In the 1950's, Norman Marsh and his family lived on the corner of Sarles Street and Byram Lake Road in Mount Kisco, New York. He and his wife, Cornelia King Marsh, had four children, Rufus King, Norman, John Langdon, and Cornelia. Their daughter Cornelia, a devout lover of wild things, was born with a defect in her heart. It was decided that an attempt to fix this defect when she grew a bit older and healthier. Sadly, the surgery did not go as well as planned, though the doctors did much to repair the defects, some damage to her heart had already been sustained and Cornelia did not survive the surgery.
Across the street from the Marsh residence at the northwest corner of the intersection of Sarles Street and Byram Lake Road was a marshy tract of land that had been refered to as "Norman's Marsh." Waters from the marsh feed into the Miller Branch of the Kisco River. As a memorial to young Cornelia, her parents bought the piece of land in 1956. The Marsh family created a wildlife sanctuary to commemorate Cornelia's love of nature, the Cornelia Van Rensselaer Marsh Memorial Sanctuary. The gift and creation of the Sanctuary led other neighbors to donate adjoining property.
The Sanctuary was operated and managed by several officers and directors, beginning with Norman and Cornelia King Marsh. To assist with management of accounts, taxes and administrative matters, ownership was transferred to the New Jersey-based non-profit group Wildlife Preserves of Tenafly, NJ. As time passed the Sanctuary grew in size as a result of donations of money and land from other area property owners. One of the prorperties that was donated to the sanctuary was "Brookside" which is located on the south side of South Bedford Rd (Rt 172). The Brookside cottage and its garage/barn eventually became home for the Naturalist and the base of Sanctuary operations.
History of Brookside
In the 1830’s, Alex Finch, a shoemaker built a home for his family on what one day would be named South Bedford Road. The cottage became known as the Brookside Cottage as it sat beside a brook which fed into the Kisco River. The Kisco River is a major tributary to the Croton Reservoir. Over the years the cottage remained privately owned by various owners and ultimately fell into a state of disrepair.
Martha Leonard, daughter of prominent Mt Kisco resident Colonel Leonard, studying theater in France. She was asked to return to the United States by her family. While looking for a home in proximity to her family, she found the Brookside cottage, at the time little more than a dilapidated shack "leaning crazily over the little brook". In her journals, Martha refers to it as the "Charity Place" where she had spent her summers as a small child, eating donuts on the widow Charity's stoop. Martha's family agreed to give her the money to purchase the house and a bit of the surrounding property. This was sometime in 1896, when South Bedford Road was little more than a rough carriage road.
Martha was a playwright, actress, and a lover of all things artistic, including gardening. Her special fondness for all things green led her to spend a great deal of time working on her new property's gardens. She had little money, perhaps only a small stipend from her family, but she made that go a long way in the garden and all over the property. She immediately had the Brookside cottage jacked up and resilled, repairing a great deal of the house's infrastructure. She then went to work on the gardens and stonework around the cottage. Martha put a great deal of time into planning and planting the gardens. She employed an Italian stone mason to build the stone walls, channel the stream, and create several other key features. Martha took to writing for the local newspapers, mostly on gardening, but also on topics as diverse as world politics and women's rights. Newspaper articles saved from that time, detail her early ideas for the property.
In 1907, a tornado came right through Martha's backyard, destroying many of the beautiful American chestnut trees that were there. She found this to be such a shame as she cleaned up her property that she had the chestnut logs cut, milled and then fluted, creating a set of columns. This was perhaps the beginning of the idea for an open air, Greek-style amphitheater. The hillside already had a bit of the shape, was cleared by the tornado, and she now had fluted columns available. Martha planned and constructed the new amphitheater, the first of its kind in Westchester County.
Martha Leonard wrote plays under the name pen name "Martia" Leonard, and produced and directed them in the Brookside theater and in New York City theaters. With so many high society friends, Martia's productions at Brookside drew crowds from Connecticut, New York City and Westchester County, charging $3 for adult admission. The amphitheater was the first location in New York to showcase barefoot girls dancing - a very liberal and bold statement of women's rights. This was a topic for which Martia was known to have written in the local and major newspapers. Other dramatic works included Madame Butterfly, Lysistrata, Dream of the Wings, The Treason of Benedict Arnold, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, to name just a few.
Plays were held in the amphitheater into the 1920's, after which they seem to have dwindled, perhaps due to the hard times of the Great Depression or Ms. Leonard's age. Martia lived at Brookside until she was far too old to maintain the home, but she continued to develop her garden. Martia wrote her own memoir / guide to gardening entitled "O All Ye Green Things" when she was in her 80's. She eventually moved out and the new owners did what they could to bring the house back into livable condition after years of neglect. Ownership of Brookside changed a few times from the 1940's into the 1950's.
History of Green addition
Historic images from the amphitheater