Fort Greene Park
Fort Greene Park is located in Brooklyn, New York, on a hill overlooking Wallabout Bay and downtown Brooklyn. It is both a popular neighborhood park and a historically significant site. The thirty acre park is home to tennis courts and playgrounds, and is host to events such as concerts, poetry readings, and other civic gatherings. It is also the site of a Revolutionary War fort and a monument to Revolutionary War prisoners, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, who were held by the British in unbearable conditions aboard prison ships in Wallabout Bay. Today, a monument stands in the park commemorating these Prison Ship Martyrs.
The park is named for Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786) who oversaw the construction of Fort Putnam at the summit of the park in 1776. During the battle of Brooklyn, Fort Putnam defended General Washington’s retreat across the East River to safety before being left to the British. Once again, in 1812, patriotic citizen volunteers fortified the top of the hill in anticipation of a British attack, digging trenches and laying out barriers. The attack never came, but the fortification was named for General Greene.
In 1814, regular ferry service connected the village of Brooklyn to the City of New York. The connection led to extensive development, and Brooklyn was incorporated as a city in 1834. Brooklyn continued to grow by leaps and bounds as immigrants streamed into the city. By 1846, Walt Whitman, the celebrated poet and then editor of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was writing almost daily urging for a park in Brooklyn. The park would be a “lung” to provide the densely populated city with free circulation of air and where the people could spend a few grateful hours in the enjoyment of wholesome rest. As a result, Washington Park on the site of Fort Greene was established as Brooklyn’s first park in 1847.
In 1864, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who had achieved fame for their design for Central Park, were engaged to prepare a design for the park. Their design approach called for a park with a “somewhat rural character”, consisting of “a series of shady walks that will have an outlook of open grassy spaces at intervals.” A vine covered arbor was placed at the top of the park to take advantage of the cool breezes of the summit. A military salute ground was located in front of the Arbor, and two cannons were placed at the corners that overlooked the East River. Flowering Chestnut trees were planted around the perimeter of the park, and the site was graded and pathways constructed.
The park’s master plan also included a monument to the prison ship martyrs. The Revolutionary War prisoners who died aboard the wretched prison ships were buried in shallow graves on the shore of Wallabout Bay. As time passed, their remains were uncovered or washed out to sea. Their bones were collected by Brooklynites and ceremoniously buried in a vault on Hudson Street, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By the 1860’s, this vault was in a state of disrepair, and Olmsted and Vaux’s plan created a final burial place and monument for the Martyrs.
As Brooklyn continued its growth into the twentieth century, the park was long overdue for a renovation. The effort to raise funds to create a permanent monument to the Prison Ships Martyrs was finally successful, and the leading Architectural Firm of McKim, Meade and White won a competition for the design of the new monument. Their design for the Prison Ships Martyrs’ Monument called for a huge doric column crowned with a bronze urn in a square plaza atop the hill. The urn would be lit as an “eternal flame” to the memory of the martyrs. Also proposed for the plaza were two 190 foot long pergolas to replace Olmsted and Vaux’s popular seating areas. Their new monument was unveiled in a grand ceremony in 1908.
While the park has changed much over the years, its historic value remains undiluted. Currently, restoration efforts are underway to bring the park to a state of good repair, for the preservation of history and for the enjoyment of future generations.