By Charlie Patton
Elizabeth Barlow “Betsy” Rogers, widely credited with leading the restoration of New York City’s Central Park, described the process of saving the park Wednesday evening during the annual reception of the Memorial Park Association.
Much of her talk focused on her recently published ninth book, “Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir.”
Rogers, a San Antonio native who studied art at Wellesley College and earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Yale University, was named by Mayor Ed Koch as Central Park administrator in 1979.
In 1980 she founded the Central Park Conservancy, a private organization which worked in concert with the city and the city’s Parks Department to restore the 843 acre park to its former glory.
After more than a decade of “be-ins” and “love-ins,” large scale concerts and inadequate maintenance caused to a large extent by the city’s financial problems during the 1960s and 1970s, Rogers made a priority of restoring the beauty of the park designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead in the late 1850s.
“I think of the park as a great work of art,” she said.
But by 1979, that work of art had decayed, she said.
“We had great, great devastation,” she said. “Erosion was a problem. Graffiti was everywhere. Garbage overflowed after concerts. The park was really a mess. It was near death.”
To restore the park to greatness meant removing 50,000 square feet of graffiti, cleaning up trash, chasing away the drug dealers, restoring lawns that had become fields of dirt, pruning trees, unclogging drainage basins.
To accomplish that meant careful planning and diligent fundraising, tasks the Conservancy has accomplished over the last four decades.
Gradually, Rogers said, “the park was reborn. It’s good to have the park back.”
During her three day visit to Jacksonville, Rogers toured many of Jacksonville’s parks including Memorial Park, which opened in 1924 as a tribute to Floridians who died in World War I.
The 5.85 acre park located on the St. Johns River in Riverside features “Spiritualized Life,” a sculpture by Charles Adrian Pillars.
“I think the sculpture is excellent,” Rogers said.
She called the park, designed by the Olmsted Bros., the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, a good example of “agilded age Beaux-Art park.”
Beaux-Art architecture was a style taught at the Ecoledes Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century. It had a strong influence on architecture in the United States.
Rogers said she was impressed by “the beauty of this city,” the profusion of “all these wonderful pocket parks” and the “great live oaks.”
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