In Saranac Lake, a few forward-looking businessmen recognized early the need for a plan for the rapidly sprouting community and the potential beauty of its lake and river. In 1907 they retained the Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects famous for their designs of Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Fenway Park in Boston. Their study, the Olmsted Plan for the Improvement of Saranac Lake, dated 1908, was submitted to the village board in 1909 and turned down as being too expensive and taking commercial property from the tax rolls.
Heartily agreeing with the businessmen that land is a resource and not a commodity, on April 10, 1910 a group of local women organized formally to bring the Olmsted Plan to reality. The Adirondack Enterprise gave an entire issue to reprinting the Olmsted Plan, the formation of the Village Improvement Society and complementary editorial comment.
"Coming to Saranac Lake last summer (1907)," wrote James Clark Whiting, the Olmsted architect assigned to this village, "I was struck almost immediately with the potential value of Lake Flower and its immediate surroundings as public property. ... There is no one step ... that will be of greater permanent benefit to the village as a whole than the acquisition of complete control over this lake and its shores ... and all the undesirable buildings will be removed and the lakeshore treated as a park.
Devan ManWarren, a businessman visiting from Mechanicville, eats lunch Thursday in the park on Lake Flower, near the state boat launch.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
"I realize fully the great cost of taking these lakeshores and that many will be opposed to spending public funds in that way. But I know of no case where parks or parkways have been built ... that abutting property has not increased in values."
The Village Improvement Society was up and running, distributing copies of the Olmsted Plan, exhorting village leaders to support it and raising funds to achieve its goal.
1912 - VIS purchased a small triangle of land at the junction of Church and River streets, filled it in, planted grass and named it Triangle Park. It was sold to the village in 1921 for the World War I Veterans Memorial with proviso that it remain a park in perpetuity.
The WWI plaque, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Palmer, is made of a special weather-resistant bronze which is not to be cleaned.
In 1984 VIS received village permission and cooperation in re-landscaping the now-retitled Veterans Park. Robert Winderl, son of the mason who had done the original work, repaired the memorial. The village removed the overgrown hedge behind the memorial and replaced it with the cedar hedge now growing.
Originally the design had flagstone paths leading from Church and River streets to the memorial, assumed to have been removed with the widening of River Street into a three-lane highway. World War II Navy veteran Thomas Flynn, who daily cleaned the park of litter, unearthed some of the River Street stones. In 1992 Adirondack campmen lifted the flagstones, completing VIS's Veterans Park's first restoration phase.
In 1995 VIS returned to undertake the second phase of the park's restoration. Volunteers with family WWI connections helped with their individual abilities. Diane DeLair, VIS president, planned the restoration in five steps taken over two years and continued planting the Star Garden on the lawn.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars assumed responsibility for maintenance and planting in 2005.
1918 - VIS took out its only mortgage to purchase its first Lake Flower property, a swampy, stump-filled area across from Triangle Park. With considerable fill and grading, VIS created River Street Park.
Later, VIS renamed the park Prescott Park to honor one of its founding members and a highly-respected community member.
Prescott Park's central village location gradually drew increasing numbers of children to swim. The village built a changing house and the Red Cross provided lifeguard and swimming lessons for three age groups. VIS planted the flower boxes. Eventually, with more and more swimmers running around, the village erected a fence at roadside to prevent accidents.
1925 - The mortgage finally paid off as VIS bought the old Branch and Callanan site that consisted of over 400 feet of land on Lake Flower Avenue with frontage on the Saranac River. The Enterprise hailed their action, describing the property as "long an eyesore along the approach to the village from that direction."
When finally cleaned up, filled, graded and planted, it was dedicated to Dr. Edward R. Baldwin, a noted Saranac Lake tuberculosis physician. Today, Baldwin Park houses two tennis courts, heavily used in fair weather, and the Korean War monument.
1925 - VIS also purchased a small strip of land across from St. Bernard's Convent to create Seymour Park on Lake Flower.
1927 - VIS purchased the Mullen property at the corner of River Street and Lake Flower Avenue and developed Mullen Park with a lawn, several trees and shrubs.
1936 - Riverside Park was purchased by the village after the Riverside Hotel had been torn down. VIS assumed responsibility, retained Philip G. Wolff, then a Cornell landscape architecture student, to design and supervise building the park in 1936-37.
Wolff took the year between his junior and senior years off to work on the plantings himself. The "Crown Jewel" of VIS's Lake Flower parks, Riverside originally had four, equal-length flagstone walks leading to a central circle and a walk along the river with benches for relaxing and enjoying the view up Lake Flower.
The new three-lane highway shaved several feet from the River Street side, but the park remained the same.
Since then, VIS has paid the architect's fee for a bandshell, built with a grant to the village. Free public concerts are held there in the summer. An Adirondack stone to honor WWII veterans has recently been replaced by a large memorial to honor all Saranac Lake veterans. Recently, farmers' markets have been held in Riverside Park on Saturdays in the summer.
In the late 1950s, upkeep on Prescott Park's swimming beach and other Lake Flower parks reached beyond VIS income. The Society turned over its five parks to the village, "to remain in perpetuity" with VIS remaining in an advisory capacity.
1977 - With the possibility of lakefront buildings being demolished to widen River Street into a three-lane highway, VIS President Gertrude Woodruff campaigned persistently with the state to secure Lake Flower properties for continuous parkland. Surmounting considerable opposition, VIS prevailed. On Nov. 27, 1977, the VIS president stood proudly with officials on the podium as the new Riverside Park was dedicated.
VIS had at last realized one vital facet of the Olmsted Plan.