Van Vorst Park is the centerpiece of the the downtown Jersey City neighborhood and historic district that bears the same name. Called "one of the most formal of Jersey City's parks," it was originally landscaped by local florist and horticulturist Peter Henderson in 1851. The park has been described as an example of a town square similar to Washington Square Park in lower New York City. Occupying the entire rectangular city block between Montgomery Street, York Street, Jersey Avenue, and Barrow Street, Van Vorst Park is lined with ornate brick and brownstone rowhouses from the late 1800s that showcase a variety of popular Victorian architectural styles.
The park was renovated for $2 million in 1999 through the efforts of an association called the Friends of Van Vorst Park (FVVP). The park includes a gazebo, viewing fountain, and playground; plantings and trees provide a small verdant oasis along the walking paths. According to Clifford S. Waldman of the FVVP, the association renovated the park according to the intended 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" web site).
The name Van Vorst refers back to the region's Dutch colonial heritage. The Van Vorsts were among the earliest settlers of the area and for generations were among its most notable citizens. Descendants of the first Cornelius Van Vorst farmed large land holdings along the Hudson River waterfront in the area known as Harsimus, while a later Cornelius Van Vorst (1728-1818) operated the Paulus Hook ferry and owned most of the surrounding property.
In 1835, another descendant, not surprisingly also named Cornelius Van Vorst (1794-1852), donated 1.8 acres of his extensive properties for a public space to be called "Van Vorst Square" which established the footprint of today's Van Vorst Park. Development of the park did not materialize for some time, however, as Van Vorst's foresight for reserved open space was yet to be appreciated in the newly independent but still largely rural Van Vorst Township of the 1840's.
In 1848, Cornelius Van Vorst expressed renewed concern about the potential of commercial development in the area and opened a dispute with the township over the measurements of the park site. He negotiated with the township commission, of which he was a member, that he would pay $1500 for grading the hilly ground on the property if the township would plant trees and construct a fence around the site. The agreement was formalized in a contract on February 7, 1851. A month later, on March 18, 1851, as its population continued to expand, Van Vorst Township was annexed by the rapidly growing adjacent municipality of Jersey City to take advantage of its "public improvements" for fire houses, schools, and fiscal progress (Grundy 36).
Peter Henderson (1822-1890), the original landscaper for Van Vorst Park, emigrated from Scotland in 1843 and was established as a florist and gardener when he and his brother James moved to Van Vorst Township in 1847 at the time of its early development. They opened a florist shop called "Van Vorst Gardens." To celebrate his newly-adopted community and apparently in the interest of his trade, Peter Henderson became the landscape architect for Van Vorst's desired permanent open space for the township.
Henderson most likely was influenced by the Victorian-style parks popularized in the United Kingdom by John Claudius Loudon. Loudon 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 description of the public park concept seems to reaffirm the interests of Cornelius Van Vorst for the township.
Peter Henderson was a prolific writer on all aspects of gardening, and his company later became nationally recognized for their colorful seed catalogs distributed through the mail. Henderson resided in Jersey City where he maintained large greenhouses and warehouses, while his retail and office operations were located at 35-37 Cortlandt Street, New York City, that later became the footprint of the Twin Towers.
The Van Vorst Park Historic District is located west of Paulus Hook and is bound by Christopher Columbus Drive (formerly Railroad Avenue), Grand Street, Marin Boulevard (formerly Henderson Street), and Brunswick Street. The district includes significant sites such as the Jersey City Free Public Library, Dixon Crucible Company, City Hall, and the Barrow Mansion. Many of the familiar surviving brownstone and town houses, which surround the park and line the nearby streets, were constructed from the Civil War period to the 1890s. The brownstone houses on Montgomery Street facing the park are in the Italianate style with bracketed cornices, stoop balustrades of cast iron or stone, and double door entrances with transoms. Many of the homes were renovated with 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 as it is today-- the park continues to draw the local community together in tending its gardens, in providing a venue for numerous cultural and arts events, as well as offering a welcome urban retreat with sheltering trees and seasonal flowers for all to enjoy.
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