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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

The First Park Gardeners, Haerlin and Cukierski

by Rebecca Smith-Hoffman

In 1891, the Board of Public Works hired landscape gardener Herman Haerlin of Cincinnati, who developed a plan for the Ball Forty that appears to have been partially carried out.  Curving graveled driveways and paths were laid out, rustic bridges, rails and banisters were constructed, and a stream in the main ravine was dammed to create an artificial lake.  The drive up the main ravine still exists.  It was widened to forty-five feet and rebuilt with macadam in 1899.  Although resurfaced over the years and now closed to the public, it remains in partial use today as a service road in the zoo area. 

Wencel L. Cukierski, born in Prussian controlled Posen, Poland, began working with his father, a landscape gardener in charge of a 40,000-acre estate, at the age of fifteen. Due to Cukierski's skill and ability in his father's vocation, he was sent to Erfurt College in 1887, a large and well-known agricultural college in Germany. After graduating from a two-year course, Cukierski worked as an assistant to a leading Berlin landscape gardener in the public parks of that city.  In the summer of 1889, he immigrated to Grand Rapids with his brother John.  While working for Henry Smith, one of the city’s leading florists, he attended business school. Curkierski’s plan for the park was based upon the principles of nineteenth century landscape design. Park use was largely passive, providing Grand Rapids’ citizens a respite from the noisy, dirty, busy city.  Like similar showcase parks in other American cities, it was a place where the beauties of nature could be peacefully contemplated while strolling, bicycling, or driving in carriages (and later in automobiles) along its winding woodland drives.  Small artificial lakes and large stylized flower beds and floral displays added to the natural beauty.  Bridges constructed of rustic work spanned its forest glens over cascading pools of water.  The small lakes and cascading pools not only added to the picturesque nature of the park, but were also a solution to the problem of ground water run-off and controlled the many small creeks formed in the ravines by the natural springs of the bluffs.

An Evening Press article describes the park in the spring of 1898:  "the lawns are in beautiful shape, the lakes are clear and the trees are acquiring their spring garb . . . the fountains are running."  A conservatory had been constructed near the greenhouse, which this year produced 150,000 plants, most of which were to be used in the floral displays of John Ball Park "because they can be employed to better advantage there."  

Because of the lack of flat land in the early park, Cukierki graded and terraced the main front bluff creating successive tiers, raised one above the other behind the grandstand to better accommodate visitors.  Benches were placed on these tiers, where park patrons could listen to the weekly band concerts while contemplating the view of the city.  The effect of these tiers is mentioned in an Evening Press story of the Park Day festivities that were held in John Ball Park for many years to celebrate the official opening of the city parks.  Factories and stores were closed for half the day to allow everyone to attend.  According to the article “the great hill to the west of the greenhouses which rises like a natural amphitheater was covered with people.”   The lower part of the hill was regraded in 1910 as part Eugene Goebel’s redevelopment of the McNamara addition, but at least one of the tiers still exists as a path through the forested bluff.

Cukierski joined in founding Sacred Heart Church in 1903, which chose to locate on five choice lots of the McNamara Addition across the street from John Ball Park.   The first parish building, which housed church, school, parish hall, and the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, was completed in the fall of 1904.  Polish families had settled in the area in the late nineteenth century to be close to the gypsum mines south and west of the park where the men were employed.  The six-mile round-trip walk to St. Adelbert Church and school, the only Polish church on the West Side, was a hardship for those who lived near the park.  With the establishment of Sacred Heart parish near the park, the area became a choice residential neighborhood.  As their economic condition improved, more Polish families left the old neighborhood around St. Adelbert to build new homes in this section of the city.  In 1904, the Sacred Heart Society voted to name the area Krakowo (Little Cracow).  The stately Romanesque towers of Sacred Heart Church (1923) form an integral part of the historic vista of Grand Rapids as viewed from the bluffs of John Ball Park.   

In his year-end report from the Board of Park and Cemetery Commissioners in April 1909, chairman Charles B. Blair noted “there has of late shown itself on the one hand a disposition to spend lavishly on John Ball Park and on the other a readiness to curtail unmercifully everywhere else . . .  If persevered in, this will arouse hostility in various quarters of the city which are more in need of expenditure for acquiring park and playground than John Ball Park is of further extension.”

The criticism of the disparity of expenditure was not unfounded.  For example, in 1900 out of a total park budget of $38,180, $25,000 was to be spent on John Ball Park, plus $3,500 for greenhouse operations.  By 1908, John Ball expenditures totaled $51,256.60, including the $29,300 purchase price of the McNamara addition.  In the report referred to above, Blair stated that “the conservatory and greenhouses will be demolished to make way for a pavilion that would be constructed on the site – these features had been maintained for years at large expense and correspondingly small benefit.” He further noted it was “[a]n important step  . . . taken toward the adoption of a more rational treatment of park decoration than the bedding-plant method, which has so largely been abandoned elsewhere.”   The romantic school of park design was on the wane and, up-to-date as always, Grand Rapids was looking for change.   

After resigning his position in late 1908, Cukierski continued his private landscape business as the Grand Rapids Floral Company (now Ball Park Floral) at the northeast corner of West Fulton Street and Valley Avenue.  His residence is still standing across the street on Valley Avenue.  Cukierski worked as a free-lance landscape designer until his death in 1926.  Among his designs were the Polish Cemetery (1909), known since 1947 as Holy Cross Cemetery, and Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Grand Rapids, the Ludington, Holland, Muskegon and Cadillac State Parks, the grounds of Hackley Hospital in Muskegon, and grounds for numerous northern Michigan resorts, as well as for private owners.

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