Remembering Our Founder

                                Charles Downing Lay

Pursuing his vision of a healthy Housatonic River Valley, Charles Downing Lay rallied neighbors and friends to his cause 60 years ago and founded the Housatonic Valley Conference—later renamed the Housatonic Valley Association. 

Charles Downing Lay was born in Newburgh, N.Y., on September 3, 1877, the son of Oliver Ingraham Lay, a professional painter, and Hester Marian Wait Lay. At the age of seven he began spending summers at his paternal grandmother’s house at 95 Chapel Street in Stratford, Conn., about 100 yards from the Housatonic River.

He spent much of his time on the river and on Long Island Sound, during his boyhood, fishing and sailing and swimming, learning to love and value the outdoors. He inherited the house in 1900 and made it his home until his death in 1956.

Mr. Lay studied architecture at Columbia University for four years, then transferred to Harvard where, in 1902, he became the second man to earn a degree in landscape architecture. The first was Henry Hubbard, who became a partner with Mr. Lay and Robert Wheelwright in 1910 in the firm of Lay, Hubbard and Wheelwright.

Partnership between people and land

As a child in Stratford, Mr. Lay developed an appreciation of natural resources: how they could be used for good and, as important, how they could be misused. His many writings reflect the partnership that should ideally exist between people and the land.

He and his wife raised their family in Lyme, Conn. along Selden Creek, where they spent summer weekends. In 1947 he bought 85 acres of what he described as "farm grown to woods which I subconsciously had been longing for," near Cornwall. Now he experienced the Housatonic in two guises: the placid mouth in Stratford, where it flows into Long Island Sound, and the less tame river that is a vital part of the ecology of the Berkshires. It was from his experience here that the Housatonic Valley Association was born.

Multifaceted career

Charles Lay had a varied career: landscape architect for the New York City Department of Parks, planner for the U.S. Housing Corp., and, for many years, independent practice. He designed countless parks, subdivisions, private estates and gardens, among them such well-known New York City parks as Madison Square, John Jay, Battery, Bryant and Marine (Brooklyn). In 1925 he completed a study for a Nassau County (Long Island) park system.

He also designed Stratford's South Parade and War Memorial, and the grounds of the National Academy of Science in Washington, and he was a consultant for the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Mr. Lay was also an Olympic medalist. From 1912 to 1948, five of the fine arts were part of Olympic competition: architecture, sculpture, painting, literature and music. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he won a silver medal in architecture for his design of Marine Park, Brooklyn.

In 1910, he and his business partners founded the periodical "Landscape Architecture," which the American Society of Landscape Architects accepted as its official publication. Mr. Lay managed and edited the magazine until 1921. He wrote many articles for the New York Times and Herald-Tribune, as well as for Landscape Architecture, and two books, A Garden Book for Autumn and Winter (1924) and The Freedom of the City (1926).

Lasting legacy

Charles Downing Lay devoted his life to ecology. He was also an accomplished artist, collector and restorer of antiques, outdoorsman, business-man, editor and fierce protector of nature.

After Mr. Lay's death in 1956, Robert Wheelwright, wrote: "Charles' interest in conservation may prove to be of most lasting importance. Sound conservation practice and the need of its application to the Housatonic had been a major concern of his long before he organized the Housatonic Valley Association a few years ago. Since then he has worked to get financial support and to arouse public interest in the great need for all that conservation implies economically as well as recreationally up the beautiful valley of this fine river."

The fruit of his labors

The work begun by Charles Lay continues to grow. In the years since his death, HVA has worked tirelessly to maintain and enhance his vision. Among its accomplishments, which have saved thousands of acres of land and cleaned up many waterways, are:

  • opposing proposed construction of Super Seven, and successfully rerouting a gas pipeline away from pristine ridgelines and sensitive waterways and wetlands;

  • working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reach a PCB cleanup plan;

  • establishing greenways along the river corridor;

  • aiding passage of the Connecticut River Protection bill; and

  • launching a volunteer stream team program to inventory and monitor river banks.  

One man's dream is now embraced by thousands throughout the Housatonic watershed.

Published in the Housatonic Current (Autumn 2001/Winter2002), written by Michael Lazare, a freelance writer and editor, of New Milford, Connecticut.