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Spiritual Uplift at Washington Park

May. 20, 2009
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Can natural beauty improve human nature? Milwaukee’s Washington Park was designed and built on the principle that it can. Originally named West Park, Washington Park, along with Lake Park and River Park (now Riverside), were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect who designed and supervised the creation of New York’s Central Park.

Olmsted believed planned parks would provide people from all stations of life respite from the crowding, suffocation and industrial despondency of urban America in the last half of the 19th century. He contended that municipal open spaces with scenic landscapes and recreational activities would promote both the physical and mental health of its visitors and foster communication between social classes, thereby improving society.

In 1891 the Milwaukee Park Commission allocated and purchased 124 acres on the near west side of Milwaukee. They commissioned Olmsted, who at this point in history was already the foremost landscape architect in the country, and work on the site commenced in 1892. The park commissioner followed Olmsted’s plan for open meadows, wooded areas containing a variety of tree species, a seven-acre lake and an aquatic garden that featured a four-level heated waterfall, a lily pond, exotic fish, stone bridges and walking paths. Then West Park went the way of many Olmsted commissions: rogue.

It was an occurrence that Olmsted cursed until he died, but it was inevitable. Cities would veer from Olmsted’s original design plan in response to the needs of the community. In the end, West Park would accommodate eight donated deer, an eagle and several bears (precursors to the Milwaukee Zoo), a boathouse and landing that offered boat rentals, a band shell, sports fields, a six-hole golf course, an ice-skating rink, toboggan slide, horseshoe and tennis courts and a one-mile horse racing track complete with grandstands.

West Park became Washington Park in 1900 to reflect the importance of American history, a trend that was occurring all over the United States. The park expanded to 132 acres until it was entrusted to the Milwaukee County Park Commission in 1932. In 1968 the park opened its Senior Center and, shortly after, the boathouse was rehabilitated into a community center. A changing neighborhood and a pinched county park system presented serious challenges to Washington Park, but all was not lost.

Devoted citizens, businesses, neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations united to resurrect the park. In partnership with the county, Neighborhoods United for Washington Park (NUWP) secured a substantial donation from the Harley-Davidson Foundation to restore the band shell. This September the nonprofit group of volunteers will host its fifth-annual Washington Bark Dog Day, a festival that donates its proceeds to making improvements to the park. In 2007 the Urban Ecology Center chose Washington Park for its satellite facility. Activities like the Neighborhood Environmental Education Project and Urban Adventures programs offer participants the opportunity to explore nature and experience the “spiritual uplift” Olmsted had hoped for.

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Photo courtesy of Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee


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