Historic Moment: Four lakeside village parks
BY JORGE BATLLE
There are four lakeside Village public parks. They are Clift, Thayer, Shotwell and Austin. Not the Austin Park between State Street and Jordan Street, named for Clarence Mason Austin, but one on Genesee Street named for Frederick Carleton Austin.
F.C. Austin Memorial Park
St. James Church did a rebuild in 1873 and put in a seawall behind the church and extended it somewhat to the west. On the east side of Legg Hall was another park and seawall. Between these areas was about 400 feet of overgrowth, sloping down from the unpaved Genesee Street to the water’s edge. F.C. was a very successful business man, founder and President of a large Chicago company called Municipal Engineering & Contracting, in addition to the F.C. Austin Drainage Excavator Company. This company provided excavation equipment and concrete mixing equipment for the building of the Panama Canal. Austin purchased the land and donated it to the Village. There were conditions – the land was to be back-filled to the level of Genesee Street, behind a seawall that was to be constructed. This had to be done within 5 years of his death. Austin died in 1931. He left a $25,000 gift to the Village, the income from it to maintain the park. Work on the 9 foot high seawall did not start until December of 1933. Stone came from an old dam at Long Bridge. (Mottville – Sheldon Road area) The labor being paid for by the C.W.A. (Civilian Works Administration). The park was completed in 1935. Over the years, this Austin Memorial Park seems to have lost its status as a separate park having been blended in with the much smaller Thayer Park.
John Legg, a blacksmith, and an early settler purchased property in 1815 on the lakeshore including the site of the now Legg Hall. There he built factory buildings for the manufacture of sleighs and carriages. He also purchased Norman Leonard’s house and store, the site of the Thayer Condos and also the Chestnut Cottage gift shop. Upon Legg’s death, his daughter Juliette, and husband Joel Thayer acquired the properties. Joel transformed the factory building into stores on the street level and a large auditorium on the second floor. Wife Juliette turned her attention to beautifying a small piece of land on the lakeshore just to the east. A stone wall was built and the area filled into prevent the earth from being washed away by the stormy waves of the lake. A gazebo, benches, a walk and flowers and shrubs were put into this small park. A very elaborate arch-like sign was put up saying “Thayer Park.” It was illuminated by acetylene gas. An acetylene gas generator is now on display in Legg Hall. The sign was removed and presumed lost, until it was found in the elaborately styled barn at the rear of the Thayer property. It was restored and placed back over the entrance to this park. Upon Thayer’s death in 1881, the granddaughters inherited this land. In 1922 they donated it to the Village for a public park.
In 1866, John Packwood, a carriage and sleigh manufacturer purchased a hotel known as Lamb’s Inn. It was later renamed The Packwood House and now is the Sherwood Inn. He also purchased land directly across the street from the Inn and built a 3 story carriage factory. The factory remained on this site until 1888 when it was torn down, when Packwood moved the business to Syracuse. As early as July 1885 there was public interest in having part of the lakefront for public use and benefit. Some wanted the fire department to build on that site. This was very controversial and ended when John Barrow donated land on the corner of Jordan and now Fennell Street for the fire department. Joab Clift of Sennett bought the land in 1887. The Village purchased the land for a park in 1892 which was named Clift Park for him. Some citizens objected to the name as Clift was not a Town resident. At the time of the purchase, Village President W.G. Ellery and Clift had an understanding about naming of the park, which was a $500 reduction in the $4,500 price for the ‘naming rights.’ The park was about half the size that it is today. In 1899 money was raised to extend the park east to the outlet and to install a fountain. Joab Clift gave $200 for the purchase of a fountain and additional funds for the eastward extension of the park. The fountain was removed during World War II. It was said that the removal was a safety measure because of the fountain’s direct connection to the Village’s water system. One wonders what became of the fountain. In celebration of the Village’s Sesquicentennial in 1983, a gazebo designed by Chase Design replaced an open platform at the east end of the park. David Chase helped finance the project and dedicated it to his wife. It is the site of summer weekly band concerts and other events.
West of Clift Park bordering on West Lake Street is Shotwell Memorial Park. The property originally owned by John Briggs, a Revolutionary War soldier, moved to Skaneateles about 1800. He built a tavern on the site in 1806. He sold the building to James Sackett who converted to a home. At the time this land was being considered for a park, it was owned by Josiah Jewett. According to the January 1934 issue of the Skaneateles Press “this land was to be purchased by the Village, the dwelling removed, and the grounds beautified as a park.” Funds for this purchase, $15,000 were bequeathed by Florence Shotwell wife of William J. Shotwell, a Skaneateles businessman, member of the school Board of Education, local firefighter, and President of the Village from 1915 to 1920. He died in 1922. Later on, a relative, Louisa Shotwell bequeathed a maintenance fund for this park. In July of 1934,Professor Nordede Rotunno, a Syracuse University landscape architect was hired to design the memorial parks. His charges were $300 for plans for Shotwell, Clift and Austin parks with a $20 per diem fee for supervision of the construction. At that time Shotwell Park was designed to contain only the 200 names of World War I veterans, as this was the ‘war to end all wars.’ A plaque was also erected with the names of soldiers in the Spanish-American War. On Memorial Day of 1936, the park was dedicated. Since this wasn’t ‘the war to end all wars,’ Rotonno’s services were engaged in 1950 for a World War II memorial that would face the World War I memorial on the east side of the park. The park went through extensive reconstruction in 1997, and another rebuild in 2011. Plaques honoring Korean and Viet Nam military were installed in 2009. The most recent addition to the park was a wall and plaque honoring service personnel in the wars on terrorism.