The Best Things in Life Are Trees
The ongoing restoration of Newark’s historic Military Park, somewhat obscured from view by barricades of granite, fencing, construction equipment and piles of dirt, hinted recently of the natural beauty to come. Some 18 American elms, placed carefully on their sides and braced by massive root balls, were about to be hoisted into pits dug to re-create the park’s leafy walkways of 1926.
NJPAC has an all-encompassing view of the $3.5 million project on the opposite side of Center Street and a stake in its success. The redevelopment of the six-acre park is led by the Military Park Partnership, composed of the Theater Square Development Company, which focuses on NJPAC’s development enterprises, the City of Newark, Prudential and the MCJ Amelior Foundation.
“When the renovation is complete, the park will provide live music, performances, games, fitness classes and dozens of other activities for Newarkers to enjoy,” says Christine Chambers Gilfillan, President of the MCJ Amelior Foundation and President of the Women’s Association of NJPAC. “The renovation of the park will serve as a catalyst for this part of Newark’s downtown.”
Used as a training field for troops during the American Revolution and Civil War, the greenway is distinguished by banks of granite in the outline of a huge sword: Jacques Lipchitz’s 1965 bust of President John F. Kennedy is at the apex and Wars of America, Gutzon Borglum’s 1926 bronze sculpture, at the hilt. Although the park was converted to a public commons in 1869, the current plan is guided by detailed blueprints from the landscaping done between both World Wars.
Dan Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corp. in New York, supplies the vision for the new Military Park. A specialist in planning urban spaces, he turned Manhattan’s Bryant Park into a multi-use city oasis for arts al fresco. BRV will manage Military Park day-to-day on behalf of the partnership as well as collaborate on programming – much of it arts-related – with NJPAC, community organizations and other city institutions.
But back to those trees, which have their roots in North Carolina. They’ll be settled along Park Place and Broad Street, bordering the long sides of the park. G.M. Cheer of Manasquan, Project Superintendent for construction contractor Wetlands Inc. of River Edge, enthuses about the progress of the plantings, beginning with these trees and concluding later this Fall with a rolling lawn, impressive displays of flowers and ornamental trees, and manicured walkways. Each elm is outfitted with illumination – to create starry nights – and irrigation systems.
The planting plan was developed by horticulturist Maureen Hackett of Bronxville, N.Y., who designed the gardens at Bryant Park. Elms were selected over lindens (the original trees) to heighten the grandeur and invite pedestrians to wander underneath the cool canopy, rather than skirt the park’s perimeter.
There was one natural catastrophe, the loss of the sorrowfully diseased and hollow “Washington Tree,” considered the oldest tree in the city. The American sycamore was nicknamed for the president’s appearance among his troops during their 1776 encampment in Newark and became a popular field trip for schoolchildren throughout centuries to come.
“It was in bad shape,” says Steven Tettamanti, Acting Executive Director of the New Jersey Historical Society. The society often led groups across the street to see the tree as part of its educational programs. “We’re trying to do some kind of memorial.”
At the construction site, Cheer indicates where wood salvaged from the Washington Tree is wrapped in plastic and ready to be re-purposed. Some of the ideas under discussion involve using the lumber in artwork or benches near a fountain plaza that will feature patios, a café and restrooms.
And in all likelihood, the Washington Tree’s bronze plaque from the Daughters of the American Revolution, indicating the historical significance of the sycamore, will be reinstalled in greener surroundings.