By Matthew Colon
I surveyed a total of 100 visitors to Newburgh’s memorial Downing Park for a good reason: while researching a topic to write about or develop into a presentation, I seek insight. Whether that be insight into a time period, an object or person, I look through many sources for commonalities to thread into a narrative. It doesn’t hurt to consider the topic’s historiography; regarding how historians have researched or written about a topic. Over time, interests begin to expand, narrow or change altogether. Then there is the audience to consider. What have they chosen to read, listen in on or remember?
When I began working at the Newburgh Historical Society, I chose a topic to research that is near and dear to Newburgh – Andrew Jackson Downing. Driving through the historic city one is faced with the remnants of his influence as a horticulturist, landscape architect and writer. Travel alongside the right newburgh native and you’ll get an earful about the man. I’ve been there many times.
One Newburgh native, David Schuyler, would move on to become the foremost expert on Downing, describing him as an “Apostle of Taste” in his 1996 biography.
Landmarks also serve as reminders. Standing at the southwest entrance to a 35 acre park made in his memory is a wooden sign welcoming visitors to Downing Park, a monument to “Newburgh’s Talented Son.”
Downing Park was designed in 1889 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Downing’s former business partner Calvert Vaux, thirty-seven years after his tragic death in a steamboat accident on the Hudson River. At the time of his death, Downing was at the peak of his popularity. In the 1840s he found success as a writer. Through his books, his position as the editor of the Horticulturist, a “Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste,” and his consulting business as a landscape gardener, Downing contributed to shaping middle class taste that would carry through nineteenth-century America.
He demonstrated the value in mimicking the picturesque beauty of nature within landscape designs, gardens and applying nature’s asymmetrical principle to the design of “appropriate” homes. Many of his readers agreed.
Catharine Sedgwick, an American novelist, once said that Downing’s books, “are to be found every where, and nobody, whether he be rich or poor, builds a house or lays out a garden without consulting Downing’s works.” Another claimed in 1847, “He has done a vast deal of good in reforming the style of country residences and suggesting new & beautiful embellishments.”
Downing was 36 years at the time of his death and grief for his loss was expressed throughout the nation to include horticultural societies and newspapers. A writer for the New York Tribune expressed, “there is none whom the country could so little afford to lose, whose services to the community could so little be replaced, as MR. DOWNING.”
Printed in the November 1852 issue of the Horticulturist was a eulogy first delivered at the American Pomological Society the previous September by Downing’s longtime friend, Marshall P. Wilder. He juxtaposed the tragedy of Downing’s death with his works and legacy – “the most enduring monuments of his worth.” His closing remark, “HIS MEMORY SHALL LIVE FOREVER.”
Wilder’s message of “remembering” resonated well beyond this common eulogy theme. Thirty-seven years later, Olmsted and Vaux donated their time to capture the “monuments of [Downing’s] worth” in their design for the new memorial park in Newburgh. Their original design called for thousands of plantings, trees to naturally enclose the park, boulders, and a pond dug out at the park’s lowest point from which hills rise to the highest point in the city on land.
Over the years, the park and the city have undergone many changes and I grew curious about the people’s memory of Downing. Were those passively strolling through the park connecting the park’s name to the man? Were they aware of the once popular “talents” referred to by the wooden sign at the southwest entrance? My initial thought was very little. Wilder predicted that Downing’s memory would endure like that of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Fulton. However, including these national significant figures, details sometimes become lost in the widening gap in the timeline between the past and the present.
Something like this can be said about another historic figure of Newburgh. Located on the corner of Fullerton and Third Street is a statue of native son George Clinton.
Before serving on the national stage as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Clinton was the first Governor of New York and a local hero of the American Revolutionary War. During the early years of the war, his headquarters was located in a New Windsor tavern where he once threatened a British spy to give up an encapsulated message that he failed to inconspicuously swallow. Over time that capsule would become known as the silver-bullet and George Clinton was set on track towards becoming a household name.
On October 6, 1896, that statue was dedicated in a ceremony that the whole city turned out to witness. A photograph captured from a rooftop reveals the citizens that gathered to see the unveiling of a monument they were proud to have purchased for the center of their city. Newspaper accounts claimed that over 10,000 people crowded the triangular intersection that would later be known as Clinton Square.
The statue was moved from its original location on the waterfront during the urban renewal projects in the 1960s. Today it sits at the entrance to the historic neighborhood called Colonial Terraces, a few blocks from the local high school. I wonder how many people recognize him as they walk past.
This forgetfulness is not unique to Newburgh. This past July, a local newspaper reported on the lost meaning of a park in Campbell Hall where annual patriotic celebrations regularly take place. The Thomas Bull Park is named for a British Loyalist whose adamant opposition of the cause for independence landed him in jail on several occasions. “We name things after these people, and we forget who they are,” said Johanna Yaun, Orange County Historian.
Unlike Thomas Bull, Downing’s loyalties were firm with the American republic even as the social and economic systems were rapidly changing. Within the first sixty years of the nineteenth century, the population of New York City exploded from 60,000 to 800,000. Newburgh also experienced a population surge through the 1840s when Downing began to seriously consider the concept of public parks.
In an 1851 issue of the Horticulturist he wrote, “it is needful in civilized life for men to live in cities, – yes, and unfortunately too, for children to be born and educated without a daily sight of the blessed horizon, – it is not, therefore, needful for them to be so miserly as to live utterly divorced from all pleasant and healthful intercourse with gardens, and green fields.”
Six months previous, he submitted a plan for the public grounds of the Mall in Washington, D.C., at the request of President Millard Fillmore. Downing died a year later and the project that began under his supervision was never fully completed.
Surely he would not go completely forgotten in the Newburgh park that he inspired along with, as the southwest sign indicates, the “American Park System.”
I set out to determine just that. After obtaining a canvassing license from the City of Newburgh, I developed a survey. It would have to be short to avoid taking up too much of the participants’ time. I settled on three multiple choice questions asking park visitors to recognize, identify Andrew Jackson Downing and his accomplishments. Using a digital form on a tablet, answers were instantly logged onto an online spreadsheet to be analyzed at a later date.
I approached anyone that I came across. Some were walking to or from work. There were families who brought their kids to run, jump or kick a ball on the lawn. Others sat along the perimeter of the pond, known locally as the polly, with stale bread to feed the ducks. Dog owners walked their companions along the curving paths. Joggers ran. Musicians played. There were people of all sorts.
However, I was surprised by how receptive the public was to me asking questions in the park. Some wanted nothing to do with me, but most had no problem engaging after determining that I was not selling anything. Many offered thanks for sharing information about a park they knew little about. I engaged in deeper conversations about Downing and the history of Newburgh with those who breezed through the survey.
The biggest criticism I received about the survey was that it was multiple choice. Walking through a park named Downing, the answers to the first two questions about the man’s identity were obvious. They were absolutely right. However, after analyzing the results, I realized that the survey would have gone no where if I expected participants to recall answers from memory. Especially considering that 4 out of 5 had no idea. And here is where Downing’s “blessed horizon” became my metaphor. By the end of the project, there were 100 more people who learned something more about the park they enjoy and the man behind it, while I gained an insight that I hoped to achieve.