Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

So, you want to go play in a lagoon with monsters? Have I got the place for you. It’s not on the bayou, no endangered mangrove swamps at risk and no flora or fauna about to die off though the playground itself was threatened with extinction in the very recent past.

As for the ‘monsters’, well they’re of the friendliest aquatic variety – whales, dolphins, sea serpents and an octopus are amongst the cast of starring anthropomorphic beauties. They’ve been lapping up adoring caresses from kids for over 45 years.

The idea of historic playgrounds isn’t something that’s discussed much at all. It’s really interesting in the preservation community to try and talk about protecting a resource that’s so heavily used by children and is being climbed all over. You still have to make sure it’s safe and that nobody is coming in harm’s way. By seeking a historic designation for La Laguna, we are trying to find a way for playgrounds that are inherently non-compliant, because they were built before the current standards existed, to be as safe as they can be.

Senya Lubisich, President, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

Back in the mid-1960s Frank Carpenter knew how to pick a winner. As San Gabriel, California’s Parks and Recreation Director, Carpenter took the road less traveled by. In doing so, he likely assumed a little professional risk, a risk that continues to bring joy a couple of generations down the road.

On Carpenter’s recommendation, the City of San Gabriel contracted Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez to create a playscape for the city’s children in a new municipal park. Carpenter was familiar with Dominguez’s work in two other California locations and believed the distinctiveness of a sculptured public play space would become a valuable community asset.

The rest is history. La Laguna, aka Monster Park, aka Dinosaur Park officially opened for play on May 16, 1965. The kids haven’t looked back. Late boomers, gen Xers and gen Ys all had a chance to graze knees and elbows while learning to climb and balance on the creamy, pastel coloured sculptures. The magic of play lives on through today’s kids. Their imaginations animate La Laguna paying tribute to Dominguez’s artistic vision.

I do not have a memory of my childhood without La Laguna. I’ve been going there since I was one, all my life. This place is amazing, it’s an experience that transcends. People just stand in awe. I always try to explain to adults okay you’re 30, or you’re 40, or 50. Now, just imagine for a moment that you are five and you’re here in the middle of all this.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, FoLL

All was well in this sculptured paradise until the City decided in 2006 that La Laguna had outlived its best before date. Plans were made to replace it with a more modern playground to be built to current safety code specifications. Enter the dynamic husband and wife duo of Eloy Zarate and Senya Lubisich, two local history professors, who made it their mission to rally public opinion, build a team of concerned citizens and lead the charge to save and preserve this playground as a unique cultural landscape.


The Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) was formed in the fall of 2006. In January 2007, the City and FoLL agreed to work together through a Memorandum of Understanding entitled “Assessment and Conservation Proposal for La Laguna de San Gabriel”. This MOU was the cornerstone of ongoing collaboration to ensure the preservation and protection of the existing La Laguna play area for continued use.

We learned that Monster Park was going to be removed so we decided to make some noise. We gathered over 3,000 signatures on a petition. It was really heartening to see how the community responded.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Senya and Eloy are passionate about their commitment to protecting this living history. Their excitement about the cause is infectious. They are so familiar with the subject matter, so immersed in the strategies to present a winning case that speaking with them is like having a tag team conversation – where one leaves off, the other picks up.

The city was looking at the playground and its viability and thought it would be easier to just demolish it and build something new that was compliant. It never occurred to them that it was anything other than a playground – that it could be art, or that it was unique, or rare in terms of the experience it afforded. So there was a lot of different battles that we had to fight.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Four years and thousands of volunteer hours later, the Friends of La Laguna (FoLL) have championed their cause with the City of San Gabriel and the State of California. There has been a stay of execution and a renaissance of community spirit.

Both Senya and Eloy see their commitment to La Laguna as part of the broader civic engagement and service that college professors are encouraged to bring to their communities. Eloy’s students now have an internship possibility to work at the park and to help the community do things it doesn’t have the funds, or resources to do itself.

Lots of help has been offered along the way – students who participated in door-to-door awareness campaigns, contractors who have helped unravel the mysteries of safety codes, conservation and preservation professionals who examined historic playgrounds as a new concept, public sector officials who opened doors, sponsors and of course kids who wanted to play.

FoLL succeeded in reversing the demolition plans through a combination of research, community engagement and advocacy. Senya has written an article outlining their approach that will appear in an upcoming issue of Forum, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Key elements of the strategy include:

1. Be prepared – do your homework, do your research, understand the subject matter. Leave no stone unturned;

2. Mobilize public opinion and demonstrate that community support can make a difference;

3. Build a strong and duly constituted organization with board members who possess a broad range of skill sets;

4. Define the key challenges and offer solutions. Frame the solutions, not the challenges, as the reference points for discussion and debate;

5. Identify your allies and seek their support, draw on their knowledge and strengths.

The Historic Structures Report and Preservation Plan and Appendices are FoLL’s key research pieces. This is ground zero in the ‘be prepared’ category and they’re really worth a read for anyone interested in playground conservation. The report and appendices cover a lot of territory – historical overview, architectural evaluation, conditions assessment and project objectives along with photos of all Dominguez’s pieces. They are the reference documents for FoLL’s ongoing La Laguna campaign.

When the fight to save La Laguna got out of the starting blocks, it pitted a small non-profit organization going head to head with the local government. Hard work, creativity and community support brought city hall on side.

Once we were able to figure out what their arguments were, we were able to offer solutions. We would hold them accountable so that they had to answer to the solution not to whatever barrier they had thrown out. They can’t sit there and say safety when we’ve provided all these alternate ways to mitigate the safety issue. They have to respond to what we’ve proposed. That keeps the dialogue going and it really holds them accountable to work with their community.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

Safety, safety standards and liability are recurring issues that FoLL continues to address. These issues make legislators and elected representatives nervous. Part of FoLL’s strategy has been to distinguish between safety and liability. FoLL’s assessment and the safety record indicate that the pieces are safe. They were built for children with safety in mind and are not inherent hazards.The fact that they don’t comply to modern standards is what increases liability.

This is the most difficult argument that we’ve had to make and it’s still comes up in every talk that we have. We always have to say that something being unsafe by code doesn’t make it dangerous or hazardous. Then eyes glaze over because people don’t make the distinction between those things. But they are legal distinctions between something being unsafe, being hazardous and being risky. We have to say wait a second – nobody has been hurt here for 40 years.

Eloy Zarate, Board Member, Friends of La Laguna (FoLL)

There are no records of injuries at any of the playgrounds created by Benjamin Dominguez. From FoLL’s perspective, it’s critical to separate out what is a hazard and what is a risk. FoLL is committed to eliminating hazards. There are skills that children have to master to be able to play on some of the equipment and sometimes that requires supervision. In the absence of supervision risk may increase but it is a parental responsibility to be there to help children test and learn their limits. That should be part of every park experience.

FoLL and the citizens of San Gabriel have plenty to smile about these days. In 2009, La Laguna was entered in the California Register of Historic Places – a first for a playground. In early May of this year, FoLL hosted a picnic as part of the L.A. Conservancy’s The Sixties Turn 50 series of events. It was the perfect opportunity to celebrate their $250,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE). Prospects are also looking good for Bill AB 2701 to be adopted into State law over the coming year. The intent of the bill is to place playgrounds that are designated to be culturally, or historically significant under the jurisdiction of the State Historical Building Code. This would provide for greater flexibility while still addressing safety concerns.

La Laguna was the last playground Benjamin Dominguez created. Through concerted community action it will now be a going concern for years to come. The preservation of this asset has struck a chord across the nation. Other communities are consulting FoLL for direction on saving their own ageing playgrounds. Bravo to FoLL and San Gabriel for leading the way. Hopefully more playscapes will be saved from the wrecking ball.

Saving, and now restoring, La Laguna has become a real family affair for Senya, Eloy and their four children. The project has touched many lives and the family just keeps on getting bigger. Witness the growing Friends of La Laguna Facebook page.

Dinosaur Park is a creative experience without rival for our children. It’s a whole different type of play. You really do feel like you’ve crossed into another world, you’ve sort of left a park and gone into a fantasy lagoon. It’s really evident in the way that they play.

Senya Lubisich, President, FoLL

The Friends of La Laguna are in the midst of a $1.2 million capital campaign for their ongoing restoration and preservation work. Information on donating is available here.

If you can’t get their yourself – I’m looking forward to the day that I can – you can get an idea of what FoLL has been fighting for in the two videos that follow.

The first is a community perspective -

The second is a TV report -

Photo credits

1. Stella the Starfish and Sammy the Snail Slide, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

2. Sea Serpent, Friends of La Laguna

3. Minnie the Whale, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

4. Dolphin Family, Friends of La Laguna

5. Lighthouse Dragon Slide, Friends of La Laguna

6. Ozzie the Octupus, Garavaglia Architecture, Inc.

7. Lookout Mountain, circa 1966, photo by Ron Brown, City of San Gabriel Archives

8. Friends of La Laguna Facebook photo album

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

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8 responses to “Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

  1. Hey Alex, there is a great article in the Ottawa Citizen on page A11 (Monday, July 5 2010) by Phil Jenkins about the popularity of community gardens. It features a photo of The Childrens Garden in Robert Leggett Park, Ottawa which won a national urban design award last year. Looks like your movement is growing and gaining momentum!
    Here’s the link http://www.ottawacitizen.com/travel/growing+movement/3236167/story.html
    Unfortunately photo is in black and white – I’ll send you colour photos from my iphone next time I pass by.

    • Thanks Kim – I’m looking forward to checking this spot out on a future Ottawa trip. I always appreciate tips.

      Next up on PlayGroundology – is Go Tell it on the Mountain, a look at Montréal playgrounds including the 2009 addition on Mont-Royal.

  2. Pingback: Vote for La Laguna – Monster Park – as a Cultural Landscape « PlayGroundology

  3. - I remember when this park was old and smelly…back when nothing beat a good park slide.

    - There are photos of the boys on the limbs of the octopus, and on the shoulders of a whale.

    • Thanks for your comment. I hope someday to be able to visit before my kids get too old to really appreciate it. It would be nice to see more cities support unique playspaces.

  4. Pingback: Playgrounds in the Media II « PlayGroundology

  5. Pingback: Great Playground News from the California Legislature | PlayGroundology

  6. Pingback: An Update on La Laguna, and notes on the preservation of historic playgrounds - Playscapes

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