Van Vorst Park is the centerpiece of the downtown Jersey City historic district that bears the same name. The numerous trees, plants, and shrubs qualified the park for "level 1 arboretum status" in March 2023.
Landscaped by horticulturist Peter Henderson in 1851, Van Vorst Park was called "one of the most formal of Jersey City's parks." The park has been described as an example of a town square similar to Washington Square Park in lower New York City. It occupies the entire rectangular city block between Montgomery Street, York Street, Jersey Avenue, and Barrow Street, where streets are lined with ornate brick and brownstone rowhouses of varying Victorian architectural styles from the late 1800s. A tornado in 1906 disrupted the park's landscaping and left the park in disarray for decades.
In 1993, the newly formed Friends of Van Vorst Park (FVVP) began to renovate with the Jersey City Parks Coalition, founded in 2005, and receipt of approximately $ 2 million in Green Acres funding. The park's rejuvenation includes a gazebo, viewing fountain, and playground. Plantings and trees contribute to a small verdant oasis along the walking paths. According to Clifford S. Waldman of the FVVP, the association renovated the park according to the goals of its benefactor Cornelius Van Vorst: "Van Vorst wanted a passive, Victorian park at the center of a rapidly growing neighborhood that would honor the centuries the Van Vorst family owned and developed this area, and perhaps he also wanted to honor the soon to be vanished open land itself" ("Friends of the Van Vorst Park: A History" website).
A Public Space Worth Saving
The name Van Vorst refers back to the region's Dutch colonial heritage. The Van Vorsts were among the area's earliest settlers and its most notable citizens for generations. Descendants of the first Cornelius Van Vorst farmed large landholdings along the Hudson River waterfront known as Harsimus. At Harsimus, a later Cornelius Van Vorst (1728-1818) operated the Paulus Hook ferry and owned most of the surrounding property.
In 1835, another Van Vorst descendant, Cornelius Van Vorst (1794-1852), donated 1.8 acres of his extensive properties for a public space called "Van Vorst Square." It established the footprint of the future Van Vorst Park. The park did not materialize for some time as Van Vorst's foresight for reserved open space was yet to be appreciated in the largely rural Van Vorst Township of the 1840s.
In 1848, Cornelius Van Vorst expressed renewed concern about the potential of commercial development in the area and began a dispute with the township over the park's measurements. He eventually negotiated with the township commission, of which he was a member. He agreed to pay $1500 for grading the property's hilly ground if the township planted trees and constructed a fence around the site. The agreement was formalized in a contract on February 7, 1851. A month later, on March 18, 1851, an independent and expanding Vorst Township was annexed by the growing adjacent municipality of Jersey City to take advantage of its "public improvements" for firehouses, schools, and fiscal progress (Grundy 36).
Peter Henderson (1822-1890), an established florist and gardener who emigrated from Scotland in 1843, was the original landscaper for Van Vorst Park. He and his brother James moved to Van Vorst Township in 1847, where they opened a florist shop called "Van Vorst Gardens." Henderson lent his efforts to the park for permanent open space to celebrate his newly-adopted community and promote his trade.
Henderson became a prolific writer on all aspects of gardening. His company was nationally recognized for colorful seed catalogs distributed through the mail. A Jersey City resident, Henderson maintained large greenhouses and warehouses in the city. His retail and office operations were located at 35-37 Cortlandt Street, New York City, which later became the footprint of the Twin Towers.
In his design of Van Vorst Park, Henderson was likely influenced by the Victorian-style parks popularized in the United Kingdom by John Claudius Loudon. He and other landscape designers of the time fashioned public spaces for local industrial communities. Writing for GreenSpace of the United Kingdom, Jenifer White and Martin Duffy explain: "The promoters and champions of the first public parks ... saw them as a means to boost the local economy and civic pride by making towns and cities attractive places to work and live. These parks were conceived as special places where all sections of society could enter free of charge and mix freely. Many of the Victorian public parks were philanthropic gifts to the people of the local community by wealthy industrialists and landowners whilst others were created by public subscription" ("History of Parks," http://www.green-space.org.uk). The public park concept also seems to reaffirm the interests of Cornelius Van Vorst for the township.
The Van Vorst Park Historic District is west of Paulus Hook and bound by Christopher Columbus Drive (formerly Railroad Avenue), Grand Street, Marin Boulevard (formerly Henderson Street), and Brunswick Street. The district includes notable sites like the Jersey City Free Public Library, Dixon Crucible Company, City Hall, and Barrow Mansion. Many of the familiar surviving brownstones and townhouses, which line the nearby streets, were constructed from the Civil War period to the 1890s. Brownstone houses on Montgomery Street facing the park are in Italianate style with bracketed cornices, stoop balustrades of cast iron or stone, and double-door entrances with transoms. Many of the homes were renovated during the gentrification of the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s.
The legacy of the work of Cornelius Van Vorst and Peter Henderson with the Van Vorst Township was never more important than it is today. The park offers a public outdoor venue for cultural and arts events and an urban retreat for all to enjoy.
Bush, Susan Brierly. "If You Plant It, They Will Come." New Jersey Monthly. May 2023: 75.
Egan. Colin. "Van Vorst Park in Jersey." Yesterday Today in New Jersey. nd:19-22.
Githens, Herbert J. Houses in Time: A Walking Tour of Architectural Styles; The Van Vorst Park Historic District, Jersey City, New Jersey. ND, np.
Grundy, J. Owen. The History of Jersey City, 1609-1976. Jersey City, NJ: Progress Printing Co., Inc. 1976.
McLean, Alexander. The History of Jersey City, N.J. Jersey City, NJ: F.T. Smiley and Co., 1895.
"Van Vorst Square." Daily Telegraph 6 February 1851.
Waldman, Clifford S. "Friends of the Van Vorst Park: A History." http://www.vvpa.org
White, Jenifer and Martin Duffy. "History of Parks." http://www.green-space.org.uk/resources/aboutparks/history.php