Military Park History
Military Park was the original Middle Commons when Newark was founded in 1666. The triangular, six-acre park is bound by Broad St, Park Place, and Rector Street.
The park was laid out by Robert Treat as a training ground and visible on maps dating back to 1667. It served as a training ground during the French and Indian War and a campground for George Washington’s troops during the American Revolution. Some say that Thomas Paine wrote the first lines of the essay, “These are the Times that Try Men’s Souls” while camped in the park. Following the Revolutionary War, the commons was converted into a public park, as it was no longer needed as a training ground, though it briefly revived its military purpose during the War of 1812. Civil War soldiers were recruited in the park, and during World War I the park served as both a recruiting station and as the location of Red Cross and Liberty Loans campaigns.
The park includes an Episcopal church, Trinity and St. Philip’s Cathedral, which was originally constructed in the mid-18th century. The original church building was damaged during the Revolutionary War, when it was used as a hospital, and the current structure was completed in 1810.
During the 19th and 20th centuries the park became a commercial center for both the city and the state. The park hosted many important events for the city, which included welcoming the Marquis de Lafayette in 1823 and President Andrew Jackson and Vice President Martin VanBuren in 1833. A 70-foot tall flagstaff was erected in the park on July 4, 1793; later flagpoles in that location would become known as the Liberty Pole. The park also hosted celebratory events for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the City of Newark’s 250th anniversary. The park was also the site of the first municipal Christmas tree in 1913.
The park is also the location of many monuments and important pieces of public art. In 1926, the Wars of America monument by Gutzon Borglum was unveiled in the park. The sculptor is best known for his work on Mount Rushmore. The monument consists of 42 bronze figures on a raised platform, and includes representations of soldiers and civilians from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I. The sculpture also makes up the hilt of a large sword that originally included a reflecting pool in the shape of the sword’s crossguard and blade. The reflecting pool was eventually emptied and abandoned, and its bed now serves as the location of the park’s signature floral displays.
In addition to Wars of America, there are several other monuments in the park. On September 28, 1880, a statue of Major General Philip Kearny was moved to the park from the State House. Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and George B. McClellan along with 15,000 spectators were in attendance at the statue’s Newark unveiling. In 1895, the statue of Fredrick T. Frelinghuysen was dedicated by sculptor Karl Gerhardt. In 1899, a cannon captured from Morro Castle during the Spanish-American War was installed in the park, and in 1906 two howitzers that had been used in the Civil War and taken on Commodore Perry’s flagship during his expedition to Japan were installed in the park. The John F. Kennedy Memorial Fund of Essex County sponsored the erection of a Kennedy Bust by Jacques Lipchitz in the park in 1964. There are also smaller monuments to the Red Cross and to Archie Callahan, the first African-American killed in action in World War II, and a historic temperance fountain.
The park fell into disuse and disrepair over time, but in 2010 the Military Park Partnership was founded to revitalize, develop, and operate the park. The Partnership broke ground on the renovation on May 28, 2013, and the park officially reopened on June 13, 2014. The park now offers free daily programming and amenities, including movies, yoga, music, children’s activities, and chess and board games. The kickoff event for Newark’s 350th Anniversary was held in the park in October 2015. The park is once again a central community location for Newark residents, workers, and visitors.