In Loving Memory of her Little Girl: Past, Present, and Place in the Gladys Potter Garden (Laura R. Prieto)

We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.
- Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

2Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 There is a lovely playground on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, not far from where I live. I’ve gone there many times with my children and sometimes met friends there. It is fully enclosed by a black iron gate with a heavy latch. Its border of old, tall trees keep it shady even at noon in midsummer. Paved paths are ideal to practice pedaling a tricycle. Grassy plots lend themselves easily to picnics. Mysterious bushes and a slope in the back beckon adventurous children to explore, deliciously far from the grown-ups but safely within view. A small tree at one end functions as both community bulletin board, and lost-and-found; tiny hats and sippy cups often hang from its branches, alongside the leaves.

3Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Most distinctively, cast-off outdoor toys – from ride-ons to play kitchens – pepper the park. One day a trio of colorful rocking horses arrived all in a row; I fancied they were the gift of a family with triplets, suddenly called to leave town. By September, the quantity of cast-offs make the playground look like a kiddie flea market. The toys get loved, worn out, rained on. Mud plasters the Baby Beauty Salon, the soccer balls sag, and the plastic pails crack. Their stickers peel off and they lose their wheels. Eventually somebody sweeps through and purges the irreparably maimed ones. This might be melancholy (especially for a sentimental historian like me) except for the lively, high-pitched buzz of the place. These aren’t beloved Velveteen Rabbits after all but communal property. As the shabby toys grow unusable, bright new contributions replace them. And when the visitors are done playing with them, they can just leave them there, right in the middle of the path. Squirrels eat the crumbs; dirt soaks up spilled juice. It’s a paradise, all shrieking joy and no tidying up necessary.

4Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Surely I cannot be the only person who has noticed the pair of stone plaques outside one of the heavy wrought iron gates. The inscription on the left side reads: “The Gladys Potter Garden. Dec 4, 1883 – Nov 16, 1891.” Its companion plaque on the right is much more weathered and thus harder to read. But if one squints a bit, one can make out the explanation: “This garden was given by a mother in loving memory of her little girl, who loved this spot and who loved to walk here with her father when it was part of an attractive ravine. MCMXX” [1920].

8Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I am a historian. I am a mother. The inscription knocks the breath out of me. Among so many boys and girls who have played here, there was Gladys Potter, and she died at my own son’s age. I know how frequently parents have suffered the deaths of their children throughout history. I can prepare myself for these awful object lessons in a cemetery (where I’ve also been known to walk and explore the past). But I do not expect this sharp announcement of grief, this intimate and generous act of mourning, to arrest me at the gates of my children’s playground.

9Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 Of course, this is the very value of the local memorial. We pass markers every day; they are part of the neighborhood landscape, perhaps especially in New England with its historical sensibilities. It’s not a tutorial that we go looking for, as when we pack up the family and head for the Museum of Fill in the Blank. It is rather a portal to the past that takes us by surprise. The power of the memorial rests in the suddenness, the unexpectedness with which it ambushes us as we round the corner. We can rush past a spot for years never noticing the names and dates on the base of that obelisk; it’s just part of the landscape, one of many such memorials, statues, and plaques. But one day, the bus may be late, and since we’re stuck there anyhow, we may start reading the inscription.

10Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 The inscription of this particular place seems unnoticed by the community around it. Despite the plaques, neighbors call it Humboldt Park (after Humboldt Street, on which it is located) if not the “Baby Park” (because it is so hospitable to the youngest visitors) or the “Dolphin Park” (in honor of the dolphin statue inside, with its generations of fantastic paint jobs). Other such lost, forgotten, and eradicated monuments abound throughout the world. Certainly the mere intent to commemorate does not guarantee that there will be a collective memory of a person or event. As a memorial to Gladys Potter, it appears the Garden is a failure.

11Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Similarly, the Gladys Potter Garden evades scholarly notice. Academic studies of memory have favored sites that contribute to nationalist and other political identities.1 Despite the collaborative nature of collective memory, scholars have accorded public significance to mourning only when it is connected to political symbols, as with fallen soldiers whose sacrifice strengthens the nation.2

12Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 What chance does a playground have, anyhow, in the competition for public attention to the past? The quintessential monument, the war memorial, has so much the grander purpose. War memorials speak to collective trauma, whereas the Gladys Potter Garden records just one mother’s grief over her child. Most folks who stride purposefully past sculptures of “The Hiker” do not recognize its name, nor can they place the war whose veterans it commemorates (the Spanish-American War). If people do not recognize the “important” memorials for what they are, who can be expected to pay attention to the proliferation of names that adorn our roads, bridges, squares, and public buildings?

13Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Yet even if local memory ignores it and scholarship overlooks it, the physical imprint of the Gladys Potter Garden remains. The park itself comprises a sort of archive.3 Its materiality records traces of those who created it, and connects the place’s origins to those who have subsequently used it. Though separated by long silences, remembrances of Gladys Potter have emanated from the park from time to time, in different forms. And unlike many monuments, the organic correlation between the Garden’s function and its intended meaning has kept Gladys Potter from vanishing utterly. Although it may not succeed as a memorial to Gladys in the strictest sense, the Garden persists as a form of alternative history, bringing within our reach such “private” concerns as a child’s life and a mother’s love. The place itself opens multiple connections to the past, whether one researches it or uses it for its original purpose, a playground to evoke a girl’s long-ago pleasure in nature.

I. Playground, Park, Garden

14Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In September 2012, the efforts of a newly formed neighborhood group led to the inclusion of the Gladys Potter Garden in a city-wide event. KaBOOM!, a national non-profit that advocates for public playgrounds, designated Providence as a “Playful City USA.” Providence celebrated the honor with a weekend of organized fun at “21 neighborhood parks and 6 other play and recreation venues.” Activities ranged from lawn games and nature hikes, to Zumba dance and an orchestral performance of Peter and the Wolf.4 “On the Sunday morning, children gathered at the “Gladys Potter Memorial Garden” to make chalk art.

15Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Historically, such urban programs have excluded the Gladys Potter Garden as a site of organized activity.5 The city government categorizes the space as a “neighborhood park,” not a playground. Known as a “gem of landscape beauty,” the Gladys Potter Garden served from its start as a “place of rest and relaxation,” where children can engage in “quiet games,” informal play.” Picnics might take place there but its main purpose was to provide local residents with “beauty. . . and breathing places.”6 The Providence Journal praised it as “one of the most beautiful open spaces in the city. It consists of a well-kept grass plot surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers.”7 It probably did not incorporate playground equipment until the 1970s.8 Thus it was a site for “passive recreation” and contemplation of nature, a source of “light and air” for an increasingly busy built environment.9

16Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 However interwoven this park is within the fabric of its neighborhood, Rhode Islanders have left few traces of what they have thought about, and how they have used, the Gladys Potter Garden over the past century.10 The city commissioners’ extensive master plan for playgrounds and playfields in 1953 did not even acknowledge the Gladys Potter Garden’s existence.11 Being a small, simple place, it is unlikely to garner public comment or attention. It is just an everyday part of the lives of local folks, especially those with young children. From this perspective, its proper designation is less important than where one can find it. Even references to it that name Gladys Potter also explicitly identify it as the Humboldt Street Park.12

17Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Occasionally, however, Gladys Potter re-emerges as a character in the story of the place. In 1925, the Playground and Recreation Association of America published an article about the Gladys Potter Memorial Garden, upholding it as a model of urban beautification. Its author, educator William Gould Vinal, evokes Gladys at play:

18Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 . . . this beautiful valley was [once] the playground of a little girl. She loved to wade in the clear brook. She would gather mosses and green ferns and make ‘fairy houses’ for her dolls. On warm days, she was protected by deep shade. All that she could see or hear in that valley was hers—the elms and the whispering hemlocks, the birds and the squirrels at play, and the first violets of spring.

19Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Vinal, a professor at the Rhode Island Normal School, had visited and photographed the place years before it became the Gladys Potter Garden. His essay recounts a morality tale of how the old valley became “the ‘dump heap’ of the city. Ferns give way to the Jimson Weed, grey squirrels to rats, mosses to ashes, and a clear, cool brook to a muddy stream. The perfume of the hemlock is supplanted by the stench of the ‘dump.’” At last, the establishment of the park reclaimed the land from urban spread and squalor. Gladys is gone, “called by the God of the Open Air,” in Vinal’s romantic idyll. He mourns the destruction of the original valley. The new Garden, being artificial, is inferior to the natural area that once existed and bird-houses are no recompense for felled trees. Vinal would have preferred the whole valley preserved from residential construction.

20Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 But at least the institution of a garden enabled other children to play there among the shade trees, as Gladys had done. For this partial redemption of the valley, Vinal credits, “The mother of this little girl [who] believed in the gospel of play…And what a memorial it is! For all time this space says to the community, ‘Come and I will give you the green fields, and give it abundantly.’”13

21Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Several years before, as the Gladys Potter Garden was being created, Vinal himself had invited Rhode Island children to submit essays for the state Arbor Day booklet. “The first story I am going to suggest that you write is the history of Gladys Potter Memorial Gardens. Talk about it with some of the older people of the vicinity.”14 If he followed those instructions, the winning entry, by a young student from a nearby school may reflect the neighborhood residents’ flawed knowledge of the park. There were, as yet, no plaques to fix Gladys Potter’s memory in stone. The student essay notes only that, “It was given in memory of their daughter, Gladys Potter, from whom it derives its name.”15 The young Arbor Day essayist (little older than Gladys’ own age when she died) apparently felt no personal resonance with her, if he even knew her story. His emphasis is instead on the landscape. He describes the place as once a ravine where boys liked to play, gradually falling victim to the encroaching town, and becoming “an ugly city ash dump” until “a family named Potter . . . eventually gave it to the city on condition that the city make a pretty park of it within five years. Otherwise it was to become their property again.” Gladys has no real place in this retelling; there’s no mention of her life cut short, nor even of her pleasure in rambling. The teller of the tale imagines only boys, swimming and skating and banging hockey sticks there, in riotous play. Yet the essence of the place mirrors what it was for Gladys, and what it still signifies for visitors: a spot held sacred and apart from the encroaching city, where children can revel.

II. Along the Ravine

22Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The gateposts to the Gladys Potter Garden gather the essential pieces of what it was meant to remember. The stone tablets do not only announce what is inside, but evoke a more distant time, when Gladys lived. They point us along the ravine that is no longer there. That line extends eastward to other parts of the city, and to other archives that house various shards of the Garden’s story. In reading the inscriptions, we learn of a mother’s love, a father’s companionship, and a child’s pleasure in nature. Gladys’s name and her birth and death dates are the compass, facts one can follow through local records and documents, reconstructing a map of the past. Much remains obscured from our view, deep in the long-ago ravine, covered by debris and ash and plantings. But a careful eye can yet discern what remains, like the white poplars crowning the slope.

23Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 Gladys Arnold Potter died on November 16, 1891, shortly before her eighth birthday. She was only child of a couple who married relatively late in life. Her painted portrait reveals delicate features, soulful brown eyes, and a piercing, intelligent intensity. On Sundays, her father took time from his business as a jewelry manufacturer, and went walking with Gladys through the acres of ravines that stretched westward from the Seekonk River. In the year of Gladys’ death, Public Parks Association president Augustine Jones extolled the great beauty of the banks “fifty to sixty feet high” there: “The distant shores and hills beyond, the far off pine groves, the various points of land and bays along the shore winding in and out, clothed with lovely shades of green, and the tall trees which crown the bluffs, with the deep cool ravines between, and the little brooks gliding through them, all join to complete in this charming spot the most picturesque scenery.”16 Her final illness was either typhoid fever or acute miliary tuberculosis. Providence had an unusually high number of typhoid cases in that year, and the symptoms between the two illnesses frequently confounded physicians.17 She died at home and her obituary notice in the Providence Journal noted that her family held a private funeral.18

24Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Her mother Josephine’s life did not intersect with the public record much more frequently than Gladys’s. Official documents mark the conventional milestones: her birth in March 1847; her marriage in 1875 to Isaac Mathewson Potter, 14 years her senior; the birth of Gladys when Josephine was 36; the death of her husband in 1902; and her subsequent residences as a widow, noted in the city directories. She resembles above all a paragon of domestic womanhood, dedicated solely to household and family, at least until her daughter’s death. Even then, Josephine never called much attention to herself, as did the younger “New Women” bursting upon the public sphere at the turn of the twentieth century. The archives chronicle Isaac Potter much more robustly, in contrast — he who served with distinction in the Civil War, built a successful career, and briefly held political office. Accounts describe him as kind-hearted and affable, a man not only to admire but to like.19

25Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 When her daughter died, Josephine was herself drawn westward, toward the ravine that Gladys so enjoyed, because Gladys was laid to rest in Swan Point cemetery nearby, on the northeastern edge of the East Side of Providence. Josephine rode to the cemetery, undoubtedly with her husband sometimes, from a series of residences where she and Isaac boarded after selling the house they had shared with their daughter. A memory site in itself, Swan Point had been incorporated and consecrated in 1847. Eight miles of avenues included the graves of many Civil War dead with whom Gladys’s father served. In 1878, Albert J. Wright described it as a supremely lovely spot, secluded from the tumult of active life. Once a swamp, the land had been transformed into a garden, with stone paths and a cascade. A ravine in its northeast corner boasted, “stone steps, rhododendrons, kalmias, azaleas, andromedas, daphnaes, heath, and clematis added as landscaping features.”20

26Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 Perhaps it was while walking in Swan Point’s tranquility that Josephine began yearning to do something more, something to accord her daughter’s life more individual meaning. She surely witnessed many examples of public involvement by her contemporaries. Middle-class and elite American women frequently participated in, and sometimes led, enterprises in philanthropy and civic improvement.21 This work gradually brought women into the public sphere, social reform, and even politics without seeming to violate their roles as nurturers. Indeed, they continued to serve as maternal figures, radiating outward from the household their concerns and responsibilities for the education, health, and morality of their charges. They simply considered the welfare of their neighborhoods in addition to the welfare of their families. Activism for public sanitation thus differed from the care of a feverish child only in degree, at least according to the perspective of “municipal housekeeping.”

27Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 Josephine decided to undertake a project, clearly rooted in her grief but reaching outward toward social good. In 1892 or 1893, she bought a farm in nearby South Attleboro, Massachusetts, to serve a place for disadvantaged girls to experience a summer vacation. Each year, she invited several groups of girls, between 5 and 12 years old, from the Providence public schools and day nurseries, to spend two weeks in the country. The children spent their days playing games, eating hearty meals, exploring the woods, swinging in hammocks, and singing at the piano, “under the watchful eye of a matron.” Significantly, given Josephine’s later ambition, “Flower gardens of all shapes and sizes are arranged about the premises, with profuse growths of asters, geraniums, sweet peas, heliotrope, hop vines, and white and purple clematis vines. Every two weeks, bouquets are made and taken to the hospitals and the flower mission in this city.”22 The “vacation home” combined an interest in natural beauty with concrete support for girls, both reminiscent of Gladys.

28Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 In 1902, Isaac died suddenly and Josephine moved to a home of her own on Orchard Avenue. Her new residence brought Josephine nearer to Swan Point, where both Gladys and Isaac now lay, and even nearer to the old ravine. Its neighborhood, called Wayland, had been a middle and upper-income area since the mid-nineteenth century but houses were not built there in substantial numbers until cable car and electric trolley networks reached it in the 1890s. Josephine’s arrival coincided with the first of what were eventually numerous apartment buildings. The rapidly growing local population fed construction of new churches, hospital buildings, and schools, as well as a commercial zone around Wayland Square in the 1910s.23 Gladys would have struggled to recognize the place. The ravine had gradually disappeared, at first filled in to facilitate the building of houses, but later a dumping ground with “hundreds of rats dwelling among the debris. The place was an eyesore and, with its countless vermin, a menace to the health of the community.”24

29Leave a comment on paragraph 29 4 Twenty-six years after Gladys’s death, her mother was at last ready to realize a “long cherished ambition” and give the city a Garden in her daughter’s name. She bought a tract of land behind her house from E. H. Harris, who owned a great deal of property in the neighborhood. Though it was no longer as Gladys had known it, the site might grow beautiful once more in a mother’s care, and convey a young girl’s spirit to those who had never walked the ravine.

III. Planting the Garden

30Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 As a gift to the public, via the city of Providence, the origins of the Garden are preserved within the city government’s resolution books. On the 13th of July 1917, Josephine Arnold Potter deeded land to create “a public park or garden to be known as the Gladys Potter Garden.” Along with the tract itself, Potter included 00 to landscape and beautify what had become, in William Vinal’s words, a “dump heap.”25 Not only the social standing of the donor but the “spirit of the donation” won its quick approval by the Committee on Parks.26 Josephine Potter wrote that she gave the site “in memory of my little daughter Gladys now deceased, one of whose favorite walks with her father was in the vicinity of the land now conveyed by me to the city.”27 When Josephine died on June 19, 1923, her will left the city a further ,000 “as a special fund for the care, maintenance, and upkeep of the Gladys Potter Garden.”

31Leave a comment on paragraph 31 1 Josephine’s desire to memorialize her daughter was particularly intrinsic to the Garden. But how and why did Josephine Potter choose to emblemize Gladys’s memory in this way? Many more conventional rituals existed to express her grief and to seek solace. As historian Harvey Green writes, “death, especially of children, regularly intruded into everyday life” in Victorian America.28 Elaborate mourning customs reigned among the middle class and elite, from the color of one’s dress to the use of black-bordered stationery. A woman might wear jewelry made from the woven hair of a loved one, or create a commemorative wall hanging for the parlor. Albums lovingly encased pictures of the dead. Postmortem photographs were an especially popular expression of mourning, and form of comfort, within families when children died. Yet this mother quite atypically decided to create a public memorial to her child.

32Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Certainly local efforts at public commemoration had begun long before in Providence. By 1917, the city had built several memorials: the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial (1871), the Burnside Monument (1877), the Roger Williams Monument in Roger Williams Park (1877), and the Major Henry H. Young Monument in City Hall Park (1911). Three of the four recognized Civil War veterans for either individual or collective heroism. Public memorials did not pay tribute to men exclusively; the Carrie Brown Bajnotti Fountain (1901) and Carrie Tower (1904) honored the accomplished wife of an American diplomat, and the Annmary Brown Memorial (1907) paid tribute to her sister. Especially in the wake of World War I, the purpose of war monuments was to remember “the sacrifice, the suffering, the slaughter, the names of the fallen,” and to shore up political nationalism in the face of staggering personal loss.29

33Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 It is difficult to imagine such a grand public memorial to a 7-year-old girl. Gladys had not served her city or country; she could claim no accomplishments worthy of a hero’s immortal flame. Josephine Potter had a different sort of site in mind to memorialize her daughter, however: not a structure but a space. Betsey Williams had bequeathed the city 100 acres in 1871; this became a park named for her great, great, great grandfather, Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. Josephine Potter clearly had that park in mind when making her plans. She specified that she wished the Gladys Potter Garden to receive “the same care used by the City in Roger Williams Park in preserving the beauty and usefulness of the tract of land after it had been established.”30

34Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 The great popularity and value attached to urban parks (especially Rogers Williams Park) made the City Council a receptive audience for her offer. Providence’s Public Park Association, organized in 1883 and incorporated in 1904, touted the practical value of the “city beautiful” and urged emulation of “other progressive cities in the country” through “the establishment of a comprehensive system of parks and public grounds” as already existed in Boston by then.31 As scholar Harriet Jordan notes, “the height of the parks movement,” between 1885 and 1914, “coincided with a fashion for munificent philanthropic gestures, and the gift of a park from a wealthy citizen became a common occurrence.”32 In this way, Josephine seems in step with her peers. In fact, almost exactly a year before she wrote to the City Council, Providence Magazine published a special issue on “Parks and Playgrounds,” which may have directly inspired her.
As in other cities across the United States, the growth of such parks systems accompanied industrialization and demographic growth. Largely thanks to immigration, Providence’s population had “tripled between 1860 and 1880;” the ensuing overcrowding, poverty, and disease raised calls for urban planning. Public “green space” would greatly benefit neighborhoods starved of “pure air” and disconnected from the inspirations of nature.33 Central Park in New York City (1856) provided an early model of landscape design as a purposeful method to demand this sort of moral contemplation. The city park provided an escape from “the bustle and jar of the streets,” as Olmsted put it, and also embodied a form of art in which all classes might participate.34 It made recreation not only a privilege of the leisured classes, but democratized it (often through the offices of machine politics). This gave public parks a role in social uplift as well, helping the poor achieve upward mobility by making certain cultural resources accessible to them. As libraries made possible self-education, so parks enabled self-cultivation of the senses, and respite from unhealthy surroundings.

35Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Women’s prominence as organizers, and the domestic justification they brought to reform, were more evident in the construction of playgrounds than of parks. Though they targeted a narrower constituency, advocates of playgrounds shared many of the assumptions and ambitions of the parks movement; they sought to protect children “from the physical, social, and moral dangers of the street,” and thus to rescue them from likely delinquency.35 From Boston, where Dr. Marie Zarzewska first translated its founding ideas from Berlin, the playground movement radiated out to other cities across the United States.36 The Providence Playground Association formed in 1909, and at least 10 public playgrounds existed in Providence by 1918.37 By design, such places provided “healthful exercise” as well as “comfort and contentment” for children who lived in foul, crowded tenements.38

36Leave a comment on paragraph 36 5 Josephine Potter conveyed her gift to the city for “a public park or a public garden,” not explicitly a playground, however. She envisioned “this parcel of land [as] a place of beauty and satisfaction to the neighborhood and a place where persons interested in such things may stop and rest and enjoy the beauty of the flowers and the cultivated garden which will be established here.”39 Her sensibility reflected her generation’s renewed appreciation of the natural world. In 1891, the year of Gladys’ death, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law organizing school-based observance of Arbor Day, “to direct attention more forcibly to nature.”40

37Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 A park may have appealed to Josephine more than a playground for several reasons. Contemporary American playgrounds typically included not only swings and seesaws, but “extensive programming” led by paid employees.41 The highly organized activities at playgrounds may not have seemed in keeping with the memory of her daughter rambling along the ravine. Even at Josephine’s vacation home for children, where a professional Matron kept things organized, the girls were “at liberty to romp and play at their own free will” from breakfast to dinner.42 Nor was the civic function of playgrounds apt for the area that Josephine selected for the memorial. The urban playground served a didactic purpose, “to provide intelligent and useful occupation for the child, and more hastily put him through the melting process which is to make him a reputable citizen.”43 The Wayland neighborhood had diversified but contained no tenements.

38Leave a comment on paragraph 38 1 While Josephine favored a more contemplative form than an early twentieth-century playground, she did not seek to replicate the atmosphere of Swan Point. The serenity of the nineteenth-century cemetery denoted stillness, an illusion of timelessness. Josephine worked with the Superintendent of Public Parks, Frederick C. Green, to design a Garden with invitingly soft grass, where “the children of the neighborhood may roll and romp.” The landscape encouraged young visitors to emulate Gladys’s active childhood.

39Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 At the same time, the Garden did not seek to recuperate the natural beauty of the ravine, as Gladys knew it. The site was deemed to need “improvement,” not to remove the debris that had choked the ravine, but to level it with a further 4000-5000 yards of fill. In fact, locals were encouraged to dump ashes there to minimize the city’s landscaping expense in 1917-1920.44 “Whenever a new cellar was excavated,” as the number of buildings in Wayland continued to grow, “the earth was thrown into the hollow. The ash men of the street department helped in the work and gradually the spot became more presentable,” with earth and ash blanketing the trash beneath.45 Wilder vistas could be found elsewhere, including in nearby Blackstone Park, with its thickly wooded, “commanding bluffs,” the Old Home Week noted approvingly in 1907.46

40Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 The Garden offered a version of nature tamed, domesticated, and purified. This made its beauties different from those of Swan Point and “the wild, undeveloped Blackstone park.” While each place had its admirers, locals valued the Gladys Potter Garden as a rare “recreation spot” on the East Side of Providence, especially precious for being “in the midst of a neighborhood where land commands a high price and is in growing demand . . . hence this noble gift will be greatly appreciated by generations to come,” Providence Monthly magazine predicted.47 From Josephine Potter’s perspective, the space captured part of her daughter’s brief life, rescued it from neglect, and made it part of a community. She could see its leaves and hear its sounds from her windows. Neither sepulchre nor wilderness, it was a living memorial brought within maternal reach.

IV. A Living Memorial

41Leave a comment on paragraph 41 3 The bulk of Josephine’s estate upon her death went to Rhode Island Hospital, with the intent of funding the construction of a new building or wing to treat children. The future edifice would be a memorial to both her husband, Isaac, and to her daughter. Josephine clearly stated in her will that these plans had originated in discussions with her late husband. Because she wished the building to have a domestic element, she stipulated that certain items from her home furnish it. These included two portrait paintings of Gladys, “to be hung in some suitable place in the children’s ward.” The Gladys A. Potter and Isaac M. Potter Memorial Building finally opened on October 1, 1941, with accommodations for 73 children. The few news reports that invoked Gladys more substantively misidentified her cause of death as diphtheria, which happened to be an illness that the new facility specialized in treating.48 The Potter Building ceased serving its original purpose in 1994. Now housing human resources and other administrative offices for Rhode Island Hospital, its connection to Gladys Potter is almost completely severed. The dedicatory plaque has been moved to a corridor between the Potter wing and the new Hasbro Children’s Hospital building. An oil painting of Gladys hangs there alongside it, recognized by staff who pass it regularly. But the plaque and painting have become memorials to a memorial. At the threshold of a wing that no longer treats patients, they are markers of a commemorative site that no longer exists.

43Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 In contrast, however much as visitors to the Gladys Potter Garden may overlook its name, the place has consistently fulfilled its monumental purpose.49 In 1953, Florence Park Simister watched how, “Children play on the grass here and walk around the garden and surely the spirit of Gladys Potter must be happy that other children know the joy she once knew, when she walked with her father through the poplars and the flowers.”50 Even at its beginning, as a carefully planned garden with large beds of flowers and “shrubs and trees in orderly profusion,” Gladys Potter’s memorial invited play. “In the summer the grass is of a velvet softness,” the Providence Journal effused, “and the children of the neighborhood may roll and romp here in its luxurious richness.”51

44Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Its living function prevents the Gladys Potter Garden from becoming merely “a landscape of nostalgia.” It benefits from the “porosity” between memory and history that Margaret Farrar advocates: “a sense of place that understands how history and memory seep into landscapes, allowing the past to coexist alongside the present.”52 The brick wall and iron gate make its exterior look much the same as at is creation; but inside, the Garden changes constantly with the ebb and flow of children and toys.53 The meaning of its past persists in the collective memory of the children and families who use it. Unlike the preservation of elite residences and institutions that Farrar criticizes, public use of the Garden democratizes it. Its increasingly insistent character as a playground, not simply a park, renders it a place of living and lived memory, rather than a site frozen in time.

45Leave a comment on paragraph 45 1 In this way, the form and location of a memorial may contribute more to its meaning than the “historic content” of its inscriptions or references.54 With that confidence, public parks, gardens, and playgrounds continue to be built to commemorate children, part of a desire to create a “lasting memorial” to a lost loved one, and at the same time to enrich the community that lives on.55 Though understood today in more psychological terms than a century ago, such recent sites share many characteristics with the Gladys Potter Garden.

46Leave a comment on paragraph 46 2 I think again about that pair of stone tablets at the gateposts — how one is so much more worn than the other. Weather cannot explain this; would the rain beat down that much harder a few feet away? Perhaps a better explanation is a near-century’s worth of rubbings. How many visitors to the Garden have wanted to preserve this tenuous thread back to Gladys Potter? Does their own experience of the park resonate more deeply, knowing that she loved to play in the same spot?

47Leave a comment on paragraph 47 1 Memory thus leaves its traces on the psyche and the landscape alike. One of my favorite quotations – a justification for the essential relevance of history – is William Faulkner’s assertion: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even when cultural memory falters – when the neighborhood calls the Gladys Potter Garden “the baby park” – the physical imprint remains. Through her mother’s act of volition, Gladys is “not even past.” The inscription revivifies her name. Through her name, we – the historians, I mean now – recover other records of her, still with us. Though she is lost to public memory, Gladys may yet be found.

48Leave a comment on paragraph 48 4 Loss is real and painful; memory is fallible and inconstant. But the task of History, as I take it, is to pick up what the travelers drop on the march. The value is to keep “counting our stock,” making all we can of what remains. Some theorists see memory and history as antagonistic; I prefer to regard them as symbiotic. I can see Gladys Potter through her garden; largely, I think, because I happen to practice my craft in an age where we write histories of childhood, histories of grief, histories of the landscape — histories of women deploying their role as mothers to enter the public sphere. Where memory gapes, history can sometimes sew back together. Look around and you will see the patches, needles, and thread. We pass on the skill and keep mending.

49Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Places associated with Gladys Potter and her memory

View Gladys Potter Map in a larger map

49Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Acknowledgments
I am especially grateful for the research assistance of Lee Teverow of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Claire Bestwick of the Providence City Archives, Tracy Potter Connolly, and Jane Hogan, as well as the encouragement and sharp editorial eye of Rich Canedo. I dedicate this essay to my two boys; I hope they will always have their own happy memories of the Gladys Potter Garden.

50Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Laura R. Prieto is Professor of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Simmons College, Boston. She is the author of At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists (2001). Her current research focuses on American womanhood and imperialism during the era of the Spanish American War.

  1. 51Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0
  2. This tendency originates with Pierre Nora’s highly influential “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989) and his multivolume Les Lieux de Mémoire (1984-92), a study of the sites of memory on which French national identity rests.
  3. See Jay Winter’s magisterial Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1998). Maurice Halbwachs first articulated the dynamic nature of social memory; see the translated, posthumous compilation On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  4. My deep thanks go to Joel Blanco-Rivera and our students in the spring 2013 Archives, History, and Collective Memory seminar for this insight.
  5. http://providenceparks.org/playful-providence/
  6. For example, the City Arts in the Park summer program in 1983 held some events at the larger Paterson Park nearby, and none at the Gladys Potter Garden. “City Arts in the Park” poster, July 1983. In Providence, Department of Public Parks, Misc. Material, Rhode Island Historical Society, hereafter abbreviated as RIHS.
  7. L. H. Weir, Director, Park-Recreation Service, Report of a Study of Public Recreation in the City of Providence, R. I. (Providence: Civic Improvement and Park Association, 1934-35), 43. 26.
  8. “A Generous Bequest,” Providence Journal (26 June 1923)
  9. Resolution 542, approved on 21 October 1974, provided for the refurbishment of “Gladys Potter Memorial Park and the area immediately adjacent to it.” Providence City Council, Ordinances and Resolutions (Providence, 1974), Providence City Archives. This date roughly coincides with the age of some of the playground equipment still at the site, such as the Landscape Structures swing set. Landscape Structures, a company from Delano, Minnesota, was founded in 1967. Most playgrounds before World War I placed their swings, seesaws, and sand boxes on hard surfaces unlike the Garden. Susan G. Solomon, American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005)
  10. City Plan Commission, City of Providence, Master Plan for Public Recreation and Conservation. City of Providence, December 1966, RIHS; Weir, 43.
  11. Indeed, little is known about “the consumption side of public memory,” the way that average people perceive memorials and monuments. Russell Johnston and Michael Ripmeester, “A Monument’s Work is Never Done: Monument, Memory, and Forgetting in a Canadian City,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 13:2 (2007), 117-135.
  12. Instead, they planned to enlarge Paterson Park. City Plan Commission of Providence, R.I., Master Plan: Playgrounds and Playfields, publication #10 (January 1953). RIHS.
  13. The brochure for “Playful Providence” listed the site as “Humboldt Park (Wayland Square)” and the Hosts as “Friends of Humboldt Park,” with the “Friends of Gladys Potter (Humboldt) Park” among the participating park and neighborhood groups that helped plan the events. The Facebook page of the community group formed in August 2012 identifies the group as the “Friends of Humboldt (Gladys Potter) Park.”
  14. William G. Vinal, “Mother Nature’s Invitation: The Evolution of a Playground, Being a True Story,” The Playground 19:12 (March 1926), 681-682.
  15. William Gould Vinal, “Decoration with Plants,” Twenty-Eighth Annual Program for the Observance of Arbor Day in the Schools of Rhode Island (9 May 1919), 20. PPL
  16. Imbrie Packard, “The Gladys Potter Memorial Gardens,” Twenty-Ninth Annual Program for the Observance of Arbor Day in the Schools of Rhode Island (14 May 1920), 5.
    16 Augustine Jones, “Parks and Tree-Lined Avenues” (Providence: E. A. Johnson & Col, Printers, 1891), 13. Jones was describing Blackstone Park, established in 1866.
  17. Augustine Jones, “Parks and Tree-Lined Avenues” (Providence: E. A. Johnson & Col, Printers, 1891), 13. Jones was describing Blackstone Park, established in 1866.
  18. G. Cornet, Tuberculosis and Acute Miliary Tuberculosis (London: W. B. Saunders & Company, 1904), 677-679.
  19. Providence Journal (17 November 1891), 4.
  20. Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island, vol. 1 (Chicago: JH Beers & Co, 1908), 207.
  21. See Studio for Southern California History, “Swan Point Cemetery History Project” (2012) http://www.lahistoryarchive.org/resources/SWAN_POINT/timeline.html
  22. See Daphne Spain, How Women Saved the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Bonj Szczygiel, “‘City Beautiful’ Revisited: An Analysis of Nineteenth-Century Civic Improvement Efforts,” Journal of Urban History (2003); Mary Ritter Beard, Women in Municipalities (1915).
  23. “Country Homes for Children,” Public Opinion 27 (1899).
  24. “Providence Neighborhood Profiles: Wayland in Depth: Background,” http://local.provplan.org/profiles/way_bk.html; Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, Historical and Architectural Resources of the East Side, Providence (Providence: RIHPC, 1989)
  25. “Gladys Potter Garden’ Given to City,” Providence Journal (16 January 1921), 8.
  26. The assessors valued the property at ,460. City Resolution #295, series of 1917. 7th Annual Report of the City Auditor, for the year ending September 30, 1917, Providence City Archives, hereafter abbreviated as PCA.
  27. Summary, August 31, 1917, Records of Committees on Parks & Ed, 1912-1925, PCA.
  28. City Resolution #294.5, series of 1917. 7th Annual Report of the City Auditor, for the year ending September 30, 1917, 240, PCA.
  29. Harvey Green, The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America (NY: Pantheon Books, 1983), 165.
  30. Jay Winter, Remembering War, 18, 25-26, 32.
  31. City Resolution #294.5, series of 1917.
  32. William E. Harmon, “A Real Estate Man Talks about the City Beautiful” (1909) and “The City’s Need” (1903), Public Park Association misc. pamphlets, RIHS.
  33. Harriet Jordan, “Public Parks, 1885-1914,” Garden History 22:1 (Summer 1994), 85.
  34. David Marshall, The Jewel of Providence: An Illustrated History of Roger Williams Park, 1871-1961 (Providence RI: Providence Parks Department, 1987), 1.
  35. Marshall, 3; quoting Olmsted, Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns
  36. Later they articulated their “social and educational aims” in more positive terms. Luther Gulick?, Proceedings of the Annual Playground Congress and Year Book, vol. 3 (The Playground Association of America, 1910).
  37. See Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood, “Turn of the Century Women’s Organizations, Urban Design, and the Origin of the American Playground Movement,” Landscape Journal 13 (21 Sept 1994): 124-137.
  38. Providence Journal, Rhode Island Almanac (Providence, 1918), 101. Some of these playgrounds were larger than the Gladys Potter Garden, others smaller. Except for the Eddy Playground on Ellery Street, named for its donor Sarah J. Eddy, all had names based on their geographic location or no name at all. See Office of the Park Commissioners Report in James M. Southwick, Flora and Fauna of Roger Williams Park, Providence R. I. (Providence, 1903), 18.
  39. “Sound Investments,” Providence Magazine (August 1916), 529.
  40. City Resolution #294.5, series of 1917.
  41. Arbor Day, Rhode Island, 1892-1933, n.d.
  42. Solomon, 8.
  43. “Country Homes for Children,” Public Opinion 27 (1899). It is unclear how long this program remained in operation.
  44. Providence Magazine 28:8 (August 1916).
  45. “Park Given City Not to Be Built for over a Year,” Providence Journal (28 September 1917), 2.
  46. “Gladys Potter Garden’ Given to City,” Providence Journal (16 January 1921), 8.
  47. Old Home Week Committee (Providence R.I.), Publicity Department, Official Souvenir Program, Rhode Island Old Home Week, 1907.
  48. “The Gladys Potter Park,” Providence Magazine 29:9 (September 1917), 538.
  49. The Providence Journal’s article on the opening of the Potter Unit noted the Gladys Potter Garden as a stage demonstrating Josephine’s philanthropic “interest in children.” “Visitors Inspect New Potter Unit,” Providence Journal (2 Oct 1941), 6; “Memorial to a Child,” Providence Bulletin (16 Oct 1941), 26. Also see Joseph E. Garland, To Meet These Wants: The Story of the Rhode Island Hospital (Providence, 1988).
  50. My choice of words here refers to Christopher Capazzola’s conceptualization, that “The process of memory formation in social contexts has two distinct yet interrelated elements: that of the commemorative and that of the monumental. . . . The monumental funtion of memory. . . seeks to interpret loss or passing and to put it to contemporary or future political uses so that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, ‘these dead shall not have died in vain.’” Capozolla,”A Very American Epidemic: Memory Politics and Identity Politics in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1985-1993,” Radical History Review 82 (2002), 94.
  51. Florence Parker Simister, The Streets of the City vol. 1 (June 2, 1952-May 29, 1953), 292-293, typescript of a series of radio broadcasts by Station WEAN Providence. RIHS.
  52. “‘Gladys Potter Garden’ Given to City,” Providence Journal (16 January 1921), 8.
  53. Margaret E. Farrar, “Amnesia, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Place Memory,” Political Research Quarterly 64:4 (December 2011), 731-733.
  54. “‘Gladys Potter Garden’ Given to City,” Providence Sunday Journal (16 January 1921), section 5, 8.
  55. Johnston and Ripmeester, 124.
  56. See for example the Connor Lourens Memorial Playground in Lunenberg, MA, http://www.connorlourens.org/mission.htm. Many areas have collective Children’s Memorial Parks or Gardens. Virtual memorial gardens now abound as websites as well. Such memorials were probably much less common in 1917, though research on that point is evasive. One possible comparison is the Elizabeth McCormick Open-Air School in Chicago, funded by memorial to child who died at age 12. Sherman Colver Kingsley, Open Air Crusaders: A Story of the Elizabeth McCormick Open Air School (Chicago: United Charities of Chicago, 1910), 36.
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