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Sunset screenings of summer movies at the base of the toboggan hill at Chestnut Ridge Park.

A wine-and-cheese reception celebrating the restoration of murals at the park’s old casino lodge.

Interviews underway for an executive director to raise money and overhaul the park’s hidden treasures.

Chestnut Ridge, one of Erie County’s oldest and most beloved parks, is on the verge of a renaissance.

The 5-year-old Chestnut Ridge Park Conservancy is aiming high: Its $2.5 million wish list of a dozen projects for the 1,231-acre park includes fixing the dilapidated “100” stone steps into a ravine, installing a telescope and adding soccer fields and volleyball courts to the lawns around an overgrown baseball diamond.

“The park can be a draw, a magnet for commerce,” said Ron Michnik, a retired mortgage broker and founding conservancy trustee.

Members of the nonprofit conservancy say their own park-infused childhoods and the economic development potential motivate them to raise money, fix and revive the beloved 89-year-old park.

Some features, like the steps and a stone bridge over a creek in the ravine, need fixing.

Modern twists, like a trail map that works as a smartphone app, would help people get more out of the park, Michnik said.

“It’s one of those forgotten jewels,” he said. “It’s the next generation that’s got to find the park again.”

Chestnut Ridge attracted 1.3 million people during one year of the Depression, a “golden age” of park building. These days the park gets about 250,000 visits a year, he estimates.

They come for trails, tobogganing down the metal ramps on the hill, fishing, the waterfall that falls over an “eternal flame” gas fissure, panoramic views of Lake Erie, and Buffalo fading into the blue-green horizon like a watercolor landscape.

Michnik calls the list of a dozen projects “our dreams.”

By fall, the conservancy, will hire an executive director to help raise money and execute the projects. The most ambitious – $2 million to fix the 100 steps. Others projects include $15,000 trail maps, $100,000 in baseball field improvements, $15,000 for sled and bike racks, $100,000 in signs, $103,000 for lodge mural care including the removal of a metal door that obscures concession area paintings, $50,000 for an observatory for a donated telescope, $20,000 in median plantings, $5,000 for a flagpole garden, $25,000 for solar lighting for bathrooms and $50,000 for a new shelter.

In the last few years, the conservancy, with 500 members and a board of 14, has banked $135,000 and has the promise of a $200,000 state grant. It also has experimented with new things like Michnik’s idea to rent a screen from a Groupon coupon sale and set up free outdoor summer movies at the base of the toboggan hill.

“Now we’re getting people contacting us saying, ‘When is the next drive-in movie coming?’ ” he said. “Despicable Me” is set for July 27 and “The Wizard of Oz” for August 15. The first summer showing of “The Avengers” last Friday drew a crowd, including a family from Indiana who came to watch the sunset.

“After they saw people accumulating,” he said, “they decided to stay.”

Community support

As one of Erie County’s five historic parks, Chestnut Ridge has so many picnic shelters, water fountains, and grill pits, many with the rustic, stone signature of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, that upkeep is expensive. So pricey that the county twice ruled out committing to strict historic preservation that would come with listing the parks on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It just wasn’t financially feasible,” said Douglas Kohler, Erie County historian.

But the conservancy has stepped in to help support the county-owned park. People, not government, are the antidote, he said.

“That’s how we do things in Western New York,” Kohler said, thinking of how locals came to the rescue of Frank Lloyd Wright’s once-decrepit Darwin Martin House in Buffalo. “It’s a grass-roots community who says, ‘This is what’s valuable to us.’ ”

On a drive through the stretch of park closest to the Chestnut Ridge Road entrance, Michnik showed off the new fishing dock Boy Scouts installed at the lake near the commissioner’s cabin.

He walked over the unused baseball diamond, covered with grass and missing its bases and pitcher’s mound.

Michnik had a photocopy of an aerial view of the 4.5-acre field marked with drawings of two soccer fields, two volleyball courts and a Little-League-sized diamond facing the big one in need of total restoration.

“We’re looking to transform that parcel of land,” Michnik said. “Hopefully, some of those projects we’re dealing with will create that ‘Wow’ effect.”

Park’s early years

The park got started in 1925 and grew in the decade that followed as the county bought up land and people donated it – from a third of an acre to 210

Chestnut Ridge was built during a golden age of park making in the 1920s and 1930s, said Ethan Carr, author of “Wilderness by Design,” a history of park design.

After World War I, cars were cheap and reliable, home air conditioning was uncommon and people wanted to drive to picnic and swim.

“It was a great sort of wave of automobile tourism,” Carr said. “States and counties responded by developing park systems.”

That timing fits Erie County’s “heritage” parks. The Parks Commission picked land for four the year after its founding in 1924: Chestnut Ridge, Emery in South Wales, Como Lake in Lancaster and Ellicott Creek in Tonawanda. (In 1947, the county took over Akron Falls from Newstead.)

New York’s park-loving governor-turned-president, Franklin Roosevelt, was a fan of rustic park design, Carr said. The WPA fueled the style, often fashioned with street cobblestones, by mandating that more money be spent on labor than materials.

“The result is so much better because of being forced to use what was at hand,” Carr said. “At the same time, people who built them developed pretty exquisite masonry skills to put these things together.”

While formal park history is scarce, Kohler offered a 1987 survey from the University at Buffalo that traced the park’s Depression-era popularity.

Citing stories in the now-defunct Courier-Express, the report listed bygone features: a shrubbery maze, pheasant house raising birds for hunters and a nature trail marked by a totem pole and designed by the Museum of Science.

The park drew many more people back in 1930s at a time when “recreation was vital for escaping the woes of the nation’s economic strife,” the UB survey said.

Park memories

On Memorial Day 1934, about 25,000 people visited the park. In 1936, about 17,000 came every Sunday, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing and tobogganing and skiing on chutes and a ski jump.

Throughout 1938, almost 1.3 million people visited.

The Chestnut Ridge casino, built for $175,000 in 1936 by 220 WPA-paid men, was made from the park’s namesake chestnut trees, later killed off by blight, and stones from the Erie Canal and street curbs.

At the wine-and-cheese reception a few weeks ago, Fred Gernold touched a stone near the casino’s stairs that was flatter than the others. At 86, he remembers learning they had been worn down by traffic. When he was a boy, he and his friends roamed the park on bicycles, watched workmen dig the casino basement and drank 5 cent sodas at baseball games.

“I used to go through this whole park,” he said. “Now they’re trying to bring it back, which is a good thing.”

He was one of about 100 who came out of curiosity to the lodge late last month for the wine and cheese mural reception. As people admired the old paintings of park scenes, they reminisced, glasses of wine in hand.

Marge Jankowiak’s husband proposed to her on one of the park swings.

“It’s a special place to me,” she said.

She and a friend, still in their nursing uniforms, noticed the party on Facebook and came straight from work.

When they were growing up, everyone went to the “Ridge” on Sundays. Parked cars lined up.

To look around the lodge and see so many fellow park fans was nice. “It’s awesome to see it alive,” Cathy Geist said.

Angie Taltos admired her favorite mural – of skiers racing past snow-tipped pines.

She shared memories of family Sundays at Chestnut Ridge, watching baseball, pumping ice cold spring water and picnicking.

“We would spend the whole day,” she said. “That they’re preserving history is very important for all the generations to come.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com