Historic Downtown Westerly
Submitted by: William Haase
An 18 acre Victorian era walking park in the heart of Westerly's revitalized historic downtown, designed by Olmsted protege Warren H. Manning.
Coastal Westerly, tucked into Rhode Island's southwest corner on the Connecticut border, has been a favorite seaside vacation spot for more than 100 years. Historic Wilcox Park, a favorite among visitors and residents, features 18 acres of specimen trees, shrubs, display flower beds, a large koi pond, dwarf conifer collection, fountain, monuments, daylily collection and perennial borders. In mid-June, the Chorus of Westerly presents an outdoor Summer Pops concert here, complete with a Grucci fireworks display. More than 25,000 spectators turn out for this free, family-oriented event. The park was landscape architect Warren H. Manning's first major commission after leaving the Olmsted firm, and it is the centerpiece of an economically revitalized downtown, which in 2002 was designated one of America's "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Indeed, downtown Westerly today is one of the few places in the United States where one can walk to stores and purchase a loaf of bread, a hammer or nail, a men's suit, or fill a prescription. In other words, it effectively competes against market forces of suburban strip malls.
What Makes Wilcox Park a Great Place?
Located in the heart of downtown Westerly, the park presents different images depending on how it is approached. If entering from the steps of Westerly Town Hall (itself an impressive granite building), one gets the impression of a formalistic Baroque park, complete with statuary and a fountain. Elsewhere, however, the park has meandering paved paths and the feel of a less formal English garden.
At any time of the day or year, people wander its paths, which exit to healthy surrounding residential neighborhoods or directly to the downtown's shopping streets. Wilcox Park is two blocks from Amtrak's Westerly railway station, a 1912 structure recently restored using TEA-21 Enhancement Funds.
Wilcox Park is one of the finest small urban settings in America. When walking along its pathways, there is a point where one can view -- through a grove of mature specimen trees -- the facade of Granite Theatre which hosts amateur productions year round, an English-style Nineteenth Century Episcopal Church, the granite columns of Town Hall, and Westerly Library, a yellow-brick structure built as a memorial to the Town's Civil War veterans. It stirs the heart, especially in Spring when cherry trees are in bloom.
As for seating, the park's large bowl-shaped central meadow hosts major outdoor concerts and Shakespearian plays, during which it is covered with blankets and lawn chairs. The park has a full-time maintenance staff, and its manager, Allen Peck, was once employed by the National Arboretum.
Westerly itself has an obsession with litter -- the Town's state senator, who walks through the park to his job at a local bank, can be seen in the early morning picking up stray pieces of litter. As for safety, the police department is just three buildings off the park. Vehicles park on streets surrounding the park, but none are permitted inside.
Key annual events:
May 2005 -- Garden Market Fair & Neighbor Day festivities, including performances by the Westerly Band.
May 2005 -- Virtu Art Festival, an invitational show with 100+ regional artists
May 2005 -- Memorial Day Ceremonies
June 2005 -- Summer Pops Concert, drawing thousands to the Park's expansive central meadow.
July 2005 -- Westerly Band's Children's Concert.
July 2005 -- Two weeks of Shakespeare in the Park (This year "A Midsummer Night's Dream").
Wilcox Park is the heart of the Westerly community. The elderly walk it for exercise, downtown workers escape to it during lunch for stress relief, school groups use it year round, and lovers sit on its benches at night. As many as 25,000 people will assemble for Summer Pops.
Although Westerly is known primarily as a beach resort destination, the Chamber of Commerce's marketing efforts in recent years encourage visitors to explore the historic downtown, which has a mixture of shops serving local needs (such as a great men's clothing store) and galleries attracting out-of-towners.
History & Background
Wilcox Park is owned and maintained by the Memorial and Library Association of Westerly. The land was originally donated in 1898 by Harriet Wilcox in memory of her husband, Stephen Wilcox. The park was designed by Warren H. Manning, a former associate of Frederick Law Olmsted. Harriet Wilcox envisioned the area as a walking park to be enjoyed by the hard working citizens of Westerly and Pawcatuck. Manning incorporated much of the existing flora into its scheme, creating an oasis in downtown Westerly resulting in its designation as a Medallion Park by the American Society of Landscape Architecture.
Originally a stand-alone listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the park has been incorporated into the larger Downtown Westerly National Histoirc District. The park figured prominently in Westerly's 2004 designation as a Preserve America Community by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation. In summer 2005, the park was awarded a $150,000 federal Save America's Treasures grant to help implement future landscape plans.
Allan Peck, Park Manager: 401-596-2877
- Wilcox Park - Information and history of the park from the Westerly Library's website