VOLUNTEERS HELP PRESERVE OUR HISTORIC GREEN SPACES By Adrianna Donat
You can thank the Maplewood Memorial Park Conservancy
Each day people stroll through and enjoy the pristine natural beauty of Memorial Park. The Memorial Day Duck Race, July Fourth, Maplewood Green Day, and Maplewoodstock are all celebrated at Memorial Park. It is 25 acres of dependable beauty just off Maplewood’s downtown.
The space is unpretentious, but it took a lot of planning to create this peaceful spot. And it takes a lot of work to maintain a park in the middle of our busy town.
Lucky for us, Memorial Park has a small, dedicated group of volunteers who help keep it in shape. The energetic and knowledgeable Maplewood Memorial Park Conservancy works year round to keep our park thriving and clean. They do it because, as Conservancy chair Deborah Lyons puts it, “Memorial Park is Maplewood’s back yard.”
Memorial Park was designed in the 1920s and dedicated in 1931. It was created in the Picturesque Style – a style meant to mimic a natural landscape – and is listed in the National and New Jersey Registers of Historic Places. It was carefully planned to spotlight contrasting textures, tints of lush foliage, long views and broad meadow areas. Instead of having a geometric, meticulously pruned look like you’d find in a formal English garden, Memorial Park was designed to be a natural refuge.
The noted landscape architect firm Brinley & Holbrook collaborated with the world-famous Olmsted Brothers to bring Memorial Park to life.
Brinley & Holbrook is well known locally for designing the Morristown Green and internationally for its work on the New York Botanical Gardens. The Olmsted firm is famous for commissions such as the entry roads to the Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia National Park, and closer to home, Central Park, Branch Brook Park, and the South Mountain Reservation. Both firms were masterful at creating parks in the Picturesque Style.
“We are a small town to have a park of such historical significance,” says Lyons.
Soon after Memorial Park was created, horticulturalist Richard Walter became the Superintendent of Parks in Maplewood. Walter led a team funded by the township to maintain the park. During his long tenure, he added unusual trees, shrubs, plants and features, like the beloved (rustic wood) Dragon Pit playground, to enhance the original design. Walter led a team funded by the township to maintain the park.
Says Conservancy board member Susan Newberry, “Walter had great influence on the park from 1932 to his retirement in 1970. He then remained on in an emeritus capacity as a consultant until his death in 1990. Trained in Germany, he took the park in a more botanical-park direction. He was also a popular teacher, inspiring people to appreciate the many plantings in the park and to establish them in their own home gardens.”
Several decades after Walter’s tenure, attention to Memorial Park languished due to budget cuts.
But finally, in 2017, a group of volunteers emerged to help maintain Memorial Park, forming the Maplewood Memorial Park Conservancy. Says Newberry’s fellow board member David Nial, “The Conservancy responds to the inevitable challenges: Trees decline, shrubs grow shaggy or disappear, weeds become unsightly, and the park starts to look ignored.”
And while it’s easy to imagine volunteers doing things such as weeding and planting, their job can be surprisingly complicated.
Memorial Park is registered with the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, which helps protect the park and keep it close to its original concept. The historic designation, however, also means that all changes within the park need state approval, which can be time-consuming. And because they are dealing with living things, keeping Memorial Park close to the original design can be challenging. Simple tasks such as replacing a dead tree can take a lot of thought and time.
For this reason, the Conservancy worked with Jennifer Ryan, a Rutgers University graduate in landscape architecture. She helped the group develop a master plan for every tree in the park. There are 605 of them, but one in three is dead or failing. Due to factors such as climate change and increased traffic in the park, many trees cannot be replaced with the same species that had been there previously. Memorial Park’s tree replacement plan was an enormous project.
In addition to the replacement of trees, the Conservancy has many ongoing restoration and improvement projects. One of the most visible is the Flagpole Hill restoration project, adjacent to Dunnell Road. The project, based on original Olmsted Brothers plans, creates a buffer for the roadway using a variety of trees (like grey birch, redbuds and flowering dogwood) and shrubs. Each plant and tree was selected to create a variety of textures and sizes to make the park more enjoyable. It took two years and hours of volunteer work, along with help from Maplewood Department of Public Works, to complete.
Conservancy volunteers work on many projects, including the restoration of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was completed during the pandemic in time for Veterans’ Day 2020 by volunteers wearing face masks. The lush border enhances the memorial created in 2011 and was generously funded by Maplewood Post 10120 of the VFW.
The Conservancy enjoys a good working relationship with Maplewood’s DPW, but volunteers are the driving force behind many of these projects. This is particularly true because one of the most important and visible projects in Memorial Park these days is maintaining things so its natural beauty shines through.
Conservancy Board member Lara Tomlin organizes Weeding Wednesdays to help with areas that need attention. Says Tomlin, “I have used and enjoyed Memorial Park on a daily basis. At some point, I noticed the landscaping at the [tennis] courts became a little neglected, so I began weeding and pruning those plants, with the DPW’s blessing. I heard [the Conservancy was] having a pruning workshop and decided to join. ...I really love making a visual difference in a public space...I do believe working in the dirt is good for the soul.”
“Our park is a jewel,” Lyons adds. “To keep it beautiful we need help. Weeding and planting make a big difference, but even if you don’t want to get dirty, we could use people with expertise in websites or public relations.”
So next time you find yourself watching kids play Ultimate Frisbee in the gorgeous historic green space, think about how you can help keep it looking good. As Nial says, “Many of these accomplishments have and will come from hands-on work. [It’s a] delight to provide this effort in such a beautiful place.”
If you are interested in joining the Maplewood Memorial Park Conservancy, visit maplewoodmemorialparkconservancy.org. Its annual meeting will be March 25, via Zoom.
Adrianna Donat is most recently the author of the children’s book "The Mustache Fairy." She enjoys Memorial Park almost every day, but not quite as much as her dog does.