Musser Park 

An Enduring Gift to the City of Lancaster

David Schuyler

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Musser Park is a small jewel located near the center of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It is an open space, and playground, in a city that is woefully deficient in park space. At the end of World War II there were playgrounds at a number of public and private schools, to be sure, and the city owned seven playgrounds. The 1945 city plan prepared by Michael Baker, Jr., listed Buchanan and Reservoir parks as neighborhood parks and Williamson Park as a country park. Like Williamson Park, Long Park and Buchmiller Park, which were privately owned, were located outside the city and far from the center of population. Baker reported that only 159 acres of land within the city were devoted to parks and playgrounds, and only a quarter of this total was owned by the municipality. Harry M. Musser's gift of open space was something the city of Lancaster desperately needed.[1]

Musser Park stands between East Chestnut and East Marion streets and North Lime and North Shippen streets. The 3.1 acre site includes the Grubb Mansion, now the Lancaster Museum of Art, one of the few extant Greek Revival buildings in the city. The property had been vacant for some time, and in January 1939 Mayor D. E. Cary urged that it be purchased by the city or a civic organization and used for public purposes. Musser Park became a public park only in 1949, and as the result of the bequest of Harry M. Musser, who had been a successful manufacturer of umbrella handles. After specifying several smaller bequests, Musser, who died in April 1928, directed his executors "to purchase land, either in the City of Lancaster, or at some place contiguous thereto, for the purpose of laying out and establishing a public Park" and, when the park had been completed, to transfer the deed of the property to the city. Musser's widow Elsie received the income from the estate until her death on December 23, 1939, and only following her death could the executors take steps to carry out Musser's intent to establish a park. By 1940, however, the value of Musser's estate had grown to more than $675,000, and the city faced the difficult choice of using the money to acquire a large park, probably outside the corporate boundaries, as well as the annual expenses for maintenance, which would have strained the city's resources, or of renouncing the bequest. Instead, the city entered into negotiation with the contingent beneficiaries, Lancaster General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital, to divide the estate, using some money to acquire and develop a park for the city, and dividing the remainder between the two hospitals. On June 4, 1940, City Council adopted a resolution to accept the Grubb property, when acquired and developed by Musser's executors, for use as a public park. After almost a year of litigation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the arrangement between the city and the hospitals respected the donor's intent.[2]

The Supreme Court's January 1941 ruling came at a time when the nation was bracing for war, and Musser's executors did not begin the park project until after the war. In 1947 the executors employed Paul W. McCloud and William Scatchard, Jr. as landscape architects to transform a private garden into a public park. The city and Musser's executors agreed that the Grubb mansion should remain and that the work of building the park would commence in the summer of 1947. Shortly after the plans were completed and construction begun, two issues arose. First, the executors of Musser's estate had not paid city, county, or school taxes since 1941, when the city agreed to accept Musser's bequest and the court approved the disposition of the estate. Given the charitable intent of the bequest, Musser's executors chose to negotiate exonerations with each governmental entity. The Board of School Directors of the School District of Lancaster was the last to do so, exonerating $11,200 in taxes, interest, and penalties in February 1948. The second issue was raised by John P. Herr, a friend of Henry Musser's, who expressed his belief that the park's benefactor intended to create a play space rather than a formal park proposed by McCloud and Scatchard. Recalling conversations they had on walks through parks in Europe, Herr explained that Musser "was primarily interested in a metropolitan park for the children now playing on the city streets." While visiting a park in Paris Musser took particular interest in "an old wooden carousel or merry-go-round," which led Herr to conclude that his longtime friend "would want a similar area in Lancaster bearing his name." Herr also told a reporter for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal that he was confident he was expressing the donor's intent because on the Saturday before Musser's death they discussed "the possibility of a change in his will to set up an endowment fund to maintain a park playground."[3]

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Despite Herr's plea for the children, the park designed by McCloud and Scatchard had only a small play area, which was located near the North Shippen Street boundary. Most of the park was intended to be a green oasis in the midst of what was one of the most densely built cities in the United States. McCloud and Scatchard explained the intent of their plan to the press in early July 1948. Virtually all the trees standing on the property were in such bad condition that the landscape architects reluctantly recommended that they be removed, a decision that the city's Shade Tree and Park commissions endorsed. The landscape architects then planted 55 large shade trees in the park, including several varieties of oaks, tulip trees, honey locust, and red maples. Throughout the park they directed the planting of more than 1,000 evergreens, including azaleas, barberry, boxwood, cotoneaster, rhododendron, yew, inkberry, and mountain andromeda. The rhododendron and azaleas were located along the southern boundary of the park and along the south walk, while boxwood was planted near the mansion and at the northeast and northwest entrances, where yews and ivy also embellished the stone piers welcoming visitors to the park. Together with spring-blooming perennials, the azaleas and rhododendrons ensured that the area adjacent to the south walk would be in bloom from March through the middle of June. During these same months varieties of dogwood, flowering crabapples, and magnolias, as well as 289 flowering deciduous shrubs such as abelias, forsythia and viburnum would be in bloom. More than 36,000 groundcover plants--ivy, pachysandra, and periwinkle--and 6,000 dianthus and dwarf flox added color and variety to the park's landscape.[4]

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Following approval of the plan, McCloud and Scatchard superintended construction, which began with the demolition of the greenhouses and wall along East Chestnut Street. The steep drop in topography from southwest to northeast necessitated considerable regrading of the property to create the level lawn area in the center of the park. New stone entrances, the stone wall along stretches of East Chestnut Street, and three sets of stone stairs were essential to the park's design, as were the gravel paths that led visitors through the park and the plantings that gave shade, color, and visual interest to the landscape. The small size and vast number of recently planted trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants also testified to the extent of work required to transform a private estate into a public park. By mid-December McCloud and Scatchard informed the city that the park project was complete and the property was ready to be transferred from the executors of Musser's estate to the city. Total cost of land acquisition, demolition, construction, and planting was $152,055. City Council formally agreed to the transfer of property in March 1949 and scheduled formal dedication ceremonies for July 4, 1949.[5]

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That July 4th inaugurated a tradition of patriotic festivals at Musser Park. But fifty-five years ago the traditional independence day ceremonies shared the stage with tributes to civic benefactor Harry Musser, whose bequest had made the park possible. Former Congressman J. Roland Kinzer pronounced it appropriate that the city "pay a fitting tribute to the memory of that citizen of our community who, actuated by the deepest feelings of patriotism and love of his fellow men--gave so freely of his substance that we, the citizens of this City, may enjoy the beauties of nature, peace, and recreation here provided in this park." Kinzer then gave his audience a history lesson: the park was "rich in historic associations. One-half block south is the building where Franklin College was first established. Just around the corner on Orange Street is the home of that patriot and Colonial diarist, Christopher Marshall. In the next block of Lime Street to the south, where the Jewish Synagogue is now erected, was the home of Caleb Cope, where Major Andre was confined as a British spy." His list of significant events went on for another paragraph in the newspaper account, though each took place near, but not upon, the park grounds. Following Kinzer's address, Harold Fry, on behalf of the Musser estate, presented the deed of the park to Mayor D. E. Cary, who accepted it on behalf of all citizens. "We are here today because of the generosity, civic interest and civic pride of one who in his time was a leading citizen of Lancaster. This park for years to come will be a daily reminder of the generosity and foresight of one who loved Lancaster and had a real interest in its future." Then the president of the Lancaster Kiwanas Club, which had erected a flagpole in the Overlook Plaza area of the park, presented an American flag to the mayor, and the ceremony concluded with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner.[6]

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Few changes to the park occurred in subsequent years, though the city did undertake some restoration of the mansion and erect a large porch on the east (rear) of the building in 1952, which was inaugurated with a band concert. The city maintained the park in fine condition in succeeding decades, but in the 1970s, as Lancaster, and virtually every American city, experienced a period of financial austerity, the park deteriorated. Residents later recalled that the city cut funding for a full-time gardener in the 1960s, and as a result of the lack of ongoing maintenance, as well as a concern for public safety as crime became a fact of urban life, city crews removed understory plantings and transformed beds of flowers and other plants into lawn, which was also badly maintained. Vandalism became a persistent problem beginning in 1972: at a public meeting in 1984, Lancaster police sergeant Russell Skiles acknowledged that vandalism and litter in the park had increased over the last decade or so because there were only eight policemen to patrol the city's sixteen parks. The following year, at another public meeting, neighbors were unanimous in agreeing that "renovation is overdue for the park with its cracked macadam paths, erosion 'mud washes,' sickly trees, remnants of shrubbery and other evidence of neglect."[7]

The deterioration of the park that resulted from deferred maintenance and the vandalism that many citizens considered the outward manifestation of social disorder led neighbors to form the Musser Park Civic Association in 1982. The group held its first meeting in mid-October 1982, at the YWCA, where Maureen Powers, then a member of the city planning commission staff, explained the importance of the park to the neighborhood and city. The following year the Musser Park Civic Association decided to modernize the play area along North Shippen Street, which had been enclosed by a cedar picket fence, and to improve the landscaping throughout the park. The Association then announced a fundraising drive to pay the $11,000 the project would cost. This was an important development: the city did not have the resources to improve and maintain the park, and the Musser Park Civic Association organized and made the care of the park a public-private partnership.[8]

In March 1984 the Musser Park Civic Association held a forum at the YWCA to learn from park users what improvements would make the park more appealing. New Era staff writer Ad Crable reported that participants at the forum identified the need to upgrade the landscape, increase park maintenance, increase security and reduce vandalism, and enclose the playground area with a new fence. Edward T. Holland left a bequest to fund park improvements, and his daughter, Susan, together with her husband, Bob Ross, volunteered to prepare landscape plans for the park. On February 19, 1985 these Washington, D.C. landscape architects presented their preliminary design for the park, which proposed several changes, including: the placement of a contributors' plaque and seating at Overlook Plaza; adding a garden area near the northwest entrance, at Lime and Chestnut streets; introducing new plantings and a sculpture area near the northeast entrance, at Shippen and Chestnut streets; and erecting a stone wall and adding ground cover along Marion Street to control erosion. The Rosses also proposed removing several sickly trees and adding flowering dogwoods and hawthorns, introducing narrower, brick- or stone-edged paths as well as paved bike paths around the park stairways, and incorporating new park furniture and signage. The Rosses also designed the entry garden at the Community Gallery in memory of Edward Holland.[9]

Residents warmly greeted the Rosses' plan for Musser Park, though of course there were discussions of specific details, especially the proposed retaining wall along East Marion Street. Bob Ross defended the retaining wall as the key to erosion control throughout the park. The final plan, presented in scale model on January 27, 1986, carried a price tag of $187,000. The Holland family had made the initial donation, and the city agreed to apply for a $10,000 grant from the state Department of Community Affairs, which would need to be matched by the Musser Park Civic Association and federal Community Development Block Grant funds. Most of the money, however, would need to come from private donations--from neighbors, businesses, and local foundations--raised through the efforts of members of the Musser Park Civic Association. Former superintendent of parks James Gross recalls that there was not enough funding for the major projects the Rosses outlined, and that the city instead turned to Derck & Edson, the successor firm to McCloud and Scatchard, to undertake a much-reduced scope of work. According to Steve Sproles, the Derck & Edson principal on the project, the major improvement to occur in the late 1980s was the reconstruction of the playground area. City crews undertook several smaller improvements called for in the Derck & Edson plan, including adding fences around the play area and along East Marion Street, resurfacing the pedestrian paths, and the reconstruction of Observatory Plaza and the placing of game tables at the site.[10]

Initiatives undertaken during the late 1980s addressed some of the park's most immediate needs, but of course not all of them. Although parks are essential to the health and well-being of residents of cities, at times of straitened financial resources parks are an easy target for budget-slashers. Indeed, the oft-repeated saying that funding for parks and other "amenities" will always be cut before "essential" public services, such as police and fire protection, rings true because it has long been true. The great fallacy of this statement lies in the psychological effects of degraded public spaces on residents of the nation's cities. The report of the Lancaster Crime Commission in March 2001 emphasized the importance of maintaining and enhancing the city's public spaces, of fixing broken windows in the private as well as the public sphere, as one of the most effective deterrents to crime. Indeed, one of the principal lessons of the 1960s and 1970s is that when public parks and other places are not adequately maintained, when vandalism and public safety become concerns, people abandon their role as "natural proprietors of the street" and stay indoors. The community loses the measure of safety once provided by hundreds of pairs of eyes on the street, to borrow the great urbanist Jane Jacobs's memorable phrase, the safety that comes from numbers of people who, by their very presence, ensure the security of all others. When residents feel unsafe on the streets or in the parks, the community loses the cohesiveness that results not from homogeneity but from a sense of a shared public realm.[11]

Musser Park's brief history is a metaphor for the history of parks throughout Lancaster City and Lancaster County: most were created by individuals or service clubs, not municipalities or the county government. The park's history also parallels broader developments in the American urban and suburban experience since World War II, especially disinvestment in the industrial and retail sectors of the urban economy, the fiscal crises that beset cities large and small in the 1970s and 1980s, and the private-public partnerships that have been created to address specific needs the municipality could not or would not undertake on its own. The work that the Central Park Conservancy, in New York City, has accomplished over the last generation, for example, is a telling example of how such partnerships can benefit all park users.[12]

July 4, 2004 marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the dedication of Musser Park. Almost eighty years have passed since Harry Musser provided in his will funds for the acquisition and development of a park in Lancaster; twenty-two years have passed since concerned neighbors and citizens organized the Musser Park Civic Association. In its current effort to finance significant improvements to the park, the Musser Park Civic Association has described the small park as the "green heart" of the city. It is an oasis of grass and trees and shade in a densely built city, a public park that welcomes all to enjoy its playgrounds, to picnic on its lawns, to sit in benches and enjoy what Jane Jacobs once described as the ballet of the street. At a time when, through public policy and personal choice, most Americans have abandoned our public parks and civic spaces, Musser Park is a reminder of how essential these places are to the quality of life, the very sustainability of life, in our communities.[13]


I am indebted to Tom Bergen for challenging me to think about the history of Musser Park and for conducting research on the disposition of the Musser estate; to the staff of the library, Lancaster Newspapers, who were helpful in conducting research on Musser Park as they have been in other projects I have undertaken; and to Derck & Edson, Landscape Architects, a firm that has been involved in the planning of the park since its inception, and that generously granted publication rights to the plans and historic photographs in its archives.

1. Michael Baker, Jr., A Comprehensive Municipal Plan. City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Rochester, Penna., 1945), pp. 163-64, 170.

2. D. E. Cary, "Mayor's Annual Message," Journal of City Council, Jan. 3, 1939, p. 7; Harry M. Musser will, Nov. 24, 1919; Estate of Harry M. Musser, May term, 1927, Orphans' Court; In re: Estate of Harry M. Musser, Petition for a Declaratory Judgment by the City of Lancaster . . . June 6, 1940; In re: Estate of Harry M. Musser, Answer of the Fulton Bank of Lancaster and Charles F. Widmyer, Trustees Under the Will of Harry M. Musser, June 13, 1940, all in Archives, Lancaster County Court House. Lancaster, Penna; Journal of City Council, June 4, 1940, pp. 217-20, Feb. 14, 1941, pp. 85-91, April 8, 1941, pp. 154-56; Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, In re Musser's Estate, Jan. 6, 1941, 341 Pa. 1, 17 A.2d411.

3. "It Will Be Another Year Before The Grubb Estate Will Be Available To The Public," Lancaster New Era, Apr. 3, 1947; "Approve Musser Park Plan," ibid., June 13, 1947; "Building Operations Started To Complete Musser Park By July 1," Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Apr. 23, 1948; "School Board Kills $11,000 Tax Bill On Musser Park Tract," ibid., Feb. 27, 1948; "Old Friend of Late H. M. Musser Feels He Wanted Children's Playspace," ibid, July 26, 1947.

4. "Musser Park Forestation And Shrubbery Took Much Planning," ibid., July 2, 1948.

5. My interpretation of the process of construction is upon two sets of documents: historic photographs in the possession of the Musser Park Civic Association and Derck and Edson, successor firm to McCloud and Scatchard, and newspaper accounts. See especially "Musser Park Ready To Be Given To City," Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Dec. 15, 1948; "Total Cost of Musser Park Is $152,055," Lancaster New Era, Dec. 30, 1948.

6. "Tribute To Musser Memory Paid At Park Dedication," Lancaster New Era, July 4, 1949; "Musser Park Is Dedicated, Formally Presented to City," Lancaster New Era, July 5, 1949.

7. Ad Crable, "Residents Eye Improving Musser Park," Lancaster New Era, Mar. 31, 1984; David Sturm, "Residents Back Proposal To Renovate Musser Park," ibid., Feb. 20, 1985.

8. "Musser Park Assn. Asks Public Support," ibid., Oct. 8, 1982; "Musser Park Civic Group Hopes to Raise $11,000," Lancaster New Era, Apr. 21, 1983.

9. Crable, "Residents Eye Improving Musser Park"; Randy Montgomery, "Are New Gardens, Bikeways, in Musser Park's Future?," Lancaster New Era, Feb. 19, 1985.

10. "Wall Is Key For Musser Park Plan," Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Mar. 1, 1985; Ad Crable, "$187,000 of Work Planned at Musser Park," Lancaster New Era, Jan. 27, 1986; "Musser Park Rehab Model Is Unveiled," Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Jan. 28, 1986; Tim Buchwalter, "Scaled Back Musser Park Work Will Start Soon," Lancaster New Era, Apr. 27, 1988; telephone interview with Steve Sproles, April 2004; telephone interview with James Gross, April 26, 2004.

11. See David Schuyler and Patricia M. O'Donnell, "The History and Preservation of Urban Parks and Cemeteries,"in Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, ed. Arnold R. Alanen and Robert Z. Melnick (Baltimore, 2000), pp. 70-93; Lancaster Crime Commission, "Initial Report: City's future lies in embracing 'Fixing Broken Windows' Strategy," supplement to the Sunday News, Mar. 11, 2001; Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, 1961), p. 35.

12. See Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan (Cambridge, Mass., 1987).

13. Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, pp. 50, 54.