Friends of Duane Park

The History of Duane Park

What, where, and when?

A. Duane Park is the second oldest public park in New York City (trailing Bowling Green), located in the middle of Duane Street as it widens to meet Hudson St. It was set aside as public land by the city government of 1797, which bought it from the vestry of Trinity Church (Wall St.). The street and park are named for James Duane, a leading figure in the Revolutionary War, delegate to the con-stitutional convention, judge of the United States District Court, and first mayor of New York after independence.

Q. Why a park?

A. As the city laid out the streets of the neighborhood in 1794, Duane St. turned out to be inconven-iently wide at the point where it intersected a grid with a slightly different axis. The triangle that oc-curred was too small for building, too big for a street. Three years later, this tiny remnant of Trinity Church’s “Lower Farm” tract became Duane Park. Not a park in the sense of Central or Golden Gate or Lincoln Parks, it is a very, very, very early example of what has come to be known as a “neigh-borhood park,” a little green spot that breaks the relentlessness of an urban landscape.

Q. Then what?

A. At the time of the purchase in 1797 the neighborhood was primarily residential, the leading edge of northern expansion of a city growing away from its deep downtown roots. Houses, stables, church¬es, and schools (not least, Columbia College, of which Mr. Duane was a trustee) dotted the area, and it is not surprising that in 1804 this small triangle was planted as a formal garden with triangular and circular beds ornamented with trees and enclosed by an iron fence. In 1825, more “forest trees” were added and grew to full and feathery height, as we can see in an 1858 print of an American Express wagon and its magnificent team of horses (driven by both Henry Wells and William Fargo, the founders) passing along Duane St.

Q. Nothing lasts forever, right?

A. By the time Wells and Fargo were depicted dashing along Duane Street, the neighborhood was deep into change. The wave of northern search for fresh air and bowery surroundings had long passed over it, leaving houses converted into warehouses and new, bulky brick structures, home to the re-lentless commerce of a growing city. A horse-drawn railway went up Hudson Street and the first elevated railroad tracks in America darkened nearby Greenwich St. and West Broadway. The little park also went into decline; an 1871 report notes that “The Duane Street Park possessed a half-destroyed fence, and was in a state of dilapidation.” Taking note of the disrepair, the city undertook a facelift, resulting in “an elegant little triangular spot, filled with deciduous trees, evergreens, and shrubs.” In keeping with the norm for urban picturesque landscape, it was wholly fenced around, with sidewalks on all three sides. Like an engraving, it was something you could peer at but not get into.

Q. Where did the paths come from?

A. In 1886 the newly-elected reformist mayor, Abram Hewitt, proclaimed that all New York City parks should be more like Central Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn: places to wander amid greenery. Following that lead, the park superintendent, Samuel Parsons, Jr., chose Calvert Vaux to re-do many of the city’s small parks, including ours. It was a reasonable choice, as Vaux was famous for his work with Frederick Law Olmstead on both Central and Prospect Parks. He would go on to design the outrageously picturesque Jefferson Market Courthouse (now Library) in the middle of the West Village, the centerpiece of the Jeff Bridges/Robin Williams movie The Fisher King. Vaux must have scratched his head over how in 92/100s of an acre to fulfill Parson’s instructions to “create a feeling of quiet and restfulness by having pathways that meander.” Told to provide “seclusion and a sense of quasi ownership,” Vaux drove pathways through all three sides of the triangle, and planted the remaining land with “green grass…a few shrubs along the fence, and a small flower bed.” Post-age stamp Central Park. In addition, there was a horse trough at the west end.

Q. But it doesn’t look like that today.

A. It did until 1940, when the design was judged old-fashioned and pretty much scrapped. The area had changed, greenery was hard to maintain in the middle of a warehouse district, and workers wanted benches on which to eat their lunches and have a smoke. Much of the planted area was dug up and paved with concrete, and the ornate cast-iron fence was replaced with a much simpler steel one. In the center of the Hudson St. side, designers added a large flag pole whose outsized base was carved with an inscription to honor the land’s original Dutch owner, Annetje Jans Bogardus. The Hudson St. side was given imposing brick pillars. All the old trees were cut down and replaced with ten evenly spaced sycamores around the edges. One of them was edited off when the south end of the park was shortened and another died in 2009, but the rest are still there. (The 2009 casualty will be replaced in 2010.)

Q. Has the park always been this small?

A. It was never very big, but in fact its edges have been chewed away over the centuries. In the last resizing, in 1954, the western end was lopped off (taking out that tenth tree) and paved as part of Duane St., probably to help cars entering and leaving Staple St., and the sidewalk on the south side was taken away and made a part of the street, probably to increase the back-up area for trucks load-ing food from the butter, pickle, and cheese warehouses. Lacking a sidewalk, the city designers took out the planted area on that side and replaced it with cobblestones, plus a concrete barrier to keep trucks from driving into the trees.

Q. But it doesn’t look like that today, either.

A. Right. In 1994, as the neighborhood was once again changing and the butter, eggs, pickle, and elec-trical warehouses were shutting down, a group of neighbors looked at the park with dismay. The city could not keep up with litter, the planted areas were mostly barren and hard-packed, dogs had done their damage, and the design was no longer suitable, either. The Friends of Duane Park was born. Questionnaires poked into every doorway came back with an encouragingly uniform response: fix this eyesore. Fence it, plant it, keep it clean, bring back flowers and greenery, how can we help? Many, many people pitched in, raising money, filling in gaps in the fence, tilling, fertilizing and planting. The money went for plants, but also for the hiring of an hour-a-day caretaker to stay ahead of the litter. A year later, it looked a lot better, but still had the unsuitable too-much-concrete design from 1940.

Q. So it was done over again?

A. Encouraged by the success of just a year’s work, the Friends set their sights much higher: redesign the park, and bring it closer to the Parsons-Vaux ideal of “quiet and restfulness.” In this they were immeasurably aided by neighbor and famed landscape architect Signe Nelson, who spent hundreds of hours developing a design that recalled the best features of the Vaux plan, then shepherded it through many layers of city bureaucracy. Nor could they have done it without help from Council-woman Kathryn Freed, who donated $150,000 from the city’s capital budget, and help from hun-dreds of contributors and patrons of the Loft Tour. (For amusement, try reading the plaques on the backs of the benches; they represent some of the donors and a few are quite witty, too.) The new park, finished in the late 1990s, might be called the Vaux-Nielsen design. It recovers the secluded and green feeling of 1887, while maintaining a sense of security and providing space for those who like to stop by at lunch hour or sit amid the greenery in the afternoon and evening. Plenty of people eat their breakfast there, too, and in good weather there are always a few children and dogs.

Q. Recap the history, please.

A. First incarnation: Bought in 1797, laid out as a garden in the early 1800s. Second: Entirely fenced in 1871, and planted with trees and shrubs. Third (Parsons-Vaux, 1887): Opened up by paved paths with a wide spot in the middle and a horse trough at the west end. Fourth: Redone with far more concrete, a monumental flagpole, and steel fence, in 1940. Fifth (Vaux-Nielsen, 1996): Greenery re-stored and a winding path through it with benches for relaxation.

Q. You’re skipping the really early history.

A. Okay, here it is. First, it was boggy meadowland, undoubtedly full of insects, newts, and the occa-sional Lenape Indian. The Dutch arrived in 1614. In 1636, the Dutch governor, Wouter Van Twiller, granted 62 acres to Roeloff and Annetje Jans as a farm, but Roeloff died the next year. (The 62 acres are almost precisely today’s Tribeca.) Annetje then married the somewhat famous Everar-dus Bogardus, second minister of the Reformed Dutch Church of New Amsterdam. (Bogardus plays a substantial rôle in The Island at the Center of the World, an interesting book about the early years of Dutch rule in Manhattan.) The Bogardus family evidently lived on this land, which was renamed Dominie’s Bouwerie, or “The Minister’s Farm.” In 1664 the English seized Manhattan, and in 1667 the Dutch recognized this illegal act, giving Manhattan to the British in exchange for a worldwide monopoly on nutmeg. Must have seemed like a good idea. In 1670 Governor Francis Lovelace bought the farm; in 1672, the Dutch briefly retook Manhattan, but the English got it back in 1674. During that year the Bogardus family does not seem to have tried to re-possess the ancestral farm, which was, in any event, confiscated from Lovelace by the Duke of York, for whom the whole city is named. In 1705 the royal family (by this point, York’s daughter, Anne, was queen) gave the farm to Trinity Church, making it a gigantic landlord in lower Manhattan, which it still is today. For the next hundred and fifty years the Bogardus family did try to get it back, unsuccessfully. Thus it was that “Trinity Lower Farm” owned the tiny chunk of Duane Street that became our park.

The Restoration of Duane Park

The restoration design that Friends of Duane Park proposed was created by Signe Nielsen, a distinguished landscape architect and Duane Park neighbor. The design finally won approval from the essential authorities—the New York City Parks Department, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the Fine Arts Commission—after nearly two years of discussions. The restoration was completed during 1999.

The restoration of Duane Park aims to capture the spirit of the Parsons and Vaux design of 1887. To accomplish this:

  • Duane Park’s planted areas have been expanded. The enlarged planting areas include evergreen hedges, flowering shrubs, ferns, perennials, and flowering evergreen ground cover. Planted areas are graded to ensure drainage.
  • Fifteen “world’s-fair” style benches replace the battered benches of the past. These new benches are set along a curved pathway running through the park from east to west. The area under the benches is paved with cobblestones salvaged from the old park.
  • Three handsome historic streetlights have been installed to replace the undistinguished lights that used to illuminate the park.
  • The old fencing, which was bent and broken and did not completely enclose the planting areas, has been replaced with new fencing that is more attractive and encircles the planting areas to keep out four-legged visitors.
  • The oversized flagpole base has been scaled down and incorporated into one of the planting areas.
  • To replace the incomplete and not totally accurate inscription on the flagpole base, two commemorative plaques have been placed beside the entrance gate. They give visitors to the park an overview of its long history.
Duane Park