By Chris Franco
I recently experienced a “Norman Rockwell moment” right here in our own busy town. As I was driving toward the stone-arched railroad tunnel just off the traffic circle on the Riverside and Old Greenwich border, a commuter train rumbled by up on the elevated stone railroad crossing. The train was not too loud, and when I looked up as it passed by, the setting sun reflected off its silver aluminum siding. Suddenly the train whistle blew, and for me the picture was complete. As I was thinking about how our town is so charming and unique, I drove through the stone tunnel and emerged into a second, and even more remarkable, Norman Rockwell experience.
Binney Park is an incredible resource for our town. It is exceptionally beautiful, dotted with historic stone pavilions and anchored by a lovely central pond with its own small “island”, connected by stone bridges to a walking path that winds throughout the park. As pedestrians stroll along the path they can enjoy the beautiful landscaping, and watch children and athletes play on the tennis courts, athletic fields and in the wonderful and creative children’s playground. It’s impossible not to admire the sublime classical architecture of the adjacent Perrot Memorial Library, certainly one of the most beautiful libraries in America, and the beautiful and historic First Congregational Church, which dates back to the founding of Greenwich in the 1640s. And it’s common to drive by Binney Park and see beautiful brides and their wedding parties being photographed in the picturesque setting. The park is packed for July 4th when thousands come to enjoy the Town’s exciting fireworks display and listen to The Sound Beach Community Band play patriotic songs.
But Binney Park was not always the beloved town gem that it is today. When it was established in 1927 by Edwin Binney and his daughters, Mary and Helen, it was low-lying swampland that had been slated for house lots. Binney purchased the land and deeded it to the Town, to be retained in perpetuity as a park. The Binneys were civic-minded citizens who began “summering” here in the 1880s, and who were contemporaries and friends of Mr. and Mrs. J. Kennedy Tod, who assembled their fabulous estate at what is now Greenwich Point. Binney made his fortune founding Binney and Smith, the company that created Crayola Crayons. Between 1927 and 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, Binney and his daughters conceived the design of the park and supervised its construction, damming streams to create the pond, constructing the rustic bridges and pavilions, and adding an array of beautiful trees, shrubs and perennials. Over the years adjacent parcels were added, and Binney Park expanded to it current 32 acres.
As with all historic designed landscapes, upkeep of the park and its features requires constant attention, and over many decades dwindling Town resources compromised the Town’s ability to provide adequate maintenance. The park’s historic features had significantly deteriorated, and by the beginning of the last decade it had become clear that the park was in serious need of restoration and renewal. As is often the case in Greenwich, an extraordinary combination of public and private efforts came together and launched an amazing revival of Binney Park – today it has been “buffed up” and improved and has never been better!
In 2005, the Old Greenwich Association commissioned a survey seeking ideas to improve Binney Park. Around the same time, the Town’s Superintendent of Parks and Trees, Bruce Spaman, commissioned an Historic Landscape Report for all four of the Town’s major parks. That report, in turn, led to the recognition of the need for “Master Plans” for our parks. In 2015, following several years of preliminary work, town meetings and research led by the late Nancy Caplan, then Chairman of the Board of Parks and Recreation, a Master Plan for Binney Park was completed and published. That plan became the roadmap for the fantastic improvements that have followed.
However, in 2015 there was a hitch. A “gating item” that would precede implementation of the recommendations for the park was the completion of a major dredging project of the pond at Binney Park. These days, dredging water resources has become very complicated, and involves multiple regulatory agencies. Fortunately, the town was able to complete the dredging project in 2018, which in turn opened the floodgates (pardon the pun) for a cascade of projects at the park.
In 2019, Joe Siciliano, Director of Parks and Recreation, established the Binney Park Advisory Committee, which is a citizen group that has spearheaded the recent improvements at the park. The BPAC is co-chaired by Peter Uhry and Nancy Chapin, and since its creation so many good things are happening! There has been significant clearing of dead or dying trees and shrubs, which have been replaced with appropriate new plantings. This work has been accomplished by the Town, and by local landscaper and designer Peter Grunow, whose work was underwritten by generous donations from private citizens in town. There have also been “volunteer days”, which are joint efforts of the BPAC and Greenwich Green and Clean, where citizen volunteers have assisted and made substantial progress in park improvements. The Greenwich Tree Conservancy and the Greenwich Botanical Center have organized “Tree I.D.” and “Tree Walks” in the park, which have advanced of knowledge of and planning for the park’s beautiful trees.
The historic structures, including the “clubhouse” by the athletic fields, the warming hut on the island and the stone pavilion at the western playground, as well as the stone bridges, have undergone significant restoration work. A new waterside patio on the island has been created, which includes teak benches donated in memory of Nancy Caplan. The playground on the west side of the park has been beautifully upgraded, to the delight of local children who enjoy its creative features.
Still to come at Binney Park are a new patio on the east side of the “clubhouse”, and a new walking trail around the west side of the park, among many future projects and improvements. We are so fortunate to have this beautiful public resource, and we thank the Binney family (and their crayons) for their original vision and generosity, and all who have been involved in Binney Park’s remarkable renaissance!