Williams Memorial Park
New London, CT
The Williams Park Apartments loom high over the landscape. Down on Cottage Street, stone wall remnants hint at the sites earlier uses.
Williams Memorial Park is the central focal point for the historic district which surrounds it.
Visitors looking down Hempstead Street from Broad Street are greeted by a copse of tall trees and a granite monument.
Imagery taken from Google Maps and Street View.
Williams Memorial Park, not to be confused with the similarly-named Williams Park several blocks away, is located just outside of New London's downtown district. The site features a grove of large shade trees, a small rock outcropping, a pair of stone piers, a low stone wall, and a granite monument. During the summer, temporary sculptures and signs are often erected on the open lawn. The park is central to the Williams Memorial Park Historic District which includes 20 contributing structures that catalog New London's growth as a prosperous maritime city.1
The 4-acre site was historically known as the Second Burial Ground to distinguish it from the Ye Antientist Burial Ground approximately a block to the north along Hempstead Street. The latter cemetery is original to the city and among the oldest in New England. In the late 18th century, the space for burials was running out at Ye Antientist. The city purchased the tract at Williams Memorial Park in 1793 to ensure that there would continue to be land available for internments as the city expanded.
The first development to grace the neighborhood arrived in the 1830s. Well-to-do merchants and real estate speculators built several homes and sold buildable lots to others eager to do the same. Thomas W. Williams, a partner in a whaling firm, bought up land along the eastern limits of the park in 1845 and established Cottage Street as well as a stone quarrying operation. His partners in the firm, Henry Haven and Richard Chapell, contributed greatly to building projects in the neighborhood including the Second Congregational Church built in 1870-1872 in the Gothic Revival style.
Thomas's son, Charles Augustus Williams, saw further potential in improving the neighborhood and thereby making it more attractive to development. The use of the site as a burial ground and a quarry had discouraged owners from investing in the same types of quality homes that fronted on Williams Park several blocks away. The presence of a fountain, bandstand, benches, fencing, and other amenities made that area very desirable. Charles Williams hoped that the same could be done for the Second Burial Ground, but he lacked the experience to know how to best proceed with doing so.
In June of 1884, he sought the help of Frederick Law Olmsted in his capacity as mayor of New London, requesting his consultation in the matter of relocating the burials, erecting a library on the site, and making the land suitable for use as a public park. Parks Commission members of J.A. Rumrill and Robert Coit wrote to Olmsted's office in Brookline and made arrangements for him to visit the city. Olmsted's replies to their letters are not present, but Mr. Coit's letter of July 5th, 1884 hints at a major disagreement among the stakeholders as to the suitability of the site. "In the matter of locating the Library building in our proposed Memorial Park, it seems to me that there are some reasons why some other site should be chosen!" He objected to the siting of the library at the top of the hill, blocking the views down towards the city center and Long Island Sound. "An unrestricted view from a window would be enjoyable by a few at a time, and would not at all compensate for the loss of the few on the prospect." 2
Olmsted wrote separately to W.H. Richards of the New London Water Works to inquire about the nature of the stone ledge materials on site. Richards, a civil engineer, wrote him back on July 5th, 1884 with a quick answer. "The ledge at this place where it has already [been] worked can be taken out ,(if it can be done at once) for the stone only. But generally stone is a drag on the market here." 3 Williams followed up with a second letter on the 10th, showing Olmsted two locations where the stone masons would be quarrying stone in the coming weeks.4
Olmsted's concept for the site emerges more clearly in his sketch studies for the grounds. The library sits up high on the site with a commanding view down to the city. The serpentine walking paths connect out to Hempstead and Broad Streets as well as down towards Cottage Street. His plan calls for significant excavation of the existing knolls and depressions to accentuate the grade change and emphasize the upper lawn and terrace area. To make the path connections work, Olmsted depicts sequences of stairs. He envisioned low plants and vines covering the slope, aided by deposits of soil generated through excavations elsewhere in the landscape.
Equally as prominent in the park sketch is the alcove, a cemeterial and memorial space intended to accept interments of individuals already at rest on the site. Olmsted did not feel that relocating the graves to another site was wholly dignified, and he needed a practical use for all of the stone that was to be quarries. His sketches show a series of walls, niches, and monuments for this purpose. The low walls could enclose the space from view by the neighbors and create a solemn, private gathering area for remembrance and reflection while still keeping some vistas open to the Sound beyond.
Olmsted's letter of May 9th, 1885 suggests that his concept received a cool reception from Williams and the Parks Commission. In his reply, he explains why he believes that there is no other practical course of action to achieve a quality result:
"When you have removed the graveyard element of interest, the existing conditions, except in the outlook towards the Sound, will be dreary. The outlook towards the Sound is not to be improved by producing superficially any suggestion of the 'natural' or existing conditions. (It would be very greatly improved by the purely artificial arrangements that have been suggested.) I can think of nothing better and nothing less costly to be done with the quarry district than to handle it as I have proposed, making a defile by excavating a considerable amount of rock; building the terraces so as to increase the effect of depth and abruptness or declivity in this defile; establishing pockets and making deposits of soil from which to grow vines and rock plants by which to tie the rock in place artificially to the rock set up, and soften the asperity, hardness, and coldness of the material, and by opening a convenient circuit of communication through the defile by which this otherwise intractable part of the property would be utilized and seem by contrast to give value to the other part in which there is a possibility of obtaining gracefulness of surface and more tranquility of character."5
In closing, Olmsted writes that Williams and the Commission may nonetheless take a different course of action than what he has recommended.
"But if you are decided to remove the graves, there is no reason why you should not go right on with it...But I did not mean to argue the point. I think it entirely likely that all things considered the best way out of your difficulty is a complete removal of the graveyard. That is something that people are used to hear of and understand."5
The lack of further correspondence or sketches portended the end of the project for Olmsted. Williams and the Commission went ahead with relocating the graves to Cedar Grove Cemetery, planting trees, and making other improvements based on their own design ideas. However, the stone piers and walls on the site may have come about as a result of Olmsted's suggestion about reusing the quarry materials. The library site was moved down the hill to Huntington Street where it still stands today.
The only monument erected in Williams Memorial Park is a granite obelisk honoring the 21st Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, a decorated Civil War unit of men from eastern Connecticut.6 The design and placement of the structure is unrelated to any of Olmsted's work, but it would have fit well into his concept.
Historic Plans & Images
The only monument built in the park was dedicated by the 21st Regiment Connecticut Volunteers to honor its soldiers who fought at Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Richmond.
W.H. Richards provided Olmsted with a survey of the grounds and advice on the nature of the stone ledge materials.
Olmsted's study of the site included the library building as well as a meandering series of paths through the landscape.
Sketches Courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.
Postcard available from Pinterest