The Story of a Park

David Rawle

In 1967, in the heart of Manhattan - on 53rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues – a small ‘pocket park’ opened on the site of the legendary Stork Club. Encompassing only 4,200 square feet, the park was designed to be an elegant oasis -a relaxing, peaceful respite for contemplation or conversation in a setting embraced by water and greenery.

Paley Park

Paley Park

That park – Paley Park – was created by William S. Paley in honor of his father, Samuel Paley. Designed by Zion and Breen, it set a standard for the quality of pocket parks that has rarely been equaled. And it catalyzed the creation of numerous other pocket parks throughout New York and other cities.

I was working in midtown Manhattan at the time, and I found myself frequently drawn to spend time in Paley Park. I’d find an excuse to walk via 53rd Street to a meeting or lunch or the subway, and I would wander into the park, pull up a chair, and tune out the bustling city.  It was like taking a very deep breath and letting it all the way out. 

I still visit Paley Park whenever possible, as it has been an inspiration for Theodora Park. 

Like Paley Park, Theodora Park seeks to be a place of beauty and repose. And it aspires to encourage others to preserve and enhance green spaces in their neighborhoods. Importantly, it honors my mother.

My mother was a gracious and caring person. She spent much of her adult life helping other people, particularly through her volunteer work at the local hospital in Connecticut. She was modest about that work, as she was modest about all things, including her skills in gardening. 

Seemingly by magic, her garden produced flowers that followed the seasons. Oh, the joy of seeing those first crocuses after the harsh winter months. Then the hyacinths, daffodils, forsythia, tulips, lilies of the valley, wisteria, roses, iris, peonies, dahlias, zinnias…the peas, carrots, lettuce, radishes, beans, tomatoes, gooseberries…I can see, smell and taste them even now. 

           My mother's garden

           My mother's garden

She loved it all. She loved its diversity, its surprise, its beauty, and its authenticity. She also loved Charleston and visited here often.

And so a park in her honor feels very appropriate. Especially one with the variety of exquisite plants created here by Sheila Wertimer and her team.

 
            My father and mother on their wedding day

            My father and mother on their wedding day

And then there’s the art.

My mother loved art. In the years after my father died, she and I took several trips together. When we would leave a museum, my mother often stopped and stood quietly for a few minutes. She would tilt her head down just a bit, still absorbed in the experience. The art spoke to her. She never articulated how, at least not to me. But something happened. She yielded to art’s ability to transport us.

My mother loved water, too. There were three small ponds in her garden. She populated them with goldfish, who somehow usually survived even brutal New England winters. In summer, there were water lilies, spectacularly white against their dark green leaves.

Paul Heroux’s pool provides Theodora Park with art and water. How perfect! I know that my mother would respond to the radiant beauty of Paul’s tiles, as well as their references to life forms from nature. 

Philip Simmons’s gate is a work of art too. Designed and forged by Mr. Simmons himself, it is graceful and elegant enough to be the gate to heaven. And it connects Theodora Park with other Philip Simmons ironwork in Ansonborough, including the fence surrounding St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, diagonally across the street.

 
            My sister Judy and me  

            My sister Judy and me

 

So now we have Theodora Park, which may seem to have magically appeared like those early spring crocuses in my mother’s garden. Instead, it is the result of the vision, commitment, and collaboration of many people starting with Mayor Riley, Charleston City Council and City staff, the Charleston Parks Conservancy led by Darla Moore and executive director Harry Lesesne, Sheila Wertimer, Nopporn Kichanan and the team at Wertimer & Associates, Paul Heroux, the men and women who actually built the park, and especially the wonderfully generous family members and friends whose financial contributions have made Theodora Park a reality.

I never would have embarked on this project without the wise counsel I received from my friends Joe Riley and John Alschuler. And I never could have completed the journey without my wife Carol’s unwavering encouragement and loving support.