|New York—Syracuse—Lower Onondago Park|
Lower Onondaga Park is a 15.6 acre park constructed between 1911 and 1915. The nationally known landscape architect George Kessler’s influence is seen in the park. In 1906, David Campbell became the first Parks Commissioner and one of his early actions was to hire George Kessler as a consultant to prepare a park and boulevard system for the city. This followed a national trend by landscape architects such as Kessler and Fredrick Law Olmstead ( Central Park In NYC ) to create emerald necklaces in cities throughout the northeast and midwest. Although most of Kessler’s plan was eventually put into place, political controversy slowed its progress and assured that it was never implemented in its entirety.
When completed in 1915, Lower Onondaga Park epitomized the pleasure ground ideal currently in vogue. It was designed in a naturalistic style, with rustic stone bridge, pergola (pavilion), fountain and stone lined ponds at the eastern end. At the western end, a pre-existing lily pond was reconstructed and named Star Lake, which was provided with five fountain jets and its banks planted with a stately row of willows. Sadly, Star lake is no more, filled in by the City in the early 70’s. Indigenous trees on the site were retained and augmented by extensive plantings of shade trees, evergreens, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Indeed, three sycamore trees originally on the site prior to park construction survive at the eastern end near the fountain. All this harkens back to the romantic landscape popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing in the nineteenth century, where natural settings were to be “improved” by man’s manipulation.
The stonework in Lower Onondaga Park is unique among Syracuse parks. Stonework is a unifying feature in our parks with structures, walls and steps, many of which came out of the WPA period of the 1930’s. Lower Onondaga’s stonework is much more rustic with jagged stones and deep joints that give the work a rugged, unfinished appearance and evidence a high degree of craftsmanship. This quality of workmanship is attested to by the fact that most remain today and the uniqueness make preservation and restoration all the more important.
Almost immediately, the park’s pleasure ground aesthetic was compromised. Enter the greenhouse designed in 1917 by Webster C. Moulton, a local architect. The greenhouse, known as the “Onondaga Conservatory” was a result of the influence of the City Beautiful movement of the time and was the first of several similar facilities the city intended to build in other parks to create a system of public conservatories accessible to all residents. The city’s grand plan never came to fruition, however, as no other conservatories were built.
Further departures from the park’s naturalistic character were made over the years. The 1927 channelization of Onondaga Creek, and the creation of a rose garden near the greenhouse and formal gardens leading to the eastern end of the park and the fountain in 1935 are prominent examples. The formal gardens were in sharp contrast to the park’s original rustic character and were a rejection of nineteenth century romanticism in favor of the order and geometric clarity of design of the early twentieth century much as the Arts and Crafts architecture was a reaction to the excesses if the Victorian design.
City of Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs