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Great Outdoors Month

Brandywine Park, Wilmington, DE


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Brandywine Park postcard
Courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

As an example of landscape architecture, Brandywine Park is one of the finest in Delaware. Laid out according to the landscape style advocated by the famous nineteenth-century landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Brandywine Park pays tribute to the natural beauty of the Brandywine River.  As the first city park established in Wilmington, Brandywine Park also fulfilled the need for public recreational space within a larger urban environment.

The undeveloped land along the Brandywine had always been appreciated by the citizens of Wilmington for its scenery. It was not until 1868, however, that the establishment of a park was considered. Enthusiasm for this proposal stemmed from the interest in park planning taking place in Europe and America, where economic and social forces were working towards providing a better environment for the masses. The east coast of the United States was beginning to feel the loss of its wilderness, and its cities were crowded with immigrants, many of whom had never known the wealth of the American natural landscape. Men such as A. J. Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted led the new landscape movement, which expanded the role of landscape design beyond the realm of private gardens for the wealthy, towards the establishment of public parks for the enjoyment of all.


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Views of Brandywine River and dam
Photograph courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

Inspired by men such as Olmsted and Downing, the 1868 committee in charge of selecting a site for a public park examined the land along the Brandywine and found it to contain all the elements which were required to make a park beautiful: "trees, uneven grades, slopes, water, drives, walks, concourses, entrances, labyrinths, music stands, lawns, greens, playgrounds, etc." The Brandywine would be the central core of all this scenic beauty. They concluded that "no city in the land has such a stream in its Park, and neither can they, with all their lavish expenditure of money, build one that can compare with it."

Despite the selection of a site, no action was taken towards the establishment of a Wilmington park for more than a decade. Then in 1883, the state legislature passed a bill providing for "Public Parks for the use of the citizens of Wilmington and vicinity, and creating a Board of Park Commissioners to take the care and management of such lands as would be acquired under the provisions of the act." Once established, the Board of Park Commissioners immediately consulted with Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted, after viewing the possible park sites, enthusiastically recommended that the land along the Brandywine be obtained for a park. This area far surpassed other sites which would have been adequate as parks in other cities. In his report, Olmsted advised that "with every advantage that a lavish outlay may buy, it cannot in fifty years be made nearly as valuable..." as parkland.

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Brandywine Park - arch of North Van Buren Street Bridge
Photograph courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

In 1886, after establishing a method of obtaining funds, the first purchases of land were made. Samuel Canby, the first president of the Board of Park Commissioners was appointed to engineer the laying out of the park. Canby consulted with Olmsted; the plan he created certainly reflected many of Olmsted's ideas. Canby's plan enhanced the natural beauty of the park, the landscape which had initially impressed Olmsted. Wilmington was fortunate that this land had never lost its natural wilderness. Canby added roads, paths, and walks, blending them inconspicuously into the park landscape. Of prime importance was the preservation of the river and of the mill races. The south race was to remain as a tribute to the once-great milling industry in Wilmington. The mill race, which today serves the Wilmington Water Works, and the Old Barley Mill Stone, embedded at the foot of Adams Street, are the only remnants of the milling industrial complex within the park.


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Old First Presbyterian Church (this Wilmington church was relocated to within the Park in the early 20th century)
Photograph courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

Additions to Brandywine Park after the turn of the century have further contributed to its beauty.  A cast bronze bas-relief of President McKinley was set within a stone alcove in 1908 in remembrance of the late president. In 1918 the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington was moved to its current location within the park to ensure its preservation. The William H. Todd Memorial, dedicated in 1925, stands as a tribute to those who served in World War I. Composed of a statue of winged victory on a pedestal and a thirty-five foot high obelisk surmounted by an urn, the memorial is named after its donor, a Wilmingtonian who built a shipyard in Brooklyn.

In 1933 two gardens were added. As part of a relief project, the rose garden was planted with eight hundred rose bushes, and was once considered to be one of the best in the country.  Just to the east of Van Buren Street is a garden of a different kind, called the Josephine Garden. A large fountain erected in memory of Josephine Tatnall Smith is flanked by two double rows of Japanese cherry trees. Both the trees and the fountain were the gift of Col. J. Ernest Smith.

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Brandywine Park - View of Kentmere Parkway
Photograph courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

The end of the park is marked by a series of bridges. The bridges themselves are works of art, pieces of engineering sculpture. The westernmost of these was built as a railroad bridge. When it was abandoned by the railroad in 1910, the city rebuilt it as a roadway.  A new stone-faced railroad bridge was erected just a few yards to the east of the old one, its piers connected by elongated arched openings. Below these bridges is a steel suspension footbridge, where visitors can view the gently flowing Brandywine. Glen Drive passes under the elliptical arches of the I-95 overpass, just before it reaches the long, low arches of the Van Buren Street Bridge.


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Walkway in Brandywine Park
Photograph courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

The establishment of Brandywine Park has had a long-lasting effect on the City of Wilmington. From its inception the park has been central to the recreational activities in the city, and now includes a stadium, ball fields, tennis courts, and playgrounds. Every effort has been made by Wilmingtonians to preserve the open space and natural beauty of the park. The lush foliage, scenic paths, and undeveloped nature of Brandywine Park, creates a natural haven within the city where Wilmington’s residents still flock for recreation and relaxation.

Listed in the National Register December 1976

Brandywine Park website

 

 

 

 

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