"John Mullaly, Park Founder, To Be Honored” NY Herald Tribune, 10/20/29
New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, October 20, 1929
Petition Asks Memorial to Reporter Whose Labors Realized Bronx System
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He Dies Almost Penniless
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Envisioned Vast Tract as ‘Newport’ to City Toilers
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The Board of Alderman has before it a petition from Joseph P. Hennessy, Commissioner of Parks in the Bronx, asking that the city change the name of the park between River and Jerome Avenues and 161st and 167th Streets, the Bronx, now known as Macomb’s Dam Extension, to John Mullaly Park.
To most persons the name of John Mullaly will mean only that its possessor was one of the army of Irishmen who have always been prominent in New York City. There might seem, too, no good reason to name a park after him.
John Mullaly was found dead in a Second Avenue hall bedroom on a bitter day in 1914. he had just 15 cents in his pockets. At the time he was, according to available figures, about seventy-two years old.
Conceived Park System Idea
But there is a very definite appropriateness about the proposal to name a new small park in the Bronx after him. For John Mullaly, more than any one man, was responsible for the city’s lone example of a true park system – Van Cortlandt, Bronx, and Pelham Bay Parks, with the parkways that link them together.
John Mullaly was a reporter on the old “New York Herald” under the younger James Gordon Bennett. He was a philanthropist in his own small way, and his dreams went far beyond what he could do. The paucity of space in the rapidly growing city was his obsession. He saw thousands of persons living under the terrible conditions that prevailed in the tenement districts before the laws came to make the lower East Side safe for ordinary living. And he saw that there was no place for these thousands to walk and sit and lie and breathe fresh air.
For Central Park, which was then slowly approaching completion after a fifteen-year period of transition from waste land to a recreation ground, he had a great contempt. It was no park at all, he said, hemmed in by houses on all sides.
Mullaly was intimately acquainted with the Bronx, which was then a largely unsettled tract of land, known only to New Yorkers as “north of the Harlem River.” Here, he felt, lay the future of the city’s park system.
Some time in 1881 Mullaly quit his job on “The Herald.” Heart and soul, he dedicated himself to the task of creating some new parks through his newspaper experience he had the ear of prominent citizens. On the evening of November 14, 1881, he gathered at a dinner at the Fifth Avenue Hotel a small company of men who afterward fought as ardently in the park campaign as he.
Mullaly explained his project. He pointed out how disproportionate to the city’s population was its park space. De Witt Clinton had planned the New York parks in 1807 he said, with one acre of park land to every 160 inhabitants. Paris had an acre for every thirteen citizens; other European cities, and even such American communities as Chicago and Boston, offered an acre for each group of 100 residents. New York’s proportion was nearer an acre to every 1,500, he complained.
Of the 400-acre system planned by Clinton south of Fortieth Street, only the tiny plot of Madison Square remained. Central Park, he said, would be a joke if it were not a disgrace. There in the middle of town were some bad lands, some of which had been used for dumping not long before. The city paid nearly $7,000,000 for the lands, “just for room for a park.” The land had no adaptability for its purpose and $20,000 an acre had been spent over fifteen years to hammer a kind of artificial park out of its crudenes.
The Bronx, he said, was where they should look. He pointed out the wealth of land available north of the Harlem River which was admirably suited for parks. Particularly he dwelt upon the beauties of the tract on the shore of Long Island Sound just south of New Rochelle.
“If we make a park out of this land,” he wrote to his old paper, “The Herald,” a few days after the dinner at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, “it will be the favorite suburban resort of the mass of the population, the toilers of the city: it will be their Newport.”
Action taken in 1881
Mullaly proposed a park area of 5,000 acres beyond the Harlem, distributed among half a dozen separate parks, with boulevards connecting them. Gradually he won more adherents, and on November 26, 1881, the New York Park Association was organized, pledged to the realization of this dream.
Waldo Hutchins accepted the presidency of this body, and Luther R. Marsh, who became its most valiant member in the legal battles that followed, was vice-president. W.W. Niles was made treasurer, and Mullaly himself secretary. The roll of membership included the names of many prominent New Yorkers, among them Charles L. Tiffany, Henry L. Hoguet, Jordan L. Mott and Joseph F. Wood.
It was decided to draft two bills, one calling for an immediate appropriation to buy the land now occupied by Van Cortlandt Park, and the other giving power to a commission to investigate with a view to purchasing other lands in the Bronx.
Largely through the agencies of State Senator Treanor and Assemblyman Breen the bill was brought before the Legislature but after a discussion was postponed until the session the following year. Breen, however, was committed to the fight, and got through a resolution creating a committee of the Mayor, the Commissioner of Public Works, the President of the Board o Aldermen and the President of the Tax Department, to investigate the advisability of adding parks to the city’s expense and report on the matter within thirty days. This was, of course, an absurdly short time and after a few perfunctory meetings in the Mayor’s office the committee reported that it had reached no decision.
Early in 1883 Assemblyman Leroy B. Crane, of the Twenty-third District, passed a bill through the Legislature which became a law on April 18 and empowered the Mayor to appoint a committee of seven citizens to select and locate landing the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth Wards in the Bronx to be set apart for parks.
The committee was duly appointed and Mullaly was its secretary. Its members took a week off between May 26 and June 1 and followed Mullaly over all the ground he had chosen for his scheme. They drove up Broadway to the Van Cortlandt mansion and inspected the grounds around it. Out over the road that is now Mosholu Parkway through the wilderness of Bronx Park and from there to the shore of the Sound they went, and were won. When they disbanded for the summer, Mullaly settled down to correspond with park commissions in foreign capitals.
The committee gathered in the fall of 1883 and fashioned a 217-page illustrated report, which was forwarded to the Legislature of 1884. Then, while members of the committee sat down in the Capital lobby to be sure that the fire was kept burning the volleys of criticism began.
The shock to te adherents of the parks came when Mayor Edson, who had been sufficiently favorable toward the plan to appoint that committee and listen to their recommendations, turned and led the opposition.
Many and various objections were brought against the plan, but at first most of them were of a practical nature. The proposed parks were too far from New York, it was said. Again, the cost to the city would be enormous. Later came more unsavory charges, familiar enough but hard to face.
Mullaly was the man who stuck to the guns and answered every charge. The Bronx was rural then, he agreed but he argued that the expansion of the city would eventually embrace all the proposed territory. His prophecies of population increase were astonishingly accurate.
The argument of the expense he answered by pointing to the experience of other cities where the rise in the assessed value of taxable property adjoining the parks more than made up for the initial expense of acquisition and preparation. And the charges of graft he met with flat denials, showing that no interested member of the Park Association owned property affected in any way by the transfer of the proposed park lands.
A comparison of the Bronx lands with Central Park and Riverside and Morningside Parks, the two tiny ribbons of ground acquired by the city at $60,000 an acre, mere bare ribs of rock with no value as parks, proved to the people of the city that Mullaly was right. A series of petitions with every signature valid, was rushed to Albany.
The press took up the struggle and bombarded Mayor Edson from every quarter. The consensus of the committee, embodied in a letter to “The Herald,” was that it was “better for the city to but grass lots now then lots with improvements on them hereafter.”
The bill giving the city power to designate and buy for park uses certain tracts in the Bronx passed the Legislature and was signed by the Governor on June 14, 1884. Luther B. Marsh, George W. Quintard and J. Seaver Page were appointed commissioners of estimate and appraisal to handle the purchase.
Impeachment of Law Sought
Even then, after the bill had become a law, the opposition was not discouraged. An attempt to impeach the constitutionality of the law was made by Mayor Willioam R. Grace. Mr. Edson’s successor. He told the Board of Aldermen that the cost of the new parks would be more than $20,000,000. the top price set by Mullaly was $8,000,000.
Mayor Grace conferred with Mullaly. Mullaly was adamant. Grace wanted to enforce a plan of his own, whereby the city should add to its park area at the rate of $1,000,000 a year. Mullaly dismissed this by saying that in a few years that sum would buy very little, and the lone million would be ten or fifteen millions a year before long to keep the same proportion.
Mayor Grace and his followers organized “an immense mass meeting” at Chickering Hall on March 23, 1885. Agents went around to tenement districts and told taxpayers that the cost of the land would be met by direct taxation, and that rents would rise until it was all paid for. It might cost $50,000,000, they said.
The Chickering Hall meeting was a dud. Mayor Grace and his adherents were defeated and discredited. The proposal became an accomplished fact, and before he died John Mullaly had the satisfaction of seeing his dream fulfilled. Not only were Van Cortlandt, Bronx and Pelham Bay Parks, with their linking parkways, finished, but Crotona, St. Mary’s and Claremont Parks also planned by Mullaly, came into being.
For seven years the former reporter worked without sparing himself. The testimony of men who worked with him paid tribute to his indefatigable courage. Alone of all his committee, he had to divide his time and energy with no other work, and his undeviating purpose was a constant spur to his associates.
Now one of the Bronx parks, with which he had nothing to do, may bear his name in honor of his achievement. The Park Association of New York, the organization that is carrying on Mullaly’s purpose of extending the park system today, has started a subscription fund to erect a monument to his memory.
Nathan Straus Pays Tribute
Nathan Straus, president of the Park Association speaking of Mullaly and his work said:
“The best incentive to civic service is public appreciation. A city that neglects to reward faithful public service is discouraging like service by others in the future. Therefore it is the more regrettable that such a distinguished and unusual record as that of John Mullaly has hitherto not been recognized by the people of New York City.
“The park system of the Borough of Bronx is the only adequate park system of any borough in the greater city. That distinction is due almost wholly to the unselfish fight made by John Mullaly in the face of well-nigh insurmountable obstacles. He had a fine dream, and the courage and tenacity of purpose to make it a reality. We of the Park Association hope that his services may be fittingly recognized by naming in his memory one of that great system of parks, which will constitute a perpetual reminder of his services to the people of the City of New York.”