The Dr. Leonard J. Gordon Park at Jersey City Heights is best known for the sculptures of Buffalo and Bears (c. 1907) that one sees when passing on Kennedy Boulevard as well as for its nickname "mosquito park" after the pesky New Jersey insect.
Its development took place at the time of the "City Beautiful" movement in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The movement's purpose was to revitalize industrialized communities with public spaces for recreational purposes. The Jersey City Charter Company owned the undeveloped hillside woodland site with stone boulders and sold it to Jersey City for $46,000 on September 19, 1907.
The 5.7 acre park was designed by the landscape architect John T. Withers who left much of the rocky terrain as he found it. Appointed by Mayor H. Otto Wittpenn as the municipal landscaper, Withers was also responsible for the Mary Benson Park on Newark Avenue and the Bayside Park in the Greenville section of Jersey City. According to local historian J. Owen Grundy, "Withers had made quite a reputation in Jersey City at the turn of the century by giving illustrated lectures before various organizations showing how attractive a city could be if the citizens and public officials cared" (Grundy).
The larger-than-life stone statues of the "buffalo and the bears" were the work of sculptor Solon Hannibal Borglum (1868-1922). As an artist he was influence by the many years he spent on the Western plains of Utah and later Nebraska, where his father owned a ranch. It allowed him to foster an appreciation for the peoples and animals of the land. He visited the Sioux, who revere the buffalo, at their South Dakota reservation; it resulted in his work Sioux Indian Buffalo Dance (1899).
Art commentator Meredith Bzdak remarks that "Borglum's Buffalo and Bears are unusual works for their time. The animals are depicted in a naturalistic fashion, lying directly on the grass and therefore completely within the space of the viewer; they are unencumbered by a base or pedestal. These works . . . typify his spontaneous style. Forgoing strict anatomical illustration, Borglum preferred to simply suggest an animal's form and to infuse the work with a sense of movement" (Bzdak 57). Among his other works are Lassoing Wild Horses (1898) and On the Border of the White Man's Land (1899); they represent his theme of frontier life recurrent in his work. Borglum's brother, Gutzon, is the noted sculptor of Mount Rushmore and the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the Essex County Court House in Newark.
An iron fence that is anchored in concrete piers surrounds the urban park. In the center is a circular gazebo or bandstand. On November 9, 1930, the Hudson City Soldiers and Sailors Welfare League, Inc. placed a World War I memorial statue Dough Boy in the park. There is also an American eagle atop a granite shaft that was placed there by the Raymond Sipnick Post of the Jewish War Veterans.
According to Grundy the naming of the new park came from the opinion of William H. Richardson. He was a member of the city's Board of Shade Tree Commission and "believed that all city parks should be named to honor distinguished citizens" (Grundy). Two years prior to the founding of the park, Dr. Leonard J. Gordon (1844-1905) had died, and city leaders agreed that his legacy to the city merited the park naming. Mayor Mark M. Fagan said at a memorial for Dr. Gordon, "No better man or more useful citizen ever lived in this city" (Quoted in Grundy).
A New York native, Dr. Gordon served in the Union army during the Civil War. After moving to Jersey City, he obtained his medical degree from Bellevue Medical Center in 1875 and completed his internship at the Jersey City Charity Hospital that predated the Jersey City Medical Center. After practicing medicine for two years, he was appointed chemist for the Lorillard Tobacco Company.
Dr. Gordon's contributions to his adopted city were the placement of the sculpture Soldiers and Sailors Memorial by Philip Martiny in front of City Hall and the advancement of the Jersey City Free Public Library. He championed the founding of a public library for the city, coming up against the vote of a municipal referendum. When the approval and appropriations for the library were finally granted, Dr. Gordon became the president of its board of trustees and then the library's director. In his honor, a memorial window and a bust of Dr. Gordon at the entrance of the main library on Jersey Avenue were donated by local residents in February 1907.
Dr. Gordon's brick, Queen Anne-style home by the architect William Milne Grisnell, built in 1888, was at 485 Jersey Avenue, not far from the library at 472 Jersey Avenue.
Bzdak, Meredith A. Public Sculpture in New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
"Dr. Leonard J. Gordon." New York Times 18 January 1905.
Grundy, J. Owen. "Gordon Park: Doctor's Tribute." Jersey Journal 8 May 1970.