Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
This landscaped park on the northeastern shore of Staten Island occupies the site of the former estate of Arthur Von Briesen (1843-1920).
A native of Germany, Von Briesen immigrated to the United States in 1858 at the age of 15. After enduring some hardship in his early years here, he began to study law. At the start of the Civil War (1861-65), he enlisted and served as sergeant of Company B, First New York Volunteers. After the war, he completed his studies at New York University School of Law and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1868.
In 1876, he helped found the German Legal Aid Society, which provided free legal services to poor German immigrants in New York. Fourteen years later, he became its president. Throughout his leadership, Von Briesen argued that the benefits of democracy should be available to all, regardless of nationality. Immigrants, he believed, made better citizens when they are treated justly. In 1896, the society changed its name to the Legal Aid Society, and began offering free legal services to all New Yorkers. Von Briesen continued to support the needy until the eve of America’s entrance into the First World War.
When Von Briesen purchased this property in 1901, he named it “Gernda”, a German term for “wishing to be there.” Historical records show the names of two previous owners from the 19th century, when the property served as a farming estate with an orchard in the eastern half, a greenhouse along the northern border, with stables and other buildings scattered throughout. Von Briesen rebuilt the main residence, but kept and maintained the orchard and greenhouse. Near the entryway was a gatehouse where a spur from the trolley line along Bay Street ran down to the waterfront dock, probably carrying passengers and freight. In a humorous reference to the prominent location of his homestead beside the Narrows, Von Briesen wrote a book entitled First House on the Left, America, using as his title the address of a letter he once received.
After his death in 1920, the estate lay unused until 1945 when his heirs, Mrs. Fritz von Briesen, Mrs. Harrison Tweed, and Mr. Arthur Menken donated the land to Parks. The remaining structures on the site were demolished by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) who deemed them beyond repair and subject to vandalism.
The entire park area, which opened to the public in 1949, is comprised of 10.1 acres of upland and 2.7 acres of land under water and sits immediately north of Fort Wadsworth. Frequent attempts to add active recreation facilities to this site failed as Parks determined that the site remain “the most beautiful passive park in the city.” A heavily treed area when it was first acquired by the City, the park still contains some of the mature specimen trees that existed during the Von Briesen era, including red oak (Quercus rubra), horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). A capital renovation of the park was completed in September 2001. This work featured the reconstruction of the park paths, the overlook, parking lot and entrance plaza.
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