" buildings and homes were demolished; and three small streets (Hall, Livery, Cedar) were removed.

Map showing the expanded park as well as where the cemetery and side streets used to be.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives


Reconstruction of Grand Street, c. 1906. View from Union Station lot. A new stone foundation wall is being built on the left, so that the street can be raised up.
Collection of Mattatuck Museum.


Library Park was expanded as part of the overall beautification of the area in front of Union Station. The general shape of the park became what it is today, but instead of lying flat, the park sloped down to Meadow Street.

Library Park, c. 1921.
Collection of Mattatuck Museum



View of Library Park from Meadow Street train tracks, c. 1921.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives

View of Library Park, January 1920.
Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Library Park, c. 1921, showing the future location of the parking lot.
Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Meadow Street, showing Library Park sloping down to a retaining wall, April 1921
Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site



Beautification of Library Park

In 1914, the construction of a new City Hall building next to the library continued the conversion of Grand Street from a mostly residential neighborhood to a civic center. Cass Gilbert, a NYC architect renowned for his Woolworth Building skyscraper and later for the U.S. Supreme Court, designed the new City Hall. In the process of the job, he became friends with Henry Sabin Chase, president of the Chase Companies in Waterbury.

The Chase family hired Gilbert to design their corporate headquarters on Grand Street, directly facing and complementing the City Hall Building. They also hired him to design a building for the Waterbury National Bank, which they owned, on the corner of Grand and Field Streets, and the Lincoln House and Chase Dispensary, two brick buildings on Field Street. These and other projects kept Gilbert busy in Waterbury well into the 1920s.

In 1920, the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm was hired to beautify Library Park, with Cass Gilbert carefully overseeing all of the plans. The project was an extension of the work he had already done on Grand Street. Funding for the project was provided by the Chase family. The plans had originally been conceived of by Henry Chase as part of his vision for a grand civic center extending from the train station to Bank Street. Chase died in 1918 of appendicitis, so his daughter Edith Chase took the lead in working with Gilbert on the Library Park project, although Waterbury's Mayor had the final say in any decisions.

Study for Library Park, 1922
Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site


The New-York Historical Society has a collection of Cass Gilbert archival material which includes blueprints and designs for Library Park. The Olmsted Brothers drew up the initial plans which essentially served as suggestions for Gilbert, who appears to have made all of the final design decisions.

A blueprint by the Olmsted Brothers (dated October 26, 1921) showing the plan and elevation of a portion of Library Park has a pencil notation initialed by Cass Gilbert, stating simply, "I do not approve."

During a visit to the completed park, Cass Gilbert asked the Superintended of the Parks Department how the park benches, which he did not like, were selected. Gilbert was outraged to learn that the benches were chosen because they could not be moved. He insisted that park visitors should be able to sit wherever they chose. “There they are...these inanimate things, and man has to yield to them.”

Plan for the Library Park pavilion as submitted by the Olmsted Brothers firm in 1921. Cass Gilbert modified the design to better match both City Hall and Union Station.
Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Library Park Mall, August 10, 1923. The mall was later turned into a parking lot.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives

View showing the library on the left, with City Hall and the Armory in the distance, 1920s.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives



Meadow Street Wall

In 1934, tombstones which had been stored in the library's basement since 1894 were installed in the brick retaining wall running along Meadow Street, a reminder of the park's original function as a cemetery and a reminder that there are still many graves left there.

Installation of tombstones in Library Park wall on Meadow Street, July 1934.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives



Mid to Late 20th Century

During the 1960s, the original library building was torn down and replaced by the one we have now. The footprint of the building was expanded slightly, and the front plaza was modernized with electric lighting and shrubs along the walkways.

Off-street parking became a major bone of contention during the 1960s. The pedestrian mall had been replaced by a parking lot which was intended for use by library patrons and staff only, but the construction of a courthouse directly across the street and the number of people visiting City Hall made it a popular parking location for everyone. After years of politics, the library gave up ownership of the parking lot to the City. The lot was enlarged in the 1980s to accommodate more cars.

Newspaper coverage of the messy parking situation in Library Park, 1969.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives


Starting in the 1950s, Library Park became a popular site for summer concerts. A wood bandstand was built on the western end of the park for concerts organized by the Park & Recreation Department.

Fulton American Band performing in Library Park, 1950s.
 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives

A young Semina De Laurentis performing at Library Park
with the Brass City Band, led by Cosimo Vendetti, 1959.

 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives


The popularity of the summer concerts in Library Park, and the need to relocate the annual Waterbury Arts Festival from the Green to Library Park, led to the construction of a wood bandshell in the park in 1967.

Italian Night at Library Park: Fulton American Orchestra led by James Condaris.
Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives / Kabelka Photo

Layout for the 1986 Waterbury Arts Festival in Library Park.
Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives


During the 1960s, snow sculpture competitions were held in Library Park, organized by the Park Department. Groups of students from the local high schools competed.

 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives



In 1985, the City used the last of the Harrub Memorial Fund, left over from the 1920s, to construct a permanent bandshell in Library Park. The Rhoby S. Harrub Performing Arts Pavilion was designed by Joseph Stein, the same architect who designed the 1960s Silas Bronson Library building. Two years earlier, his brother Jerome Stein donated the whale kinetic sculpture for the library's front lawn.

 Silas Bronson Library, Parks Department Archives


Jerome Stein, Sperm Whale, kinetic sculpture installed in 1983.
Photo taken in 2016


Library Park in the 21st Century

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the use of the park for festivals, the largest being the annual Gathering, celebrating the numerous ethnic groups who have made Waterbury their home. The park's infrastructure, however, is aged and in need of upgrades.

As reported by Michael Puffer in Saturday's Rep-Am, Mayor O'Leary has announced plans to renovate the park, thanks in large part to the financial generosity of Jim & Cathy Smith and Webster Bank. The project is still in the planning phases, but when it's finished, it should be very impressive.

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