by Dan Ellis
War Memorial Park is its official name and is sometimes abbreviated to Memorial Park, or at times referred to as City Park. Much in the manner of any significant happening, the Park originated with just three men who got together and proposed a War Memorial in honor of their relatives and comrades who were serving in the Armed Forcesduring World War II.
The group prepared a finite plan which they imparted to the Pass Christian community in 1945. It was a well thought-out document which took into consideration the creation of a Public Park Commission, deed transfer to the City with a protection clause, and a procedure for acquisition by the City. The formation of the War Memorial Park Association resulted in 200 charter members raising 90 percent of the purchase price during the first year. They acquired ten acres prominently fronting the Gulf and stretching back for two blocks.
During the first year they landscaped the front section facing the old Hwy. 90 (now, Scenic Drive) and in the second year they dedicated the softball playground in the back section of Second Street. Starting in the first ten years, the Association promoted an annual Park Fair co-sponsored by all local community clubs. Through the years since its beginnings, various individuals and organizations have donated funds, plaques, trees, flag poles, monuments, and even the famous Gazebo.
One of the low periods of fund raising, when money ran short, Tom and John Parker, sons of the deceased Louisiana Governor, tapped a $32,000 escrow fund that had been derived from a group of Texans who along with the money sent a note, “Dear John, a bunch of us old sinners were playing a big poker game last night and we cut the kitty to send you this. Spend it as you see fit.”
The Governor’s sons donated the monies for a good cause. Some of the money was donated to the Park Fund and the rear block between Second and the Railroad became named Parker Park.
The City took over full ownership of the Park in 1968 and soon afterwards initiated a one mill tax designated for Park maintenance and athletic programs. The VFW post was located just across the street and its members and auxiliary were very supportive throughout the years. The Park became the focal point for many fairs, festivals, picnics, and celebrations.
More currently, the park has hosted numerous annual events, including Jazz in the Pass, Art in the Pass, Paws in the Pass, and Christmas in the Pass. For several years, 1998-99, the Memorial Park displayed a beautiful Moon Light electric system with up-casting and downward spiraling spray lights. Walking along the pathways was such an enchanting experience during the evenings. Watching the splendor of the lights reflecting upon the branches of the massive Live Oaks was an awesome sight. However, the nonplused squirrels ate through the wiring and ultimately disengaged the quite expensive lighting system.
Pass Christian’s War Memorial Park site was originally sold in 1834 for $1,000 to the Widow Simon Cucullu, Sr. by Charles Asmar, freed Negro slave, who originally owned most of downtown Pass Christian. It must have been a wondrous sight to pass by the former Cucullu home which was laid out in front of the large promenade of trees facing the Sound. Locals and visitors were reated to the prancing of exotic birds roaming the enclosed gardens as peacocks spread their fan-tails for all to see.
The marriage of Marie Modeste Dorothea Cucullu to Francisco Bartholemew Fleitas, Sr. was an unprecedented wedding ceremony. Both of their parents were of direct Spanish lineage and were prominent residents of the “Pass” and of New Orleans. Marie and Francisco only had one son, Francis, Jr. who bore no children, ending the line of Fleitas genealogy.
The magnitude, the presence, and the glory are gone, except for the bordering street named Fleitas and the marvelous live oaks that were planted to the rear of the Cucullu beachfront estate.
In 1899, the house, then named Oak Villa, was bought by George A. Wiegand who sold it to Albert Aschafenberg, who owned the Mexican Gulf Hotel. The house was torn down in anticipation of expanding the hotel site. The property extended from the Beach to Bayou Portage, after the Mexican Gulf Hotel burned down in 1917 Aschafenberg had plans to build a subdivision called Beach Terrace that included a sprawling gulf course. These plans failed due to his early death.
The Park provides a wonderful venue for annual events. It is also home for Monuments and Memorials including those for deceased Veterans and those who died due to Camille and Katrina hurricanes. War Memorial Park harbors the Gazebo – that has become the City’s Logo. The Park is host for many of the oldest Live Oak trees in the community. It is a garden that overlooks the scenic Mississippi Sound. Additionally, the Park has a Rubberized Walking Path that is easy on the feet and Fitness equipment distributed throughout the area.
Finally, the Park is a playground for youngsters with its children’s play equipment – And most recently, a child’s Splash Pad has been installed.