Financier Charles Pond was a very successful business man in Hartford, Connecticut in the late 19th-century. Pond had a hand in many of the most successful companies in the city, including as president of the local railroad, president of the Hartford Trust, and a director of the Phoenix Insurance Co. When Pond died in 1894 at the age of 57, he bequeathed his estate on a bluff overlooking Hartford to the city – on the condition that it be named for his late wife, Elizabeth.
Today, Elizabeth Park is on the National Register of Historic Places. The 102-acre park is renowned for its century-old rose garden and its landmark greenhouses. But the hundred-year journey has been a trying one for Mr. Ponds’ gift to his hometown of Hartford.
Upon taking possession of the land, the city of Hartford hired the famed landscaping design firm of Olmstead and Son to lay out Elizabeth Park. Frederick Law Olmstead had gained fame for designing Central Park in New York City and the grounds of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The resulting design includes many of the characteristic overlooks above meadows, fields and water that were trademarks of Olmstead’s work.
It was Elizabeth Park’s first superintendent who decided to undertake a rose garden. “It would please the people,” he is reported to have said at the time. What started as 100 rose bushes in 1904 has grown to a two-and-a-half acre garden that features over 15,000 rose bushes. It is the oldest municipal rose garden in America, and includes over 800 varieties of roses. It is one of 22 All America Test Gardens in the country, where new varieties of roses are grown and evaluated before they are made available to the general public. The Elizabeth Park rose garden remains a popular site for summer weddings and photographers.
In the 1970s, when Hartford and Connecticut experienced financial hardships, the Elizabeth Park rose garden suffered from neglect and lack of funding. The city said it could no longer afford to maintain the garden, and made plans to plow it under. But a group of volunteers from the Hartford community formed the Friends of Elizabeth Park, raised $10,000 to restore the rose garden, and continue financially support the upkeep of the park. One of the group’s later projects was the restoration of the century-old greenhouses, which were built by the Lord & Burnham Company – the firm that designed landmark greenhouses such as the New York Botanical Garden and the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.
Today, due to the city boundaries being moved a quarter-mile to the west, most of Elizabeth Park actually sits within the town of West Hartford, Connecticut. Administration and maintenance of the entire park is still under the control of the city of Hartford, however. The park is open from dawn to dusk every day of the year.