History of the Sanctuary
The history of the Sanctuary begins in 1956 when lands were donated by Norman and Cornelia King Marsh in memory of their daughter Cornelia Marsh. Young Cornelia was a devout lover of nature and wildlife but had been born with a defect in her heart that took her young life. As a memorial to young Cornelia, her parents bought the wet piece of land between Sarles Street and Byram Lake Road. Near to their house, it was referred to as "Norman's Marsh." The Marsh family created a wildlife sanctuary to commemorate Cornelia's love of nature, and named it 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 and taxes, ownership was transferred to the New Jersey-based non-profit group, Wildlife Preserves of Tenafly, NJ, but it is managed by Marsh Sanctuary’s Board of Director’s. As time passed the Sanctuary received additional donations of land, growing to encompass the Brookside property with its Amphitheater on South Bedford Road. The Brookside Cottage and its library/barn eventually became home for the Naturalist and the base of Sanctuary operations.
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Brookside and the Amphitheater
In the 1830’s, Alex Finch, a shoemaker built the Brookside cottage for his family. Perhaps not originally, but in later years the name Brookside was adopted due to the house’s sitting beside a brook which flowed into the Kisco River and a feeder for the Croton Reservoir. The cottage deteriorated over the years, and when it was purchased by Martha Leonard in 1896, it was “little more than a dilapidated shack leaning crazily over the little brook.” Martha’s family lived nearby and she remembered visiting the cottage when she was a young girl. The Leonard family donated substantial lands to the Village of Mt. Kisco, near Brookside, which would become Leonard Park.
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 re-silled, repairing much of the infrastructure. She then went to work on the gardens and stonework around the cottage. Martha spent a great deal of time planning and planting the gardens, constructing a tea house and a network of secret paths. 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 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 pen name "Martia" Leonard, and produced and directed them in the Brookside Amphitheater 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 (see photo) - a very liberal and bold statement of women's rights. Other dramatic works included Madame Butterfly, Lysistrata, Dream of the Wings, The Treason of Benedict Arnold, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to name a few.
Plays were held in the Amphitheater from 1911 well into the 1920’s, after which they seem to have dwindled, perhaps due to the hard times of the Great Depression or Miss Leonard’s age. Martia lived at Brookside until she was far too old to maintain the home, but she continued to develop her garden. She 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 during the 1940’s and 1950’s before eventually being offered to Wildlife Preserves to be managed by the Marsh Sanctuary. It is a delightful feature of the Sanctuary that the Amphitheater still exists. Miss Leonard died in 1964 and her ashes are buried on the wooded slope overlooking the Amphitheater. Offstage, according to her wish, the stone head of a beautiful young woman with her hair in tresses like a cameo, marks the spot.
** Information for this history is taken from “The Story of Brookside” by Alex Shoumatoff, Resident Naturalist, 1975.
The Amphitheater and Brookside cottage
The Amphitheater today
Brookside cottage today
Through a land swap transaction in 1998, Marsh Sanctuary acquired the 36 acres parcel at 71 Sarles Street, known as Meadowside (pictured at the top of this page), which has since become the most active area of the Sanctuary. The pond and open space provide a landscape with hiking trails that have attracted such outdoor groups as the Rewilding School and has provided an environment for the Community Garden of 40 plots used by local gardeners as well as by the school.
The Meadowside property of the Sanctuary includes a stable with attached house, a separate caretaker’s cottage and the Community Garden. The property features several miles of trails that connect to other parks and preserves. A hillside wooded path provides the link between these acres and Brookside Cottage and Amphitheater on South Bedford Road.
As time marches on, the management of the Sanctuary looks to continue to serve the Bedford, New Castle and Mt. Kisco community with a natural setting for outdoor activity, environmental educational opportunities, artistic expression and nature and wildlife protection.