Madison's Partington campaigns
to establish Georgetown Park
Louisville sculptor Hamilton has agreed
to create a bust of George De Baptiste
(May 2015) – In the 1990s, Connie Partington was drawn to Madison, Ind., because of friendship and other values that run deep. Her good friend, the late Mary Hotchkiss, had moved here from the Cleveland, Ohio, area. Partington visited her friend off and on for about 10 years while Hotchkiss worked on animal rescue and Partington searched for a house to restore. “I looked around at all these houses downtown and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ”
In April 1999, Partington bought a house on Walnut Street, in the heart of the town’s historic Georgetown district, and moved from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Since then, she has devoted herself to promoting Georgetown and historic preservation, while also promoting her own writing and painting and the arts community.
Along the way, she gradually restored her house, which was a former tavern, according to John Nyberg, executive director of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Until she retired in 2010, she worked as a substance abuse counselor at the Madison State Hospital and later as a case manager at Quinco Consulting Center-Centerstone Behavioral Health.
In a recent interview, Partington, 67, discussed the Walnut Street Initiative and her efforts to establish a Georgetown area park. She said she hopes a future park would highlight Madison’s rich Underground Railroad history from the 1840s – much of which was centered in Georgetown.
After moving here, she initially was “turned on by the thinking of Jae Breitweiser and Sue Livers,” both of whom informed her thinking about the role of Madison and its prominence in the Underground Rail-road. Breitweiser previously served as president of Eleutherian College in Lancaster. The college faculty and supporters in the Lancaster area assisted freedom seekers on their way north. Livers, meanwhile, has done much research on the Underground Railroad and often portrays characters from the era for local civic groups and educational programs.
“I am standing on their shoulders,” she said.
Previously, Partington was director of development at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She held a similar position at Case Western Reserve University. Inspired by the “creative and intelligent group of people who comprised the free black community of Georgetown” in the early to mid-1800s, she wanted to find a way to honor their spirit today.
She came up with an idea for a “pocket park” and called on a friend, Brant Gephart, a master gardener, artist and exhibit designer, for help.
He designed the George-town Memorial Park. The plan is to establish the park on a one-acre deserted parking lot that Royer Corp. is negotiating to buy on North Walnut Street. It is a run-down lot that used to belong to U.S. Shoe Co.
Richard Jones, a 1st District City Councilman, said he is hoping the purchase by Royer will be completed soon. Once that happens, Roger and Jane Williams, owners of Royer Corp., have pledged to donate the parking lot to the Walnut Street Initiative.
The sale of land to Royer “is pending,” Roger Williams said in April.
Ed Hamilton, a nationally renowned Louisville, Ky., sculptor, visited Madison in late February to discuss the Georgetown Memorial Park Project. He met with the city’s Bicentennial Legacy Gift Committee members, including Laura Hodges, Curt Jacobs, Jan Vetrhus and Camille Fife. Bill Barnes, also a committee member, was not able to attend the meeting but has reviewed the proposal and documents. The committee was unanimous in saying that while Hamilton is a phenomenal artist and a pocket park on Walnut Street a great idea, a bust of George DeBaptiste does not meet the criteria for the Bicentennial Legacy Gift, according to Vetrhus.
The Bicentennial Legacy Gift was intended to be a ‘symbol of Madison,’ ‘highly visible or widely used’ and ‘representative of the entire community,’ ” Vetrhus said.
The park had been submitted as a legacy gift project in 2008 and was rejected by the committee, then under the leadership of Joe Carr, former executive director of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
An appeal for financial support from the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County, meanwhile, also is on hold because the city does not yet own the property.
Hamilton has agreed to sculpt a bronze bust of George De Baptiste, the most famous conductor who lived in Georgetown.
Until he was contacted by Partington, Hamilton said he had never heard of De Baptiste. "After Connie contacted me and sent me information and I found out about him, he sounded like somebody I'd be interested in," Hamilton said. "I'm always looking for historical projects."
He had just finished a major project for Newport News, Va., consisting of five life-sized individuals represented in a Martin Luther King Memorial. Hamilton has sculpted many public memorials throughout the country. He works in his studio in the Phoenix Hill area of Louisville, Ky., but is a native of Cincinnati.
De Baptiste eventually had to escape to Detroit because anti-abolitionist fervor had placed a bounty on him. Eventually, this “fervor” diminished the Georgetown community to the extent that many free blacks left town to be replaced by Irish and Germans.
The pocket park has many delightful features, designed to blend into the hillside, according to Partington. It will consist of a wetland basin with junipers, dogwood, conifers and sitting walls surrounded by dense shrubs. There will be a wrought iron fence surrounding the park with entry gates.
In the early evening, there will be tall lamps to provide light. The bronze bust of De Baptiste would stand near the entrance.
The estimated cost of the bronze bust is $77,000. Jones estimates that the cost of the park will be about $150,000. In December 2014, the City of Madison passed an ordinance that established a Non-Reverting Fund for the Walnut Street Initiative.
The fund allows donations to be made to the park and that the money is not transferred to the city’s general fund. The City Council committed $30,000 to the park for this year and $10,000 for next year, Jones said. Any money raised for the Walnut Street Initiative will be deposited into this fund and can be dispensed when needed, he said.
To date, only a small part of the total cost of the project has been raised, Jones said. “We have been slowed down by the fact that we don’t have a park yet.” The Walnut Street Initiative also has not yet acquired the parking lot.
“It does make people want to wait until we get the property first,” he added. “We’re still in the very early stages.”
The initiative also includes cleaning up the Walnut Street area and improving safety for area residents. Jefferson County Sheriff John Wallace was an early supporter of the project through the Neighborhood Watch Program.
The Underground Railroad was at the height of its operation in the 1840s. Seventy percent of the buildings standing then are present today, according to Jones.
Partington said she hopes the park not only will honor the spirit of the Underground Railroad but also will create much-needed green space within the historic district of the city. It is hoped that the park will attract city residents, of course, as well as tourists, Hanover College students, people who visit Underground Railroad sites, and those who seek out WiFi sites.
There will be a mural to be designed and painted by local artists depicting three of the most famous conductors of Madison.
“So many generous people have helped every inch of the way,” Partington said. “The important thing is that we are not interested in changing the neighborhood. Already, it is a wonderful mix. It’s always been a melting pot. I’d like to bring a lot more people here.”
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