History in Our Own Backyard — A partnership between NYC Parks and the Old Stone House & Washington Park
Listening to Brooklyn Parks Chief of Staff Martin Maher talk about Brooklyn’s history and his passion for the Old Stone House & Washington Park makes one feel proud to be from this beloved borough. And if you are pining to learn more about the Battle of Brooklyn and how the Old Stone House (OSH) stands today as a monumental tribute to Brooklyn’s lasting legacy, Maher is the man you want to talk to. He will be the first to tell you that OSH & Washington Park is a must-see destination because of all it has to offer.
Thirty-two years ago, Maher joined the Parks Department as a ranger and quickly became acquainted with the Old Stone House. Since then, he has been associated with the park in one way or another. Maher recalls that “the park was like any park built during the Robert Moses era.” The current Old Stone House was built in 1933 using stones and material from the original OSH that was destroyed in 1897. The footprint of the original OSH was just feet away from the replica.
By the 1980s, the OSH was getting tired and old, and the people who were running it were focused on raising awareness about the history of the house, not about the site as community resource. The sense of OSH as the conservancy organization for the park came about when filmmaker and historian Joe McCarthy and OSH Executive Director Kim Maier came on board. Maher says, “Immediately, there was a much closer cooperation between OSH and the Parks Department. OSH became a partner group that helps promote the park with us, and this association has brought about success.”
Maher explains the four building blocks that helped revive the park:
Programming — the more positive things that happen in the park, the better it is.
Advocacy — murals, benches and entertainment bring greater demand for the use of the park.
Volunteerism — getting people involved, allowing the community to have a voice in what happens in the park.
Promotion — making people aware of the events taking place in their park.
Maher calls OSH “‘sacred ground’ in American history. It’s not in some far off place, but right here in the heart of Brooklyn.” Maher adds, “The OSH is the centerpiece bridal couple on the top of the cake, located in the center portion of the park, but there is so much more. You can’t help but embrace its history now.” There are basketball courts, soccer, skating and live entertainment on the field. OSH & Washington Park has come to life, according to Maher, who explains, “It’s not just a caged-in, fenced-in area.”
There are big plans ahead for OSH. There are still areas that need to be utilized. For example, there are conceptual plans for a new building to be constructed at the end of the Fourth Street cul-de-sac, along with plans to refresh the current OSH to make it even more user-friendly for students and visitors coming to learn about Brooklyn’s rich history. According to Maher, “It needs to be thought of historically, but still maintain its accessibility. And the community is on board for all this, since this is a destination park for people in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island.”
In 2004, Maher befriended esteemed author David McCullough, who credited Maher in his critically acclaimed masterpiece “1776.” Maher had taken McCullough on a historical tour of the length of Brooklyn shortly before McCullough published the book. The tour culminated with a visit to OSH.
Maher calls the labors on behalf of OSH a team effort. He credits Maier, McCarthy, elected officials, the support of the Parks Department under the leadership of former Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Julius Spiegel and current Borough Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey, and the maintenance workers, all of whom help make it what it is today.
And as proud as he is of what the OSH represents, he is quick to point out that the work is not finished. He states, “We need to keep focused and to continue to work together to get things done.” He adds that he feels like “a guardian or caretaker of the historic parks in the borough like Fort Greene Park, Fort Stirling, Denyse Wharf and the Old Stone House.”
The Old Stone House & Washington Park is owned by New York City. Today, the park is enjoyed by upwards of 500,000 visitors, and OSH by 44,000 visitors annually. This is Maher’s dream — to continue to preserve this historic site so that people from all over can enjoy the park. And, with summer just around the corner, there is no better time to visit a park that Martin Maher refers to as “Brooklyn’s Sacred Ground.”
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