Thomas & Maria
Thomas Redfield Proctor (1844-1920) was born in Proctorsville, Vermont—and the very name of the place tells a story, as he was born into an enterprising New England family with a strong history of public service. His hometown was named for his great grandfather, an officer in the Revolutionary War. Thomas’ cousin, Redfield Proctor, was governor of Vermont, secretary of War, and a United States Senator who had his own town named for him—Proctor, Vermont—where Redfield founded the Vermont Marble Company.
Thomas served in the Union Navy in the Civil War as secretary to the admiral in command of the Pacific Squadron, and after he was discharged, he briefly managed family business interests before buying his first hotel, the Tappan Zee House in Nyack, New York.
In 1869, he moved to Utica, and at the age of 25, he bought Bagg’s Hotel, the most historic local hostelry, which counted among its guests the Marquis de Lafayette, Joseph Bonaparte, Aaron Burr, Henry Clay, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and presidents James Garfield, Chester Arthur, and Grover Cleveland. In 1879 he purchased another large local hotel, the Butterfield House, as well as a hotel in Richfield Springs, New York, a fashionable spa town about 25 miles from Utica. He also invested in a number of other business enterprises, including banking, textiles, and a progressive local newspaper, the Utica Daily Press.
Maria Watson Williams Proctor (1853-1935) was a woman of considerable means in her own right. Her maternal grandfather, Alfred Munson, made a string of highly successful investments in canals, railroads, textiles, mines, real estate and other endeavors. Her father, James Watson Williams, was a successful lawyer, investor, and mayor of Utica; he commissioned the eminent American architect Richard Upjohn to design both the family’s parish, Grace Episcopal Church, and the city’s longtime city hall, across from one another on Genesee Street, Utica’s principal thoroughfare.
Maria’s mother, Elizabeth Munson Williams, proved to be a canny investor who increased the family fortune and then plowed it into sound conservative investments—the New York Times reported at her death that Elizabeth supposedly held more US treasury notes than any woman in the world. Elizabeth had a taste for fine art and philanthropy, and her acquisitions formed the core of the family’s impressive art collection.
Her daughter Maria consequently occupied a unique place in local social and political life, and not just (or principally) because she was married to a prosperous man like Thomas R. Proctor. When there was talk in the early 1930s, well after Thomas’ death, of replacing the Upjohn city hall her father had commissioned, Maria’s public objections stopped the discussion in its tracks (unfortunately, old city hall fell victim to Urban Renewal in 1968). In the depths of the Depression, Maria deposited $1,000,000 in local banks (nearly $19,000,000 in today’s money), thus heading off a local bank panic; during the same year, she paid to have Utica's historic Bagg’s Hotel razed by hand, brick by brick, so as to maximize the amount workmen could earn from the job in those economically troubled times.
Thomas and Maria made Utica traveled extensively in the US and abroad and made friends far and wide. Thomas was a member of the Metropolitan Club and other social clubs in Manhattan, as well as the influential Adirondack League. He was also prominent in Republican politics in New York State and served as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1908, 1916, and 1920. President Taft appointed him to the board of visitors at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis—and as a former president, Taft paid the Proctors a visit and had lunch at their home in 1918.
Thomas and Maria also had a keen interest in the arts. They endowed the Thomas R. Proctor Prize for sculpture and portraiture that is still conferred at the National Academy of Design. More locally, and significantly, in 1919 they earmarked the bulk of their fortune to the creation of a school of art and museum which came into being as the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute (MWPAI) after Maria’s death in 1935.
The Proctors also donated land for Utica’s elegant public library building, designed by the celebrated New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hasting, and they were generous patrons of Grace Church. Maria and her sister Rachel also commissioned the noted American architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a memorial to the Munson and Williams families that for generations served as the home to the Oneida County History Center in Utica (like the old city hall, it fell victim to Urban Renewal).
Apart from the creation and endowment of MWPAI, their most visible gift to their hometown was the donation of approximately 600 acres of park land. In the late 1890s, Thomas R. Proctor began articulating a vision for a vastly expanded system of public parks connected by a broad, grass-covered, tree-lined boulevard. Dissatisfied by insufficient support among leading local citizens, Proctor took matters into his own hands by acquiring land and hiring the leading landscape architect in the country, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to transform that property into public parks. While working privately for Proctor, Olmsted was also commissioned by Proctor’s allies in the Utica Chamber of Commerce to do a comprehensive report on Utica, published in 1908, that is among a handful of such studies Olmsted carried out nationally.
The bulk of the Proctor donation consisted of 370 acres that became known as Roscoe Conkling Park. Two smaller parks, F.T. Proctor and T.R. Proctor, are located at the east end of the system. All of this land—nearly 600 acres—was developed into public parks by Olmsted at Proctor’s expense, and Proctor was actively involved in the development of these parks. Between 1908 and 1919, the City of Utica built the Parkway, also designed by Olmsted, to connect these three parks. Local residents were so grateful that they began in 1916 to hold an annual celebration known as Proctor Day and continued to do so until 1942.
Other locally wealthy individuals, as well as local businesses and other institutions, emulated the Proctor example by making lasting contributions to the local landscape, often hiring, as did the Proctors, the leading American architects and artists of the era to execute their projects—and Utica therefore is home to works that share paternity with such better-known landmarks as Grand Central Station, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and St. John Divine Cathedral.