Worcester Living: Friends of Institute Park on a mission

Published Date
October 11, 2017

In the blue-tinged photograph, two women clad in long gowns and hats promenade along a path that borders a tranquil pond. Behind them, people relax on benches or the grassy bank; a stone tower sits on a rise, and trees wave slightly in an apparent breeze.

It’s 1902, and the smokestacks of Washburn and Moen’s enormous North Works on Grove Street jut into the sky of this bucolic scene.

Institute Park, one of industrialist and philanthropist Stephen Salisbury III’s many gifts to Worcester, is in its heyday, intended as an oasis for workers as a respite from their long hours in the factories. In gifting the land in 1887 and then developing this public park, Salisbury was both embracing the new urban landscape and preserving green space within it.

The photograph, from the Collection of the Worcester Historical Museum, reflects the paradox of the industrial city — any industrial city — at century’s turn: Smoke choking the sky above green hills; wealth supported by the labor of immigrants; paternalism juxtaposed against low wages and long hours.

Worcester, by date of incorporation, is now officially almost 180 years old, though its first settlements appeared in the mid-17th century. There is very little here without historical significance.

Elements of that history remain in the restaurants and businesses thriving in repurposed factories or, to credit Salisbury III once more, Bancroft Tower in Salisbury Park and his own family’s mansion on Highland Street.

But we have also lost much of our past, the good and the bad, as it has been allowed to fade into obscurity or crumble into rubble.

Institute Park, though well used, is absent the delightful touches added by Salisbury; the pond is choked with sediment, the unfortunate legacy of its industrial beginnings.

For 12 years, the nonprofit Friends of Institute Park, Inc., has been a quiet but persistent part of energetic endeavors to reinvigorate areas of Worcester. The 11-member board is determined to return the park, as well as Salisbury Pond, to the days when boats glided on the water and people strolled along its perimeter.

“We are trying to bring Institute Park back to resembling what it looked like 120 years ago and make Stephen Salisbury proud,” says Eric D. Wells, chairman of the Friends board.

The park is a critical part of the Salisbury Cultural District, formed a couple of years ago. From cultural and arts festivals to historical reenactments, concerts and road races, the sweeping expanse of grass that runs to the bank of the pond is often filled with music and activities for all ages and abilities.

“The joy is seeing the park used,” says James A. Welu, Friends board member and director emeritus of the Worcester Art Museum. “It’s a wonderful place to go for a rest in the summertime.”

His colleague on the board, Ellen S. Dunlap, the executive director of the American Antiquarian Society, appreciates the park’s tranquility even in the heart of the city. From her office in Goddard-Daniels House at Salisbury and Park, across from the AAS library, “We hear every siren,” she says. “Noise is constantly with us when we’re inside or outside here. Yet you can walk 100 yards down to the edge of the pond and it’s totally quiet.”

In 2005, at the behest of the Friends, the City of Worcester invested $25,000 in a new master plan for the park and pond’s repair and restoration. Following its recommendations, the Friends decided to replace the bandstand; dredge and clean the pond; and rebuild the network of walking paths that wind around and through the park.

At the time, says Paul J. Levenson, executive director of the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the park as well as in its home in nearby Tuckerman Hall, they thought they could start and finish the process in a matter of months.

Instead, he says, “It’s not easy. You have to take a long-range approach. We’re about halfway there.”

The full Friends of Institute Park Board of Directors includes Michael P. Angelini, of Bowditch and Dewey; Robert C. Antonelli, assistant commissioner of the city’s department of Public Works and Parks; Kallin A. Johnson, director of music at Notre Dame Academy; Tristan J. Lundgren, an environmental analyst with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation; Thomas D. Manning, retired vice chancellor of UMass Medical School and director of Commonwealth Medicine; Adrian Parker, events and operations director at Tuckerman Hall; and WPI Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. Solomon.

Deborah Cary, the director of Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries at Broad Meadow Brook and Wachusett Meadow, was part of the board for some time, as was former WPI President Dennis Berkey.

Each brings specific talents to the table; many are also neighbors of the park, either personally and/or professionally.

By all accounts, Levenson is the driving force. The son of musicians Harry and Madelyn Levenson, who founded the tradition of free concerts in Institute Park in 1951 and later the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra, he has an emotional stake in the project.

“I came to the park in pajamas,” he says, referring to the many nights he and his brother, Dana, spent while their parents were busy during orchestra concerts. “I will not stop until this gets done.”

To date, the accomplishments of the Friends of Institute Park have been all within the interior, largely cosmetic changes with far reaching impact.

A new concert shell has replaced the old, and 400 amp electrical power has been added so that performers do not need to bring their own amplifiers. The bandshell also underwent significant acoustic improvements last year. A new restroom and concession stand improves upon an old structure that had been demolished.

A gazebo, Sneiderman Gazebo, now sits at the park’s highest point, where “the very weird Norse Tower” once stood, says Ellen Dunlap.

In 1892, Stephen Salisbury III modeled the tower on a similar structure in Providence, “a kind of a folly in the English garden sense,” she says. He built the Worcester version in “the same way he built Bancroft Tower: to give people a purchase on viewing the landscape” from an elevated point.

It didn’t last long. Within 15 years, Norse Tower had been fenced off because it had begun to fall apart. It was finally razed in 1956.

One hundred years later, the park’s new gazebo sits atop a grassy slope. Painted in green and rimmed with lattice work, it is used for small ensemble performances, wedding pictures and the occasional WPI class in the spring and fall.

The point where Boynton Street meets Salisbury Street now serves as a formal entrance to the park, flanked by the two Tremont columns. In 1895, when the Tremont Hotel in Boston was torn down, Stephen Salisbury III purchased two of its four Doric columns and positioned them at opposite corners of Institute Park, at Humboldt and Park avenues. They are one of the only remnants of Salisbury’s influence in the park.

“He often stayed (at the Tremont), and his mother may have died there,” says Dunlap, musing about his interest in bringing the columns to Worcester.

“Paul had a vision of bringing them together and creating more of a sense of arrival at the park,” she says of the decision to move them to the park’s center. “We went back and forth — should we leave it as Salisbury wanted it or change it? Paul was willing to do all the work to make it happen and so it did.”

A new sidewalk now runs from near the Athy Funeral Home diagonally across the park to this entry point. The path, which is lighted, gives WPI students and faculty a more direct route from the main campus and the classrooms, offices and living spaces of Gateway Park.

In addition, the Friends of Institute Park worked with the state Department of Transportation to put in wide brick crosswalks at West and Boynton streets on Salisbury Street to ensure greater safety for pedestrians. Flashing yellow lights alert drivers to slow down.

Ultimately, the aging tennis courts will also be moved from their current spot close to West Street to the Humboldt Street side of the park.

“This is one of the Parks Department’s long-term goals,” says Eric Wells. “The Friends of Institute Park has not specifically spearheaded it, but we’re in favor because the city is in favor of it.”

The cost of these improvements, including the substantial work by the Mass DOT, was close to $5 million, financed by a combination of state, federal and city funds. The unified effort reflects the commitment to improving not only Institute Park, but green space in general.

Levenson credits Congressman James McGovern for helping to secure a $400,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A subsequent grant of $62,000 came from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund (comprised of the Mass Cultural Council and the Mass Development Fund).

Former WPI President Dennis Berkey was “a huge catalyst” in helping to work out a $1 million pilot grant — roughly one fifth of the total cost — with the City of Worcester, says Levenson. Berkey served on the FIP board from the beginning. “He was a big cheerleader for any number of things we did.”

“Our first and greatest success has been partnering with Worcester Polytechnic Institute,” says Wells. “WPI has been very generous of their time — their students’ time, their executives’ time — and with money as well. They are one of our best champions.”

With much of the interior work completed, the Friends of Institute Park has now turned its attention to two substantial projects: building a network of pathways within the park, including a path around the entire perimeter of Salisbury Pond; and dredging the pond itself.

It is the health of the pond that must be addressed first.

The headwaters of the Blackstone Canal, the 16-acre pond was constructed by building a dam to provide power for Washburn and Moen. It has, over time, suffered the results of its industrial past as well as storm runoff. At present, the pond includes 50,000 cubic feet of sediment and a level of pollution that renders it unusable. In places, the water is only a few inches deep.

WPI students made an initial attempt to clean up the pond in the early 1970s, working with the U.S. Navy to dredge 5,000 cubic yards of sediment. However, the Friends’ Salisbury Pond Cleansing Master Plan notes that “another 15,000 cubic yards also needed to be dredged to make the effort effective.” Nor was a forebay, a continual water purifier, installed to prevent the development of further sediment.

In 2002, a forebay was designed by engineering firm Camp, Dresser & McKee, commissioned by the Mill Brook Task Force and Mass Audubon and financed by the City of Worcester as well as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. However, it was never built, and the same firm indicates that it will now cost $2 million, twice the original estimate, though the plans remain feasible.

From 2013 to 2017, the City of Worcester commissioned engineering firm Weston and Sampson to study the pond, test the water and conduct a cost analysis. 

Weston and Sampson tested samples of sediment at 50 different points in the pond, discovering significant levels of toxicity. They also analyzed soil samples to determine the best method for dredging. The engineers estimate that it will cost $1 million to do a wet dredge to remove the sludge, which involves hydraulic vacuuming of the bottom of the pond.

“It’s the least injurious to habitat and neighborhood,” says Levenson.

The intention is to focus on cleaning the north, or less polluted, lobe of the pond first and to install a forebay in that area.

When the forebay is installed, it will “prevent most future contaminants from entering the pond,” says Wells. “If heavy rain — ‘a storm of the century’ — comes, the forebay won’t be able to handle it. But that is an unlikely occurrence.”

The projects will require considerable expenditure.

“Dealing with the water will cost approximately $9 million,” says Levenson. “The cost of the pathways will also cost more than $5 million.”

The key concern of the Friends of Institute Park today is to secure funding and move forward. Cost is likely to be shared among different levels of government as well some private sources.

However, says Levenson, “Our goal with the water is to be able to talk to the Legislature. We think the government should be addressing this. No one in the private sector has those funds.”

Eric Wells agrees. “Whether it takes six months or five years, it’s a huge effort. It will need different government sources for funding — city, state and federal. And we can assume there are some agencies either at the state or the federal level that just don’t work well together!” he adds, joking.

The revitalization of Institute Park is an ideal complement to the growth and development across the city, both public and private. Levenson hopes that a pristine Salisbury Pond and a rejuvenated park might one day be the site for a regular event like Waterfire in Providence, with flowing water, floating braziers and the accompaniment of the Massachusetts Symphony Orchestra.

“We have to be as clever as we can with all of the resources,” he says.

James Welu has written and given talks about the intersection of Park Avenue and Salisbury Street and its role as a representative of the past.

“There is the Goddard-Daniels residence, Institute Park, the American Antiquarian Society and the First Baptist Church,” he says. “Those are pillars of American society. If you look deeper, you can trace the whole of American history to that intersection.” 

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