The land for the park – 37 acres of fields - was acquired in 1861 by a sale contract between James Guthrie Esq of Craigie and Sir David Baxter and his sisters, Eleanor and Mary Ann. The Baxter family owned flax and hemp mills. Sir David Baxter started his career in sugar refining, but later became a partner in the family linen firm, Baxter Bros & Co Ltd. The firm reached the height of its prosperity in 1871 when they employed some 5000 workers. Sir David Baxter funded the laying out of Baxter Park in memory of his father.
The title deed of 1863 states '. . . resolved to present to the Inhabitants of Dundee a public park in the immediate vicinity of the town, with the view of affording to the working population the means of relaxation and enjoyment after their hard labour and honest industry.'
The land was acquired and laid out at a cost of £40000 with an endowment of £10000 to be managed by a board of trustees. The park opened on 9 September, 1863, in the presence of the Prime Minister, Earl Russell and a two-mile long procession of local people.
The Baxters engaged Sir Joseph Paxton to lay out the park. Paxton began his career as head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth where he was responsible for the 'great stove', a vast curvilinear glasshouse which was later demolished. By 1862 he was an acknowledged designer of public parks. He was also an expert in the creation of rockwork and most of his commissions incorporated it. Paxton is credited with the laying out of Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, which between 1844-7 was the first public park in Great Britain. In addition to Baxter Park, Paxton's other commissions in Scotland included Kelvingrove Park and Queen's Park in Glasgow in the mid to late 19th century, and the Public Park in Dunfermline, c.1863-4.
Before the early 1960s, the site chosen for the park was right on the edge of the city of Dundee. An 1862 speech by W.C. Leng, at a Baxter testimonial before the park was built, takes the imagined view of the city weaver finding solace in the new park:
'Northward he looks, and sees the swelling plain show like a sea of verdure breaking against the dusky sides of the frowning Sidlaws. Seawards he casts his eyes, and sees the dwarfed ships flecking the sea like a flock of sheep pastured on a sapphire plain. Westwards he gazes, and from the foot of the noble hill on which our town is built to the wooded gorge where the Tay ripples under the crag of Kinfauns, and from that again to the Ochils… his eye commands the whole scene. Southward he turns and there, snug as a nest of fledglings built in leafy nooks lies Newport… St. Andrews Bay, the twin peaks of the Fife Lomonds, the far-reaching East Neuk of 'The Kingdom' and, last, the surf of the distant sea shining like a string of pearls on a robe of blue satin. The Tay, dimpling and smiling between the arching branches of the trees: the birds, showering down music with merry patter, as spray is showered from a fountain; the bright, cheery sky; the frolicsome breeze playing at hide-and-seek among the flowers; the long, deep banks of flowers, dressed like coquettes, and waiting to be seen, would tend to make our weaver forget his dingy close for a while and cry out, with that other weaver in 'Midsummer Night's Dream', “Bless thee, bless thee, Bottom, thou art transformed!”
Baxter Park was laid out in two distinct parts: the northern part as a pleasure garden composed of walks with open areas of grass and flower-beds; the southern area as a parade ground. A central terrace runs east-west with a central pavilion overlooking the parade ground. A circuit walk around the perimeter of the park joins the northern and southern areas.
The planting has inevitably changed over the years. The 2nd edition OS 1:2500 (25”), 1874, shows tree planting mainly confined to the edges of lawn areas, although there are also occasional clumps. By 1903 entrances had appeared at either end of the terrace walk. Photographs and maps indicate that the bank below the pavilion was planted. The OS 1:2500 ( 25”) series maps, 1903, suggest trees on this bank, however a postcard c.1903 shows evergreen shrubs on the bank with standard trees and dome-clipped trees along the top. A postcard c.1914 shows formal beds of annuals on either side of the pavilion. The background of evergreen trees and shrubs can clearly be seen, but with clipped hollies between the formal beds, although these are not shown on the OS 1:2500 (25”) series. It is not possible to record here the many other changes authorised by the parks committees over the years.
Baxter Park was granted £3.25 million in 2003 through the Heritage Lottery Fund, which enabled a restoration plan to be implemented, starting with the re-instatement of the gates and railings, and also the design and construction of a brand new Exhibition Centre building on the site of the old bandstand.
The Lottery Fund grant, and the additional funding provided by Historic Scotland and Dundee City Council, has been used to restore the park, as far as possible, to Paxton's original layout. Although the general layout of the park remains faithful to Paxton's design, many details have been eroded over the years. From as early as 1903, as noted in a report to the council's Recreation and Cemeteries Committee, the park has suffered from vandalism, although it is now hoped that the community involvement with the restoration project will lead to more responsible enjoyment. Increased demands on the park have led to additions such as bowling greens and tennis courts which have been reasonably integrated.