O nce an estate held at different times by a couple of wealthy families, Edgerton Park went public nearly 50 years ago.
Now its 25 hilly acres on the New Haven-Hamden border are what we make them. And we make them many things: early-morning dog-walking routes; high-speed sledding slopes, especially on the first snow day of the year; picnicking grounds on Sunday afternoons; and even an open-air theater during Elm Shakespeare Company’s annual “Shakespeare in the Park” summer plays.
While it’s easy to be distracted by all of that, or even, more simply, by rows of yellow daffodils in spring or peaceful vistas in winter, the park’s Carriage House provides scenery of a different sort: Edgerton’s history, beginning with the property’s famed first owner, Eli Whitney. The land was later given to his niece Caroline, who built a charming Victorian home there. In 1906, industrialist Frederick Brewster bought the plot, where he built a large and ornate home meant as an “escape” from denser city living, complete with a stone wall surrounding the estate’s perimeter.
The wall still stands, but the house doesn’t. In his will, Brewster asked that the structure (called “Edgerton” for its edge-of-town location, although it’s technically in a Hamden address now) be demolished and the land given to the city upon his wife’s death. In 1965, that’s exactly what happened, and it’s been a public space since.
Although the destruction of what would likely be a treasured historic residence seems a shame, perhaps Brewster foresaw that New Haveners would one day appreciate an open space filled with playful squirrels and sprawling foliage as much or more than a regal estate with cordoned-off rooms. Not that the open space is all-natural—the park today is an amalgam of carefully planned and carefully untended spaces, meaning there are rows of blooms to ogle as well as wild spots perfect for impromptu “sword” fights and other childhood games, says groundskeeper Lianne Audette, who you’ll often find there with her 16-year-old dog, Pearl. She says she sometimes stumbles upon forts left by youthful park visitors, who she believes are inspired by Edgerton’s largely unstructured acreage, with no playground equipment or sandboxes to be found.
The organization tasked with keeping the park active and vibrant is the Edgerton Park Conservancy, which was established in 1972. The city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees handles important duties, while the Conservancy, now run by an active board of directors, does that extra work to take Edgerton from run-of-the-mill to truly special. Membership to support that mission is available to the public at $20 for an individual and $25 for a family, with a “friend” rate of $100 for those who want to go bigger.
Margy DeVane, now the board treasurer, has been part of the organization for over 30 years and speaks enthusiastically about the park’s history, as well as its programs and other happenings. Many residents know Edgerton best for Sunday in the Park, she says, the family festival held every September as a fundraiser, featuring music, food, games and a petting zoo.
When school’s out, the park is home to a city-run summer camp. When it’s in, student tour groups frequent the park’s greenhouses—bursting with delicate orchids, plump succulents and a banana tree, to name a few—led free of charge by volunteer docents, with each student taking a potted plant home to keep. The greenhouse, open most days between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., also sells a range of plants to the public at large, made possible by G.R.O.W.E.R.S, a horticultural program for handicapped adults.
There’s much more, like Edgerton’s community gardens and its popularity as a wedding venue, but perhaps the best reasons to visit Edgerton Park are the simplest ones: to take a brisk walk on a cool day, or to read a good book in the shade, to a soundtrack of birds chirping and kids playing.
75 Cliff St, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.