Essex County Branch Brook Park: Newark, New Jersey


The nationally historic, beautifully landscaped, and highly popular Essex County Branch Brook Park is the crown jewel of the Essex County, New Jersey, Park System. As such, it plays many roles: as a public backyard for the residents of Essex County, as the playing fields for the city's 40,000 students, and as the destination for 100,000 visitors each spring who come to see the nation's largest collection of blossoming cherry trees.

Designated Area

Park is generally bounded by Interstate Highway 280 on the south, the Newark City Light Rail line on the west, and Belleville Park with an extension between Mill Street and the Second River on the north. The eastern boundary moves along many streets, principally Clifton Avenue, Lake Street, and a line extending from Branch Brook Place.

The Cherry Blossom Festival attracts approximately 10,000 visitors each April to the park. Photo by Flickr user Shinya Suzuki (shinya) (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Planning Excellence

Originally conceived in 1867 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., and Calvin Vaux, Branch Brook Park became the country's first county park for public use. The park is a mixture of iconic Olmsted–designed elements — including long, rolling greenswards, statuesque tree groupings, waterways, and naturalistic woodlands — and more utilitarian areas for general recreation, team sports, and special events.

At 360 acres, Branch Brook is the largest park in the Essex County Parks System. The park, whose borders move in and out forming an L shape, is approximately a quarter-mile wide and four miles long. There are two major circulating drives that connect the park's four divisions and 12 miles of walking paths.

Despite its beloved status in the community and philanthropic support, Branch Brook Park fell victim to benign neglect and delayed maintenance. To direct public attention to the park, several local citizen groups, including Friends of Branch Brook Park, Concerned Citizens of Forest Hill, and members of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Women's Board, joined together. Among their initial steps was getting the park added to both the state and national registers of historic places in 1980 and 1981, respectively. This was not enough to prevent the space from being "loved into decrepitude," which is how the park was described in the five-volume "Cultural Landscape Report, Treatment, and Management Plan" published in 2002.

A successful voter referendum in 1998 established a county open space trust fund and a source of money to start a comprehensive, $50 million restoration of Branch Brook Park, which the county began in 1999. Five years later, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. was elected Essex County executive. As someone who grew up next to Branch Brook Park, he was a strong and vocal proponent of the county park system and of Branch Brook Park in particular. Under DiVincenzo's leadership, additional funding for Branch Brook Park's capital improvements and repairs has been secured.

Since 2003, the park's revitalization has been supported with public grants from the New Jersey Green Acres program and the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund, as well as private contributions from Prudential Financial President and CEO Arthur F. Ryan and his wife, Pat, who serves as co-president of the Branch Brook Park Alliance. The Ryans gave $1 million to the Branch Brook Park Alliance. Another source of support is the public-private partnership between Essex County and the Branch Brook Park Alliance, in which the alliance retains the services of the landscape architectural firm of Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc. of Virginia and Newark to guide the restoration. Essex County provides matching funds and technical support for the revitalization projects.

Today the park is in the final phase of implementing its restoration plan, including long-deferred capital improvements, and addressing recommendations in the Cultural Landscape Report that aim to restore the park's original artistic legacy created by the genius and vision of Olmsted and Vaux more than 150 years ago.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, one of the largest cathedrals in the U.S., is on the east side of the park. Photo by Flickr user Hope Adams (Hopefoote, Ambassador of the Wow) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Defining Characteristics, Features

Early History

  • Formerly Camp Frelinghusen, land for park used to train New Jersey volunteers at start of Civil War (1862)
  • New Jersey state legislature authorizes Newark Park Commission to find location for a municipal park (1867)
  • Fredrick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvin Vaux develop original concept of the park (1867)
  • Newark Common Council donates 60 acres for what eventually becomes Branch Brook Park
  • Essex County Park Commission is formed (1889)
  • Essex County Park Commission hires Olmsted Brothers firm to develop the park (1898)
  • Philanthropist Harman W. Hendricks donates family home, adjoining 23 acres for the park (1924)
  • Essex County acquires 94 acres to link Hendricks Field Golf Course and Bellville Park (1924)
  • Two thousand Japanese flowering cherry trees donated by Caroline Bamberger Fuld, sister of department store magnate Louis Bamberger (1927)

Design and Features

  • Park has four divisions: North Division is most natural; Middle Division has ball fields and paths; South Division is oldest segment; Park Extension area has highest concentration of cherry trees
  • Park's 4,300 cherry trees make the largest, most diverse collection in U.S.; Cherry Blossom Welcome Center recently renovated to create central gathering location for annual cherry festival
  • Park covers 360 acres with network of lakes, ponds, connecting streams; largest lake is 24 acres in the park's Southern Division. The interconnecting waterway is a Passaic River tributary
  • Prudential Lions located near the largest lake in the South Division have been park icons since 1959; symbolize Prudential Financial's support for the park
  • Elegant Ballantine Gates by architects Carrere and Hastings located at the entrance along Lake Street in Newark's historic Forest Hill neighborhood

Examples of Restoration Projects

  • Branch Brook Park Alliance hired Rhodeside & Harwell to produce the Essex County Park, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan funded by Prudential and Victoria Foundation (2002)
  • Five-volume "Cultural Landscape Report, Treatment, and Management Plan for Branch Brook Park" by Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc., completed for Essex County and Branch Brook Park Alliance (2002)
  • Since 2003, county made approximately $29 million in capital improvements and repairs to the park
  • Improvements of $6.4 million upgraded Middle Division ballfields with lighting, scoreboard, new press box, grading, draining, field relocations, parking, pedestrian entrance (2006)
  • New entrance built on the west side, making the park accessible from four light rail stations and 11 bus lines
  • $6.2 million was invested to restore the Park Avenue Bridge in 2005 and the Bloomfield Avenue bridge in 2009
  • $1.1 million was invested to rehabilitate the Prudential Concert and Kiyofumi Sakaguchi Memorial groves (2012)

Community Involvement

  • Branch Brook Park Alliance formed in 1999 to raise public awareness and include neighborhood residents and corporations in supporting the park's rehabilitation
  • Corporate, college, and nonprofit volunteers, and professional arborists participate in service days, park clean-ups, and caring for the trees through programs such as the annual "Pru Cares Day"
  • An urban-based farm operates in the park's two greenhouses, providing an educational opportunity for residents and students, and a source of food for underserved communities
  • Branch Brook Park Alliance and the Essex County Parks Department sponsor a spring fishing derby that draws 350 to 500 children
  • Local cultural groups hold special activities in the park, such as the old Italian game of bocce
  • The Cherry Blossom Gala held annually by Branch Brook Park Alliance raises park visibility
  • Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival attracts 100,000-plus visitors each spring; includes bicycle races, 10K run, student essay and poster contests, music, Japanese cultural demonstrations
  • Community Picnic involves over 1,500 school children and their families and offers a fun run, paddle boating rides, music, games, vendors, and refreshments
  • North Ward Center, Roberto Clemente Little League, La Casa de Don Pedro have established conservancy relationships with Essex County to support the ongoing revitalization initiatives
  • North Ward Center and Robert Clemente Little League sponsor youth recreation programs that attract thousands of children
  • Park hosts Easter egg hunts, wedding photographs, North American Tree Climbing Competition, fundraisers for local organizations, elementary school nature and environmental classes

People enjoy a beautiful day along one of Branch Book Park's many paths; ornamental lighting poles with buried wires illuminate the main paths throughout the park. Photo courtesy O'Brien Photography.