Best Hope for an Old Park
Forlorn Barker Park, in downtown Troy, has been through lots of incarnations: as a cemetery, the site of citu hall, and even a drug hangout. Now a group is trying to recreate the little urban oasis that delighted residents in the '50s and '60s.
Best Hope For An Old Park
Barker Park Troy It’s mostly concrete now, noticeable only for its wildly profuse flower stands and a small playground. But, oh, the stories this rectangular little park could tell. Located within the original village limits, Barker Park has a long, strange past dating to 1796, when Troy patriarch Jacob D. Vanderheyden donated the area for a public burial ground. Over the centuries, the site has been notorious for many things, from grave-robbing to drug-dealing to urban renewal at its worst. And yet this old plot may be on the brink of a renaissance, with a group of preservationist Friends and a new design being readied for implementation.
The dissolution of the burial ground was rapid. Within a generation, Vanderheyden’s patrician gift had fallen from grace and become a landscape of infamy, known far and wide for its deplorable conditions. According to irate editorials that ran regularly in Troy’s Evening Standard and other newspapers, the cemetery was a place where “graves are wantonly defiled, torn open, and the bodies disappeared,” its tombstones knocked over for use as gin-rummy tables or carried off to make walls for nearby backyards. The fence was torn down by hoodlums “who on summer nights make the grounds a place of debauchery.” In the 1830s, the desecration of the graves of soldiers from the War of 1812 caused an outrage.
Local historian and author Don Ritt-ner, whose latest book is Troy: A Collar City History, explains that hooliganism was common to many cemeteries of the era, and that the Old Troy Burial Ground, as it came to be known, probably received more than its fair share because of its isolated location on the outskirts of the city. By the time of its “contemptible abandonment” in 1873, however, the plot was in the midst of Troy’s downtown, and was chosen as the site for a new city hall. Rittner says the cemetery’s lurid reputation may have been exaggerated to ease the way for a buyout of the sacred grounds — Vanderheyden’s heirs were paid $10,000 to give up their rights.
The construction of City Hall, an impressive, pressed-brick building, was completed in 1876, but that was hardly the end of odious doings. Rather disrespectfully, the grounds were only partially exhumed; to cut costs, just enough land was cleared for the building.
And then suddenly in 1937, city officials relocated the rest of the bodies. A year later, City Hall burned down. “Really burned, to the ground,” says Rittner. “It was definitely arson, and politically motivated.” Around the time of the second exhumation, he explains, there were calls for an investigation into the city’s shady financial dealings. Rittner agrees with the opinion of the day that the fire was a way to get rid of any evidence of malfeasance, and that the exhumation (an example of political skullduggery, indeed) was meant to pre-empt the risk of a future excavation.
The building’s foundation was covered over and landscaped with unusual speed. It’s believed that the hasty creation of Barker Park (the name is in honor of Troy industrialist C.W. Tillinghast Barker) was just another way to prevent anyone from nosing around the foundation. And Rittner is pretty sure why: in the cellar were three vaults — vaults that most likely contained financial records. As far as he (or anyone else) knows, the vaults are still buried there.
The park really began to bloom in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was twice its current size of approximately 100 square feet, and was graced by a tall, cast-iron fountain. “It was beautifully landscaped, with two tiers,” recalls Rittner, who spent much of his youth in the park. “Everybody went there.” In 1964, the park was halved by the construction of St. Anthony’s Church. (“No one knows how the church got half of a public park,” he notes.) About this time, the beloved fountain disappeared without a trace. Following the demolition of much of Troy’s inner city in the 1970s, the plot degenerated into a needle park, and was well known as a hangout for junkies and prostitutes. Later, when the city’s economy was scraping bottom, it became a refuge for the homeless.
Inspired by Troy’s grass-roots preservation movement, Friends of Barker Park was formed two years ago. The group is responsible for the flower stands that enliven its bland hardscape, and has a new design in hand that will replace the concrete with trees and perhaps add a new fountain or a small amphitheater. “It’s a beautiful design,” says Rittner. “It’ll be a little oasis. They could have art shows again.”
A former archeologist, Rittner also sees the restoration as an opportunity. “If they’re going to strip the concrete, why not do some backhoe archeology? Why don’t we excavate the cellar and see what’s in the vaults? For one thing, there would be lots of useful land records.” For another, he expects the dig would unearth some very old bones and other artifacts. In a best-case scenario, the restoration of this storied plot will not only create a green space for downtown, but may also shed some light on the darker corners of Troy history. — Ann Morrow