Monday, July 24, 2017

Leakin Park- back from the dead

To some Leakin Park is the place where I-70 went to die after it traversed the country over a total length of 2,151 miles in defeat of Robert Moses (yes, he also advised Baltimore!) and as a victory in Baltimore's highway wars. To others it is the place where dead bodies are disposed, a narrative that has its own blog and was further advanced by Sarah Koenig's Serial podcast and by David Simon's Wire. Geographers know that the Park is located in Dead Run valley. Death seems indelibly inscribed on this Baltimore Park, but the truth is much more glorious, not only in its past but also its presence and future.
Leakin Park historic mansion wagon road

Few know that Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons left a lasting legacy not only in New York's Central Park but also in many places in Baltimore including Leakin Park. (The Junior wrote a 1904 report titled Report upon the Development of Public Grounds for Baltimore). Even fewer people are aware that Leakin Park is the nation's second largest urban wilderness park or that it contains a few of Maryland's old forest specimen trees, that lawyer and philanthropist Wilson Leakin was originally behind the idea of such a park by bequeathing downtown buildings to the City in 1922 so Baltimore would have the funds to buy parkland. Few know that Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. helped to get the City to finally follow through with buying the 243 acre Crimea Estate which was part of the land holdings of railroad baron Thomas Winans who had made especially much money in Russia.
This valley [Dead Run], of all those discussed, has been freer from defacement by man’s activities. It is considered by all who view it as one of the very best bits of scenery near Baltimore. --Olmsted Brothers, Report and Recommendations on Park Extension for Baltimore, 1926 
Mill wheel in Leakin Park

In 1939 the City was still bickering and waffling about the right way to invest the proceeds from Leakin's will and Olmsted once again reminded the city fathers that the park should be located in a
neighborhood where recreational space was lacking and also that the new park should provide diverse activities for people of different age groups and social classes, a view still apropos today. Finally, in 1941 the City finally followed through and purchased the land from Winans for $109,486.

Today's park totals 1,216 acres which makes it bigger than Central Park. People with a dim view of the condition of Baltimore's parks should take a fresh look. Leaking Park like most other Baltimore Parks present themselves in a well groomed and clean shaven manner with cut lawns, working park lights, benches and freshly painted gazebos.

According to the website of the City's Parks Department the upland Crimea section of Leakin Park became home to a number of ongoing programs during the early 1980s including the Carrie Murray Nature Center, named for the mother of Baltimore Orioles great, Eddie Murray, which provides nature programs and activities. The Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound Center offers outdoor adventure programs for youths and adults.

Winands Meadow and shelter: Always kept in good repair
Other park traditions from the same period include the annual Baltimore Herb Festival, held each spring, and the miniature trains operated by the Chesapeake and Allegheny Steam Preservation Society offering free rides on the second Sundays of the month from April through November. The uplands section of the park off of Windsor Mill Road also features historic structures that date from the original Winans era, including the Orianda mansion, a wooden Gothic chapel, and several stone buildings. It is hard to see how, but a department that has been subjected to budget cuts time and again is keeping its assets in good shape, frequently in close collaboration with non-profits such as the Friends of Leakin Park. (See My Park, My Story with founding member Heide Grundmann here. She assisted in defeating the freeway plans and still programs events at the Park).

In recent years the park has seen a series of investments for the accessible 15 mile Gwynns Falls bike and hike trail from Franklintown to Carrol Park, a new event and band shelter on Winands meadow, a bathroom facility there and improved ball fields in the park area near Rosemont.

Current capital improvement plans include revamping a 1930s scout camp in the Cahill area and a new visitor's center that may replace the bathroom structure at Winands Meadow depending on still to be held community participation meetings according to Kate Brower at the Department of Recreation and Parks.  Community Architect Daily will report about the planned improvements in a separate story.

Today Leakin Park's beauty and offerings far outshine the shadow its dead bodies have cast over it in the past. Just as Olmsted had envisioned it, the park offers a quiet respite to those who seek it out as a counterpoint to the urban bustle.
Biking the Gwynns Falls trail
Two miles from the skyscrapers of Pratt Street, we felt as if we had entered the Shenandoah Valley. Amber and crimson leaves fell slowly in the breeze as we gazed across the Gywnns Falls valley. The falls rushed over giant boulders as we rode on the secluded paths, past old stone ruins and enormous trees, the city at once all around us and seemingly worlds away. For two hours, it was just the three of us, up and down the switchbacks, until the trail ended at the I-70 park and ride. (Rona Cobell, Slate, Nov. 2014)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Recreation and Parks Info
Bay Journal

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