Work will soon be underway again to rehabilitate a treasured city park along the St. Johns River.
Dedicated in December 1924, Memorial Park pays homage to 1,220 of the state’s men and women who died during the Great War, now referred to as World War I. There was no organized effort for long-term maintenance and improvements to the park until March 2013, when the Memorial Park Association, which was organized in 1986, decided it was time for a change. Three years ago, the nonprofit paid a private firm $12,000 to design a master plan for the park’s future. The 72-page document outlines a wide array of proposals, from increased signage and security to upgrading onsite utilities.
“This is the roadmap we needed to be organized,” said Agnes Danciger, president of the association’s board.
Now, projects will soon be bid out to address irrigation and drainage. Once those projects are bid on, the city and MPA can make a decision on financing, according to the nonprofit head.
“If I had $3 million, we could probably do it all,” she said. “This going to be a long road.”
There is no end game yet to mark the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are going to plug away one project at a time,” Danciger said.
The plan calls for restoring and preserving open spaces to increase park use. Addressing tree roots and year-round landscaping would make the area more appealing, according to the report. (A full detailed review of the master plan can be viewed at memparkjax.org.)
For the city’s part, a $200,000 fundraising match was offered to reward the group’s efforts. With the city’s budget constraints, there are questions about the future of city funding for the project – but not about its commitment.
The group is also getting help from private corporations and fundraising efforts. Proceeds from a beer festival, as well as funds from philanthropist Delores Weaver, have previously been raised for the cause.
At some point later this year, the group hopes to outline a capital fundraising plan.
Pattie Houlihan, MPA’s construction committee co-chair, said the group should be patient but vigilant in its pursuit of city dollars.
“While the city suffers from the financial indiscretions of the past, they remain committed, interested and supportive whenever possible of collaborative efforts on these projects,” Houlihan said.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming tasks ahead, the group has indeed begun to plug away at the some of the corrections offered in the master plan. Recently, restoration of the Life statue was completed inside the park. Jake Ingram, a retired landscape architect who sits on the MPA board, said the statue was in much need of polishing.
“We had to go to Oberlin, Ohio to find a company that could do this work,” he said.
The 1924 statue, designed by sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars, is meant to show the pursuit of civilization rising above the chaos of the world. The base of the statue is a swirling fountain meant to show the struggles people must overcome.
The top culminates with a bronze male figure pointing above to the heavens.
“This was so important for people,” Ingram said. “They can come and understand where society was at that point.”
Ingram also said work was needed on the swirling basin of the fountain. Some of the work had not been completed since the 1990s.
“We weren’t so long overdue, but it was definitely time for repairs,” he said.
Though it was Pillars who offered the Life statue, the design of the park came from the minds of the Olmsted brothers.
In the 1920s, the Brookline, Massachusetts brothers dominated the nation in park planning and design. Their work can be found from the nation’s capital west to Seattle.
“These men were renowned,” Ingram said. “What we’re trying to do is keep the park as close to their design [as possible].”
Frederick Jr. and Charles Olmsted also designed the 120,000-acre Biltmore Estate near Asheville, a popular vacation spot for the Northeast Florida residents.
The park now serves as an open area for locals as a relaxing getaway minutes from Downtown. Open space in the park attracts pickup sports games as well as kite-flying.
There are also plans to eventually create a park watch program similar to a neighborhood watch. The group plans to bring in police and offer training sessions, so residents know what to do and when to call in any situation.
“The project is therefore ongoing and we are faced with having to prioritize the improvements as they are necessary and urgent, but we lack the resources to complete them all at this time,” Danciger said.
The master plan, designed by Atlanta architect David Sacks, also calls for a park office to house a volunteer or city employee. An area in the park could also be set aside for donor recognition. The plan details recommendations down to the type of flowers and tree canopy Sacks recommends for the city to use.
Despite the cosmetic efforts, neither Danciger nor Ingram want the purpose of the park’s installation to be glossed over. With fewer casualties, World War I demands less attention in the history books than World War II, a conflict reenacted thousands of times in books and film. “We don’t want to forget those died,” Danciger said.
The group tossed around the idea of putting a memorial inside the park, containing the names of all of the fallen.
“We couldn’t get exact names and numbers,” Ingram said. “We didn’t want to have to add [corrections] to the memorial.”
The names, though, were placed on a pillar and buried next to the statue to memorialize the dead.
Since the MPA was formed, it has offered notable contributions to the park, the group says, including the placement of two four-foot-tall eagles. The birds represent similar statues believed to have been there when the park originally opened.
Rehabilitating the park will be one of last large-scale restoration projects in Riverside, the group hopes.
“[To] so many people, this iconic park is very meaningful as a place of sheer beauty, and something that is unique to our city because of its location on the river and the vista that it provides,” Danciger said. “I think of it now as one of the ‘bookends’ to the development along Riverside Avenue from Downtown to the park itself.”