P&Z Watch: Exactly What Features Would Be Protected with Bruce Park ‘Local Historic Property’ Designation?

On Sept 6, the P&Z commission reviewed a report from the Historic District Commission about designating Bruce Park as a “local historic property” pursuant to the Town Charter and state statutes.

The role of the commission was to determine whether or not to support the concept.

“We can take off our normal zoning hat,” P&Z chair Margarita Alban said.

The historic status would allow for extra levels of protection for the park if developments are proposed there.

Courtesy Greenwich Library

Many in town recall the recent controversy over Eversource’s proposal to use horizontal directional drilling “HDD” to run transmission lines under the pond in Bruce Park in order to connect the Cos Cob substation to their new substation at former Pet Pantry site on Railroad Ave.

Then, in 2020 residents were surprised, not in a happy way, to see a large green footbridge with transmission lines tucked underneath. At the time, DPW deputy commissioner Jim Michel said in that because the bridge had Siting Council approval, therefore, “(the bridge) does not need to meet local regulations or approvals.”

Pedestrian painted structural steel truss bridge in Bruce Park. July 2, 2020 Concrete and .

The Historic District Commission was appointed to be the Study Committee by the Selectmen back in January and a report was submitted.

In June, the Parks & Recreation board voted unanimously to approve the potential designation of Bruce Park as a local historic property, based on the Historic Report.

The heart of the commission’s discussion on Wednesday focused on the degree of protection of the park going forward, including the process for maintenance or repairs.

Examples might be whether to use cement to repair a dry stone wall or repairing a stone bridge.

“What are we protecting?” commissioner Peter Levy asked.

Historic District Commission chair Stephen Bishop said exchanging “like for like” was fine. He used the example of re-paving the road through the park.

“You don’t have to come to us. It’s like for like. If they need to pave the road, pave the road,” he said.

Mr. Levy noted that methods of construction change over time.

Ms Alban suggested that any change to a contributing structure or factor in that property must go before the Historic District Commission for a review of the appropriateness.

She noted the application included a list of contributing factors on the property. The list includes, for example, the Millennium Sundial, “Valentine and Orson” (pair of cast and welded bronze horses), and the bowling green which dates back to 1936.

“To some extent it’s a shame – I would have had the Bruce Museum on that list long ago, because then the Bruce Museum alterations might have been conceived in that concept. It would have been cool,” Alban sai.

New main entrance to the Bruce is across the street from the Bruce Park Playground on Museum Drive.

Parks & Rec board chair Scott Johnson said today there is a proposal to modify the historic bridge to the north of the pond.

“It was important that DPW brought in all the interest holders. They held a hearing on it — and particularly Parks & Rec and HDC members,” Mr. Johnson said. “There was a fair question by some of the neighbors to do nothing and leave it the way it is, because it’s structurally deficient. So we could just close the road and possibly solve some of the problems.”

But, he noted the road to the bridge was important for families to drop off their children there safely for ball games.

“We want it to be repaired,” Johnson said. “DPW wants it to be repaired. Historic District wants it to be repaired, and they gave us proposals, and we all agreed. But if DPW just went ahead and did it, we may have never known. And that happened at Tod’s Point a lot, under a previous administration, in some very troubling ways.”

Commissioner Mary Jenkins noted there has been a metal plate and concrete barriers in place on the bridge for some time.

There was some comparison with the bridge in Binney Park, but Mr. Johnson noted Binney was not a historic district, but rather part of a master plan.

Ms Alban noted Binney park was within a scenic loop where the vistas are protected.

“Anything that alters the vista on Binney has to be vetted with us,” she said. “Which the other parks don’t have.”

During public testimony, Leslie Petrick said the Friends of Bruce Park group was created a few years ago when there was talk about moving maintenance vehicles from Roger Sherman Baldwin Park to the Park Maintenance Barn, also known as “the mosquito barn.”

“That’s why we came up with the idea of designating Bruce Park as a historic district,” Ms Petrick said. “The other concern we have, which is ongoing, is the creep of granite curbing and Belgian block into the park, which is taking away those beautiful old stone curbs. That is our big concerns. That curbing from the turn of the century or early 1900s, and is a detail of the park that should remain in tact.”

Ren Harman, who also founded the Friends group said there were 200 members and they supported the historic designation.

First Selectman Fred Camillo also spoke in favor of the historic designation. In October 2022, he met at the park with the Friends group, Parks and Recreation Director Joseph Siciliano and Superintendent of Parks and Trees Division Dr. Greg Kramer. 

Jurisdiction over Roadways in and through Bruce Park

Deputy DPW commissioner Jim Michel testified that the loop roads around the two ponds were park roadways, not public roadways. The jurisdiction for those loop roads would fall under the new protected designation.

Indian Harbor Drive, Bruce Park Drive, Davis Ave, Woods Road and Indian Field Road that all access the park, are all town roadways, and not under the jurisdiction of the protected park.

Park Maintenance Barn, vernacular Shingle style, c1902. Also known today as “the mosquito barn.”

Report on the History of Bruce Park

The report, produced by the Mead Point Association and prepared by Nils Kerschus, noted that Bruce Park is Greenwich’s oldest public park, established in 1908 through a bequest of cotton magnate and philanthropist Robert Moffat Bruce (1822-1909).

Mr. Bruce made his considerable fortune (reputedly $2 million at the time of his death in 1909) as the head of the cotton firm of Bruce & Co., which enabled his renowned philanthropy amounting to over $250,000 for public institutions including the Greenwich Town Hall ($150,000), a variety of hospitals, including Greenwich General Hospital (now the Nathaniel Witherell), Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, as well as hospitals in Washington D.C. and Parkborough, N.C.

The $250,000 figure does not include the considerable amount of money that Bruce spent in developing the park, described as a “fortune” in the Greenwich Graphic on October 16, 1909.

According to the report, Mr. Bruce was one of the Town’s leading philanthropists and business leaders during the period when the Town’s basic character was being established.

As a business leader, he was one of the founders of the Greenwich Savings Bank, the Greenwich Gas & Electric Company and the Belle Haven Land Company.

In 1892, the west bank of the pond was purchased by Mr. Bruce and the primary acreage on the east bank was bought by him in 1902. He developed it as a park between 1902 and 1904, and deeded it, along with previously acquired adjacent property, to the Town of Greenwich for use as a public park in 1908.

After his death in 1909, the Town accepted this gift at its annual meeting in October of that year.

According to the report, at the park’s completion in 1904, Bruce gave the public free use of it even before it was formally accepted by the Town in 1909. Bruce deeded the park to the Town in 1908 but did not deliver it, the deed remaining in his possession at the time of his death in 1909. After his death his sister, Sarah E. Bruce, took care of the park at her own expense. The carrying out of a park scheme was dependent on the acceptance by the Town of the deed with its conditions. Mr. Bruce’s sister wished to have the matter laid before the people of Greenwich to give them an opportunity to vote at the annual town meeting held in October of 1909 to accept or decline the gift and if accepted, she would pay the Trustees in the deed’s accompanying Trust Agreement $50,000 reserved for transforming Bruce’s house into a museum.

The report notes that the 1848 opening of the New York and New Haven Railroad to freight and passenger traffic brought significant change to Greenwich allowed businessmen from New York to own homes outside the city and take a short train ride to work. The rail line also spurred the growth of seasonal tourism.

In 1894 Robert Bruce constructed a two-story, gambrel-roofed building on the Davis Mill Pond and rented its rooms during the summer months to working women from New York.

The formation of public parks in Greenwich coincided with the town’s growing and diversifying population.

While many Greenwich residents owned large, private tracts of land, many others either rented or owned small homes. This latter group had little land for active recreation.

“Those of us who remember the Isaac Howe Mead place, beyond the old Davis mill, near the dock, will recall a jumble of about 50 acres of swamp, decayed tree trunks, killies and myriads of mosquitoes with an aggressive rattlesnake here and there to enliven the scene. And it seemed destined to remain the same to the end of time, if the enterprise of William J. Smith, the genius of S.E. Minor and the munificence of Robert M. Bruce had not combined and operated to make it “a thing of beauty and a joy forever.” – Tom Luftus, “The Bruce Park.” – The Greenwich Graphic, June 1, 1906

Tennis Courts

According to the report, the tennis courts, which are now considered a ‘contributing’ feature of the park, were under construction in 1931 when work was halted until a ruling at Superior Court in Bridgeport on April 11, 1932, left the matter up to the Town’s Selectmen (who obviously permitted the completion of the construction) while ruling that the existing dog pound and repair shop for town road equipment be removed for violations of the 1908 deed which prohibited non-park uses.

“Also outlawed were professional and semi-professional sports teams from using the park for their games. Additions to the park since then have included the lavatory buildings, a pump house, a replacement gazebo and a pedestrian bridge over the mill pond, as well as a monument consisting of two historic millstones and three sculptures.”

Bruce Park and the Construction of I-95

During the park’s ownership by the Town, a number of subtractions and additions have taken place. Most notable was the sale of 28 acres to the State of Connecticut for the construction of “the thruway” (today’s I-95) in 1956.

As early as 1953, the Town demanded the State Highway Commission pay hard cash for taking a section of Bruce Park and the Recreation clubhouse (formerly Emily Bruce Shelter).

In early 1956, the State offered $650,000 for town-owned property that included a portion of Bruce Park, a town-owned equipment shed on Strickland Road in Cos Cob, and a small tract of land in Old Greenwich. The Town replied that its asking price was $900,000. By 1956, unable to come to an agreement regarding a purchase price, the Connecticut State Highway Commission filed condemnation papers against 28 acres of Greenwich town-owned land. The town responded by increasing their asking price to a minimum of $700,000 plus a two acre-lot on Arch Street which would serve as commuter parking. By early March an offer from the State was presented to the Town of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting that included the town to receive $650,000 in cash and title to an improved parking lot worth $150,000. The offer was approved and $422,600 was placed in an account in accordance with the deed restrictions of the original gift of the park from Mr. Bruce. Consequently, the Emily Bruce Shelter was demolished along with the bath house on the mill pond as well as the Isaac Howe Mead Tenant House, just south of the present park maintenance barn

Historical Significance

The park’s establishment is typical of the national mood at the time. Communities of a certain size recognized the need for parks both for its residents and for the reputation of the community.

According to the report, “A newspaper article in the Greenwich Graphic on August 20, 1904, stated that work on the park had been going on for these for three years and was almost completed, including the excavation of ponds and the construction of stone bridges and macadamized roads. Bruce appointed Smith as the general manager of the project which was so significant that it ‘gave labor a big lift by employing men and teams by the score’ during a period of unemployment. The actual design and planning of the park was the work of Sheldon E. Minor (1860-1931) whose civil engineering firm, S.E. Minor & Co., Inc. is synonymous with surveying in Greenwich while Minor himself was recognized as being one of the foremost of his line in New England.”

The park’s layout largely respected the topography of the site, although the upper and lower ponds replaced existing tidal marshes to make it more amenable to recreation.

Today the park is a combination of formal and informal landscapes, the formal including man-made ponds, open lawns for recreation use such as the bowling green and the baseball field.

Architectural significance

The park is architecturally significant for its remaining original features including its bridges, gazebo and park maintenance barn. Its two arched bridges, spanning the channels connecting the upper and lower ponds and the lower pond and the mill pond both feature ashlar granite construction focused on the wide segmental arches of the northern bridge and the smaller, horseshoe arches of the southern bridge.

After the presentation, the P&Z commission voted unanimously to approve a resolution endorsing that the park become a local historic property.

Ms Alban said the plan dovetailed with the 219 POCD guiding principal to conserve community character, and objectives about protecting historic structures and the natural environment.

Voting were: chair Margarita Alban, Nick Macri, Peter Levy, Peter Lowe, and Mary Jenkins (for Dennis Yeskey).

Next steps. Consideration of the local historic designation status next goes before the Representative Town Meeting, possibly at their October meeting.

Site of Emily Bruce Shelter, 1894-c1958 (demolished)
“Valentine and Orson”sculpture, Deborah Butterfield, 1990
“Millennium Sundial”, sculpture, Mark Mennim, 2000
Bowling Green, contributing feature 1936. Photo July 2023 Leslie Yager
Segmental-arched stone bridge, c1902. Photo July 2023 Leslie Yager
“Girl Standing in Nature”, sculpture, George Segal, 1976