Academic journal article Base Ball

The Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey

Article excerpt

In 1804 John Stevens III (1749-1838) began his 30-year effort to transform a portion of his wooded, 700-acre Hoboken property into a romantic, quasi-public rural retreat, called the "Elysian Fields." This was one of the earliest parks in the United States to be developed in the English landscape garden style. For half a century, until the opening of Central Park in the early 1860s, the Hoboken park was legendary as one of the most popular outdoor recreation places in the New York metropolitan area.

Stevens' grand scheme started with the laying out of "The New City of Hoboken," from which he operated a ferry across the Hudson River to Manhattan. He developed the 100-acre park in order to generate traffic on his ferries and to promote interest in his planned town. The venture flourished; by the 1830s, property sales were brisk, and Stevens' ferries transported 20,000 passengers a day to his Elysium on summer weekends.

Stevens foreshadowed Andrew Jackson Downing's park editorials in The Horticulturist by two decades. In 1824, Stevens wrote: "The park has a tendency to civilize and refine the manners of all classes ... where nature and art contribute largely to the embellishment of every scene." Twenty-four years later, in 1848, Downing paraphrased Stevens' ideas: " establishing refined public parks, you would soften and humanize the rude and enlighten the ignorant ... [amidst] their lawns, fine trees, shady walks and beautiful shrubs and flowers ... all classes of society, [may] partake of the same pleasures...." Frederick Law Olmsted, in turn, paraphrased Downing and Stevens in his description of Liverpool's Birkenhead Park, in his Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, written in 1850 and published in 1852: "Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable to this People's Garden."1 Just a few months later, Olmsted read Downing's essay, "The New York Park," in The Horticulturist (August 1851), inspiring him to dedicate his career to the belief that public parks had the potential to remove the social barriers between the classes.2

This essay, drawn from a book-length work in progress, examines the history and development of the "Elysian Fields," and it explores some of the reasons why Downing and Olmsted had so little to say about the place.

John Stevens

Stevens was characterized by his biographer, Archibald Turnbull, as a "dreamer of great dreams."3 His father, "Honourable John" (1716-1792), a Tory, was a member of the New Jersey Province Council in the years leading up to the Revolution. However, because he and two other councilors, Lord Stirling (William Alexander, 1726-1783, his brother-in-law through his marriage to Elizabeth Alexander) and Richard Stockton, had colonial leanings, Governor William Franklin (son of Benjamin Franklin) referred to them as "the unruly three."4 The elder Stevens and Stockton later became members of the Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia 1774-1777. The Honourable John Stevens was a man of immense wealth and connections. He owned no fewer than 20 properties in and around New York and New Jersey, totaling an estimated 35,000 acres. Through his father's personal friendships and social invitations to the homes of such landed families as the Livingstons and the Alexanders, young John visited and presumably was impressed and informed by the character of the landscaped pleasure grounds of their country seats.

John graduated from King's College (now Columbia University) in 1768 and became a member of the New York City bar, but practiced law only briefly. He fought in the Revolutionary War, earning the rank of Colonel in the Continental Army. From 1777 until 1782, he was the treasurer of New Jersey, when his father was the president of the New Jersey Council. …

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