Wissinoming Park

Wissinoming Park

    The following article about Wissinoming Park appeared in The Philadelphia Record on Monday, August 28, 1911. It is reproduced below with minimum editing.

    CORNELIUS ESTATE FORMS IDEAL PARK

Lawndale, on Bristol Pike, Acquired by City, Rich in Natural Beauty.

FINE OLD TREES ABOUND

  Few Changes Necessary to Adapt Grounds to their New Purpose

    The purchase by the city of splendid old estates and the converting of them into public parks, thereby preventing their being cut up into building lots and their identity lost forever, is truly an ideal method of preserving to the community these beautiful tracts which belonged to an age when land was plentiful and fine large estates were common.

    Through acts of public-spirited philanthropy, as well as through a wise foresight on the part of city officials, the city has been enabled to preserve a number of such tracts of beauty for posterity, and in many cases old estates have been allowed to remain almost intact as public parks, very few changes being found necessary to adapt the grounds to their new purpose.  The habit of beautifying the grounds of splendid trees and shrubbery was a wide-spread one among our fathers, and many of them would vie with our modern parks for sylvan beauty, which perhaps is one explanation why public parks were not considered such necessities then as they are today.

    Few such estates, however, have been found to be so ideally suited for parks as Lawndale, the old Cornelius estate, which lies just beyond Frankford on the Bristol Pike, and which Councils have just authorized the city to purchase as park property.  Had a park been deliberately planned 50 years ago on this spot and everything done to fit the property for that purpose, the grounds could hardly be expected to surpass in natural beauty their present condition and appearance.

Large Old Trees Cover the Tract.

Large and beautiful trees of every conceivable variety cover the estate, here arranged in long avenues, giving the effect of magnificent cathedral aisles, there clustered together in utter confusion like a piece of primeval forest.  As one wanders over the grounds at every turn new vistas of beauty are opened up.   Combinations of color and shape such as only Nature can construct, gladden the eye on all sides, and the friendly shade of the great trees that are everywhere gives the impression of a protecting presence hovering about.  To spend a day amid such surroundings is to get near to the heart of things and to be refreshed by the contact.   It is, as said at the outset, an ideal spot for a park.

    But when Mr. Cornelius, who was well known in the business world as a manufacturer of gas fixtures, moved to the property in 1852, enlarged the old mansion and set about the task of beautifying the grounds, the era of their present beauty began.  Mr. Cornelius was a great lover of trees and he planted over 4,000 on the 79 acres that then constituted the estate.  He imported many rare varieties from all parts of the world, and in consequence Lawndale, as he called the place, soon became famed for its beautiful trees.

    A great deal of care he devoted to beautifying the area immediately surrounding the mansion, and as this is the part that is still intact and that the city is to purchase, it is likely that the most beautiful portion of the estate is here preserved.  Many rare plants once beautified this portion of the grounds, but these have disappeared through neglect during recent years, very little trace of them remaining.

    The mansion, which stands in the centre of the grounds and is at present used as a clubhouse by the Turney Cyclers, a social organization, was originally a two-story stone building which stood on the grounds at the time Mr. Cornelius purchased the place.  It was a very old building, it is said, at that time.   Nevetheless, it was made the basis for the present mansion, which was built around it.  It now rises to a height of four stories, above which is a tower which affords a splendid view of the surrounding country.  Lawndale was the centre of the social life of that section just before the war and immediately after.

    Three are a number of other buildings on the grounds, one of them being an old farmhouse which has stood more than a century.  Miniature mansions, which the Cornelius children played in, still stand about fifty yards from the main building and give an interesting insight into the life that was lived on the place in the days of its glory.  One of these miniature mansions now serves as a house for the chickens of the caretaker of the place, and another houses the caretaker's cow.

    While much of its glory belongs to the past, the wild beauty of the place remains.  Mr. Cornelius builded better than he knew when he gave so much attention to the planting of trees on the grounds.  Only the destruction of these trees and the turning of the section into a residential neighborhood could undo his work and destroy this wild beauty.  The purchase of the place by the city and the turning of it into a park will secure it to prosperity and will ensure the perpetuation of Mr. Cornelius' work and the beauty which resulted from it.

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                           The Cornelius Mansion in its heyday.

 

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A day at the Cornelius Estate.

  

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The Wissinoming Park pond.  Lillypads in the foreground, looking west from the bridge at the east end of the pond.  1940s. 

 

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               The Bandstand and Comfort Station.  1934.

 

milestone.gif (53534 bytes) The milestone marker at the SE corner of Comly St. and Frankford Ave.   The marker reads 6MT which means "the sixth(6) mile(M) of the Frankford - Bristol turnpike(T)."  The milestone was installed sometime between 1803 and 1810.  Frankford Avenue, an Indian foot path, later known as one of the King's Highways or King's Roads, became the Frankford-Bristol turnpike in 1803.  The Turnpike followed the general line of present day Route 13.

Mickey McHeran, in her book Wissinoming, my hometown, wrote about Wissinoming Park.  She wrote:                                              

The site for many picnics, the park was eagerly sought after on Decoration Day (name prior to Memorial Day), Fourth of July, and Labor Day.  Picnic season officially opened on Decoration Day and closed on Labor Day.   Picnickers piled into gaily bedecked trucks, sat on long benches, and sang their way to the picnic grounds at various parks and lakes. 

Perhaps the greatest day was the Fourth of July. It began at 9 A.M. in Lawton Schoolyard. The organizations that "reigned" as the community project sponsors for this event were first the Wissinoming Improvement Association, succeeded by the Wissinoming Community League, and followed by the current Wissinoming Civic Association. These three organizations, with dedicated leadership and members, undertook to solicit the finances for the activities of the day.  

The parade consisted of marching bands, a Marshal, leading political figures, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,  and all the children of the town on floats, walking, or riding bicycles that sported red, white, and blue crepe paper from the wheel spokes to the handle bars.  Each child received a paper hat in patriotic colors and an American flag.  The parade began with flags flying and whatever band could be recruited playing appropriate music.    When it neared the Park, tickets for ice cream were distributed. After an official flag raising ceremony at the tall flagpole, the paraders and friends   were free to spend the day engaging in various races and games with prizes for the winners. These races and games were  interspersed with peanut scrambles, baby parades, and other activities that continued till dark. Then the piece de resistance was due to be presented. 

Hundreds of people were seated on the grassy hill in front of the mansion gazing upward at the darkened sky to view the magnificent display.  The cheers of the crowd mingled with the cries of small children frightened by the thundering sounds of the sham battle.  The   revelry continued till the grand finale was etched into the sky followed by the ground display spelling out, "GOOD NIGHT".             

To us the Park  was always there - a place to play, to shortcut on the way to Frankford , or just to sit on one of the many benches.  We took it all for granted.  This was the Park that was a haven for all ages, and the one I remember.  But how it actually became absorbed into the town's history was very interesting and explains why some people called it Cornelius Park. 

Robert Cornelius, son of Christian Cornelius, an immigrant from Amsterdam, Holland, was bornin Philadelphia on March 1, 1809.  His father was a manufacturer of oil lamps and silverware.  Robert's pursuits in the field of photography proved him to be proficient in the art of taking pictures.   

Robert married Harriet Comly and had a family of three sons and five daughters.  The Cornelius family influence was evident in Wissinoming by the fact that Comly Street was named for his wife. 

He purchased an 80 acre farm and woods in 1851 from J. Taylor, who named his estate "Lawndale."  This property had previously been owned by a man named Blackburn in the 1830s and early 1840s.  Cornelius retained the name "Lawndale" for his property which was bounded on the north by Benner Street, the south by Dark Run Lane (now Cheltenham Ave.), the east by Erdrick Street and on the  west by Bristol Pike (now Frankford Ave). 

He also added three wings to the original house with a porch extending the entire length of the building.  This enabled his children and grandchildren to spend their summer vacations here.  This spacious residence was able to provide 32 family members and servants with ample accommodations for dinner and overnight lodging at the Cornelius' golden wedding anniversary celebration.  A small stone house flanked by shrubbery was at the bottom of the hill and subsequently was used as a springhouse.  Townsfolk hauled water away in gallon jugs on their express wagons.  There were also other buildings on the grounds: an overseer's house and a home for the caretaker and his family were among them.  I can recall a stable where horses were kept.  These were hitched to wagons that hauled in the picnic tables for safe keeping during the winter, and were used to transport fallen branches and rubbish in the days before trucks were so widely used. 

Mr. Cornelius died in 1893 at his mansion which he owned for 42 years.  Soon after, the property was put up for sale. Sections of the 80 acres were sold to various buyers from 1893 to 1910.  William J. Kerns purchased portions from Mr. Cornelius' son-in­-law, George Bodine.  In 1909 a large portion of the acreage was sold to Louis Weber and Thomas Tansey, a brick manufacturer.  In 1910 Mr. Tansey and his wife became the owners of the entire 80 acres.  Of  these 80 acres, 41 acres were sold to the City of Philadelphia on January 9, 1913, by the Tanseys for $115, 000 and eventually became Wissinoming Park.

For more information on Robert Cornelius see: The Library of Congress and the American Philosophical Society pages.

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