Fort Greene Park: Home to a Glorious Yet Grim Reminder
Fort Greene Park is like a cat with nine lives. In 1864 it was unveiled as a Frederick Law Olmsted - Calvert Vaux (Central Park's famous design team) masterpiece. Prior to becoming a spot for leisurely strolling, it was a bastion of the Revolutionary War. In the 1970s it was known as crack central. Today, Fort Greene Park is a 33-acre emerald gem of flowering chestnut trees, 100-year-old elms, winding paths, tennis courts, children's playgrounds and gently rolling hills. In summer, Frisbees fly through the air and families enjoy picnics on its welcoming lawns while weekends feature concerts, plays, and cultural celebrations. In winter, toboggans hurtle down its snowy slopes and year round a Saturday green market bobs with buyers searching out the best apples, squash and eggs.
The park was originally home to Fort Putnam, built in 1776 under Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene. The call to glory came during the battle of Brooklyn when it defended General Washington's retreat across the East River. In 1812, patriots once again fortified the top of the hill in anticipation of a British attack, which never came.
The site's next incarnation was as Washington Park, Brooklyn's first such civic endeavor, established in 1847 due to the efforts of Walt Whitman, poet and editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He urged city fathers daily in the paper to provide a park as a "green lung" for the community, and a place where citizens could enjoy some "wholesome rest."
In 1864 the designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, were hired to design a new look for the space - somewhat rural in character with shady walks, open grassy meadows, a vine covered arbor, and a military salute ground. There were no remaining fort structures to preserve, but it was to feature a memorial of one of the most horrific chapters of America's history.
During the Revolutionary War, patriots were imprisoned on British ships in nearby Wallabout Bay and left to die. More than 11,000 men, women and children perished, their remains buried in watery graves and washing up on Brooklyn's shores for years after. Collected by locals, the bones were at first buried in a vault on Hudson Street, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but by the 1860s it was in disrepair.
The Prison Ships Martyrs monument was designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White (who also designed New York City's original Penn Station) and was erected in 1908 in the park, which had been renamed in General Greene's honor. The 148-foot-tall Doric column, topped with a brass urn, once flickered with a gas flame that could be seen far out into the bay. Majestic steps lead from the street to the column and half way up is a stone crypt, where the patriots finally found rest. Originally, an elevator went to the tower's observation deck, but it stopped operating in the 1930s and was removed in the early 1970s.
Currently, the local historical society is lobbying to restore this once proud, patriotic oasis. Plans are afoot to reopen the observation platform, renovate the comfort station, (a McKim, Meade, and White structure now used as storage for parks personnel), and to return four bronze eagles which once guarded the plaza above the remains of the martyrs. The eagles, which were vandalized in the 1960s, were removed and are now in NYC's parks headquarters in Central Park.
Get ready, Fort Greene Park is about to be born yet again.
Photos Courtesy of Stephen Plunkett
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