Memorial Park is located at 1620 Riverside Avenue, between Margaret Street and Memorial Park Drive in Riverside near the 5 Points area of Jacksonville, Florida. It is one of Jacksonville’s best loved treasures. Located along the banks of the majestic St. Johns River (incidentally, at one of its widest points, as it starts to turn east from its southern source towards its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean), this six-acre park draws visitors from across the Northeast Florida community. On any given day, families and friends, athletes and yogis, sunbathers, fisherman, and readers enjoy a quiet respite with magnificent views from this landmark open space. The park is walking distance to local restaurants and pubs, the shops at 5 Points, and the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, and just a short drive to Downtown.
History & Purpose
From its beginning, Memorial Park has existed through collaborative partnerships of public and private interests. In November 1918, George Hardee of the Jacksonville Rotary Club put forth a proposal for a memorial to honor Floridians who died in service during “The Great War”, known today as World War I, which was to be paid for by the citizens of greater Jacksonville and dedicated in a new public park. The following year, the City of Jacksonville purchased approximately six acres along the St. Johns River in the neighborhood district of Riverside for $125,000. Hardee led efforts to form the Citizens Committee to plan the park’s development, along with various civic leaders and philanthropists, such as Morgan Gress, Ninah Cummer, Edith Gray, and Mary Cline. In two years they raised $52,000, commissioned nationally famed local-area sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars to create a memorial to Florida’s war dead, and hired the renowned Olmsted Brothers to design the park. When the City began constructing the park, local architect Benjamin Greeley was brought in to assist with details and provide construction oversight. By the end of 1924, construction and plantings were sufficiently complete to erect Pillars’ memorial—the instantly iconic sculpture Life—and, on Christmas Day, both the memorial and the park were dedicated. Life was unveiled by two young girls: Mary Burrows, the niece of Edward DeSaussure, who was killed in action in the Argonne, and Mary Bedell, the niece of Bessie Gale, a YMCA nurse who died in France in early 1919. To further honor the fallen, the names of the more than 1220 Floridians who died in the first World War were inscribed on parchment and placed in a lead box within a bronze box inside of Life.
The Olmsted Brothers
From the moment that Ninah Cummer made contact with the Olmsted Brothers landscape design firm from Brookline, Massachusetts, Memorial Park was destined for national significance. The Olmsted Brothers were renowned for designing national and city parks, private residences, campuses, libraries, and state capitols, with projects ranging geographically from all corners of the continental United States. The firm was run by stepbrothers John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920) and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870-1957), sons of the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), who famously designed Central Park in Manhattan, New York and the“emerald necklace” of Boston and is considered by many to be the inventor of the modern urban park. Both brothers were also founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and helped start the first professional training program for landscape architects at Harvard.
Perhaps the Olmsted Brothers firm’s greatest contribution was its legacy of park planning and design, seen in individual parks and in comprehensive park systems all over the United States. From Baltimore to Seattle, Louisville to Yosemite, the Olmsted Brothers made recommendations for well-thought-out systems of public space and provided specific designs for hundreds of sites. In their reports they wrote eloquently of the purposes and benefits of parks: providing fresh air and visual beauty for stressed and crowded city dwellers, exercise for people ever more engaged in “confining occupations”, structured and unstructured play, both physical and mental for children, youth, and adults, and the “social recreation” of meeting up, people-watching, and seeing and being seen. Always of key concern were the aesthetics of good design, pleasing compositions, and fitting into the sense of place that is unique to each locale. They applied their theories and principles, with clarity of each park’s or each space’s purpose, with functionality and with elegance, in countless designs.
Memorial Park is forever linked with the outstanding legacy and body of work created by one of the most important landscape design firms in the history of the profession. In addition, because of the intimate size of Memorial Park in relation to other Olmsted Brothers’ projects, as well as the quality of its plan and the degree to which it remains in tact, Memorial Park has been called by some architectural historians the finest small urban park in the nation designed by the Olmsted Brothers still in existence today.
Of course, Memorial Park would not be the park we know today without the local connection between Ninah Cummer and the Olmsted Brothers. Although the initial connection with the Olmsted Brothers was made in 1921 upon a recommendation to the Citizens Committee by noted horticulturist Dr. Harold Hume of Glen St. Mary Nurseries—Florida’s oldest nursery, established in 1881—the ultimate connection was made in 1922, when Ninah Cummer invited the Olmsted Brothers to have a representative stop in Jacksonville to discuss the park. By correspondence dated February 3, 1922, Olmsted Brothers principal J.F. Dawson met with the Citizens Committee, learned about Pillars’ concept for the memorial, and developed an initial plan and sketch for Memorial Park. In an instant, the park went from an open vision to a detailed plan with intimate design and purpose. Ninah Cummer led the charge from there. With her penchant for style and careful detail, she engaged in correspondence and friendly debate with the Olmsted Brothers leading up to the construction of Memorial Park. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars
Charles Adrian Pillars (1870-1937) was a mature, accomplished, and nationally known sculptor before the Citizens Committee selected him in 1920 to design the memorial he named Life. Born and trained in the Midwest, Pillars settled in northeast Florida in 1894. He was a student of the Beaux Arts tradition of dramatic, romantic, classically inspired, and often allegorical sculpture that had dominated much civic art in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Pillars studied under renowned Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft, creator of the monumental Columbus Fountain at Washington’s Union Station and a number of famous works in Chicago and elsewhere.
In his composition of Life for Memorial Park, Pillars made powerful use of the grand, theatrical style of Beaux Arts sculpture. Even though this style was regarded as somewhat old-fashioned by the 1920s, Pillars nonetheless found it fitting to tell a moving story of the true spirit of those who served. He wrote that he “desired this memorial to present the idea of life, its struggle and its victory” and summed up his inspiration for Life as follows:
It was that inspiration that led to the creation of arguably the most iconic structure in Jacksonville.
Timeline of Historical Events
For a much more detailed history of the origins of Memorial Park, the Olmsted Brothers design, and Pillars memorial sculpture Life, please click here to access the Memorial Park Master Plan prepared in 2013 by Atlanta-based landscape architect David Sacks.
In April 2017, The Memorial Park Association released a video telling the story and significance of Memorial Park. Shot in hi-definition, it is truly a masterpiece that showcases Memorial Park like nothing else ever has. The video can be viewed by clicking here.