Downing Park, Newburgh – A Duck and her ducklings

Waterfowl abounds on the “Polly” pond. This duck and her ducklings were just too cute to resist.

As I was preparing this post I realized that although I knew that a group of geese was a called a “gaggle” I didn’t know what a group of ducks was called. So I looked it up and apparently it depends.

A group of ducks in flight is usually called a “flock”. However, when on the water such a group is most often referred to a “raft”, a “team” or a “paddling”. I like the word “paddling” so in future I will refer to more than one duck on the water as a “paddling”.

Taken with a Sony RX-100 M3.

Downing Park, Newburgh – The Shelter House

According to an article (Downing Park’s Shelter House – A Cafe is Born) in Heritage Newburgh:

Since 1934 Downing Park’s distinctive round stone building has served as a wintertime shelter to generation after generation of Newburgh ice skaters.

Though cold outside, inside skaters changed into or out of their skates and warmed themselves over steaming mugs of the hot cocoa that was available at the “Polly,” as the building adjacent to Polly Pond was known.

In recent years the “Polly” stood vacant bearing a lonely testimony to a once vibrant city. That is, until this past June 2018, when the reincarnated “Polly” opened its doors as The Shelter House Cafe.

By the early 1930’s the Lions Club of Newburgh initiated plans for the construction of a shelter house. The resulting building featured expansive windows and a view of Polly Pond and joined the dramatic pergola designed by Frank Estabrook in 1908, as landmark structures in the park.

Eventually, near the “Polly” an amphitheater that was designed to hold goldfish around it in a moat was built for outdoor concerts.

Pollution and Newburgh’s declining financial fortunes took a toll on ice skating and care of the park structures. The Polly declined over the years, the shelter house – as well as the park’s other structures – became abandoned and neglected, and had completely fallen into disrepair by the time the Downing Park Planning Committee was founded in 1987.

Committee Dedicated to the Community

It was the Downing Park Planning Committee, the grassroots community group dedicated to working with the City of Newburgh to restore the park, that chose the Shelter House as their first revitalization project.

The group raised over $300,000 in grants and contributions, which they used to dredge the pond, add new benches, redo sidewalks, and renovate the Shelter House, which they rebranded as a visitor’s center.

The committee worked to develop programs that would draw the public back into the park, including a free fitness program featuring yoga and Zumba, as well as concerts at the amphitheater.

Despite all their work, however, the shelter house building still wasn’t getting much use by the public until Downing Park volunteer Stephen Sinnott had the idea for a café, and the Shelter House Café project was born.

“Over the years we have dealt with a lot of vandalism and littering and just disregard for the setting of the park,” Sinnott explained. “So we decided as an approach to help bring the park back and make it a destination, the best thing was to provide a concession and give the families a reason to come in, and have more of a presence in the park.”

A Café Is Born

Sinnott used his background in construction to design the layout of the café, building a countertop where baristas make coffee, putting in French doors, and adding other improvements to the space.

Together with the help of numerous fellow Newburgh residents and business owners, Sinnott was able to create a unique space. Complete with fresh-ground espresso, delicious breakfast and lunch menu, and outdoor seating, it offers unbeatable views of the park.

Officially opened in June 2018, the café interior features old photos and drawings of the park, as well as historic artifacts such as the finial from the roof of Andrew Jackson Downing’s home, Highland Garden. Downing’s home no longer exists.

Today the Shelter House still acts as the park’s visitor center, but now visitors to Newburgh and locals alike can enjoy a caffeinated beverage along with meals named after the designers of the park and nearby Newburgh streets, such as the Olmstead and Vaux breakfast sandwiches, or the Carpenter Ave pulled pork sandwich.

Sinnott hopes that this winter the ice will freeze deep enough to allow ice skating on the Polly again. Per tradition, the Shelter House Café will offer hot chocolate in addition to its assortment of teas and coffees.

Taken with a Sony RX-100 M3.

Downing Park, Newburgh – The “Polly” Pond

A view across the two and a half acre “Polly” pond, as this water feature is known with its fountain and the Shelter House on the right. Early in the 20th century people liked to skate here in Winter. Unfortunately pollution has taken its toll and made the water less able to fully freeze so ice skating is now banned.

According to an article on the New York History Blog it’s called “Polly” for “Pollywog Pond” (I’ve just learned that a “polliwog” is a tadpole).

Taken with a Sony RX-100 M3.

Downing Park, Newburgh – Overview

I’ve often passed Downing Park in Newburgh, but this was the first time I’d visited it (while taking the dog for a walk).

It has an interesting history. According to the City of Newburgh website:

Most of Downing Park was a farm owned by the Smith family, whose 1750s farmhouse stood at the present location of the pergola.

The idea to build a park was conceived by Mayor O’Dell in the late 1880s. Citing the population growth and increases in property values, he acquired the 25-acre Smith estate, later adding ten more acres.

The City offered the commission to design the park to Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the designers of New York City’s Central Park. The landscape designers agreed in 1889, stipulating that it be named after their mentor (and Vaux’s former partner) Alexander Jackson Downing.

Actual construction began in 1894, and the park was opened to the public in 1897.

In addition to the farmhouse, the park originally featured an observatory and a bandshell. The observatory, designed by Calvert’s son Downing Vaux, rested on the highest point in the park, commanding spectacular Hudson River views. The structure was torn down in 1961 as part of an “urban renewal” project.

Little is known about the original bandshell, and no clear pictures exist. Described as being built in Downing’s ‘rustic style,’ it was removed in the late 1920s.

At the turn of century, the farmhouse was turned into a smallpox sanatorium. In 1908 the flu epidemic ended; the city condemned the house, and it was burned to the ground. Later that year, architect Frank Estabrook designed the pergola to be built on the farmhouse foundations.

The Shelter House, designed in 1934 by Gordon Marvel, provided shelter in the winter for those ice skating on the Polly Pond.

The outdoor amphitheatre was built in 1946. Used for weekly band concerts for many years, the amphitheatre originally had a moat filled with goldfish at the front of the stage

.

According to Heritage Newburgh:

Though many who pass by the beautiful park do not realize its illustrious history, in fact it was designed by two of America’s foremost 19th-century landscape architects, themselves superseded in prominence only by the park’s namesake, Andrew Jackson Downing.

Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were commissioned by the City of Newburgh in 1889 to design the park in honor of their late mentor Andrew Jackson Downing.

Downing born and raised in Newburgh had achieved great fame as one of the most distinctive style-makers of America’s 19th century influencing both landscape design and residential architecture, some of which can still be seen in Newburgh’s East End Historic District.

However, Downing and 79 others perished horribly in 1852 in a fire on the ill-fated steamboat, the Henry Clay, which was racing from Kingston to New York. Boats in those days eclipsed by railroad travel, frequently raced for bragging rights, despite the danger it posed to the steam engine boiler rooms aboard the wooden ships.

Downing was not quite 37, but had left an incredible mark and a huge void.

Downing revolutionized designs for urban green spaces, advocating for large and beautifully conceptualized public spaces, aristocratic in scope but intended also for the masses. He was the genius behind the idea for New York City’s Central Park.

In his absence, Downing’s protégés Olmstead and Vaux were commissioned to actually create Central Park, and they did, engineering a public masterpiece.

It’s not a stretch to consider Downing Park and see similarities to Central Park. And why not? The landscape architects employed the design vernacular that had made Downing famous:

design serpentine walkways
unexpected vistas
peaceful rolling hills
a central water feature
native specimen trees.

These are all the hallmarks of Downing’s inspired approach to landscape architecture which his two students executed effortlessly.

An article in the New York History Blog is also worth reading: “Newburgh’s Downing Park, A Short History

Taken with a Sony RX-100 M3.