Category Archives: Old Playgrounds

Feel the Motion at 1950s Playground

This brief excerpt from a 1957 promotional film shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia features two pieces of playground equipment that have gone the way of the dinosaur.

The film, Citadel City, is part of the online collection of the Nova Scotia Archives.

I’d ride on either one of these with our kids by my side.

Great Playground News from the California Legislature

Historic playgrounds in California are one step closer to preservation and protection. Assembly Bill 2701 was approved by the State Senate yesterday and now advances to the Governor’s desk for signature. This legislation is the first of its kind in the United States and could serve as a model for other jurisdictions seeking to create a legislative framework for the preservation of historically significant playgrounds. San Gabriel’s La Laguna Playground designed by Benjamin Dominguez in the 1960s served as the inspiration to move this bill forward.

For more information on the preservation of San Gabriel’s La Laguna playground visit Friends of La Laguna and read PlayGroundology’s post, Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California.

Photos courtesy of Friends of La Laguna.

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 this community perspective video.

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.

Endangered Species – Vanishing Playscapes

Brenda Biondo is a woman on a mission. Over the last six years she’s clocked thousands of miles on the roads of the southwestern United States. Each time she finds a treasure on one of her expeditions of discovery, she parks her car, takes out her camera and proceeds to shoot frame after frame of America’s disappearing vintage playgrounds. Her eyes and sensibilities are recording the zeitgeist of American public play primarily from the 1950s through the 1970s – the pre-plastic era.

Each shot immortalizes equipment that is on an endangered species list. Sometimes Brenda will return to a location six months after her original visit to get a winter shot and the equipment will have been removed. A selection of the best images are posted on her site – Old Playgrounds.

“There’s so much stuff that I’ve shot that’s already been ripped up. I feel there is a sense of urgency that I have to go out and shoot as much as possible as fast as I can before it’s gone.”

Seven years ago Brenda’s oldest child was born. From that moment she wanted to get back into photography. It was an interest that she had first explored in college but to which she had never fully dedicated her time and energy. She decided to go with her guts and breathed new life into her love for telling stories with still images. It’s working well for her and for playground aficionados everywhere.

She recognized the possibilities of playgrounds as a body of work during an excursion with her daughter. It was a thoroughly modern playground but the play of light was intriguing as was the potential for capturing abstract images. “As soon as I started looking I started noticing the older playgrounds and how interesting they were in comparison with the plastic things that are going up everywhere,” she says.

Brenda’s passion to record vintage playgrounds has taken her throughout Colorado and Arizona and to parts of New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Her shooting locations are pretty much aligned with where there are family members who can give her a hand with her young children. For now that is what’s practical but she does want to fan out over greater distances. “I’d really like to get to some of the other states and maybe up into Canada. Right now it’s a little tough to do but that’s my goal eventually to get more geographic diversity in what I’m shooting.”

A standard shooting trip includes a weekend away every few months and a return drive of 500 to 600 miles. Sometimes it’s out toward the Kansas border. “I’ll stay in a hotel overnight and shoot next day on my way back. I stop at all the little towns along the way. I’m not driving around randomly but a lot of the times you have to be kind of lucky to find these tucked away parks.”

It was luck that brought her to a Catholic school yard in Canon City, Colorado. She found an old piece there that has seen better days but is still in use. Her experience tells her that, “It’s been there since the 20s or the 30s and it looks like if somebody doesn’t do something with it soon, it’s not going to last much longer.”

Her photos are beautiful compositions that lovingly capture the instruments of play that many North Americans over the age of 40 scrambled on and over as kids. Viewing the photos, people are transported back through the years rekindling memories from their childhood.

For some, the journey is by rocket. In Boulder, Colorado in the 1960s, a playground was installed to commemorate the exploits of a local son – Scott Carpenter, who in May 1962, was the second American to orbit the earth as part of Project Mercury. The rocket, which still stands, was the centrepiece of the original playground. At an exhibit in Boulder’s Dairy Center for the Arts a few years ago, a photo of the rocket generated excited comments from those attending the opening. Three generations of Boulder residents have spent endless hours of fun imagining space adventures within its sturdy frame. Brenda sold three framed prints to people who had played on the rocket as kids.

There’s a rocket in my childhood too. It was much more modest than the vertical, ready for take off Boulder model. I started looking for a picture of it recently but as of yet, no luck. I remember it though, its 45° angle of trajectory, the orb, that served as the rocket’s nose, just large enough to scrunch up in and its bright primary colours. I can recall all the pieces from this North York, Toronto playground. They’re long gone now though. Unfortunately for me, Brenda never got this far afield.

The accomplished play with light, perspective and juxtaposition bring the photos into the realm of the extraordinary. They are singular works of beauty that also succeed in evoking a longing for play, a reverence for outdoor activity. As a body, the images are an important visual, archival record of the social and cultural dimensions of play Americana.

Brenda has yet to come across any archival institutions or museums that are taking a coordinated approach to documenting these rapidly disappearing playscapes from our past. “I haven’t heard of a playground museum. The stuff gets ripped up and gets trashed or recycled and nobody seems to keep any of it. I have to believe there’s someone out there, some organization that’s interested in preserving some of this history because it’s not going to be around very long.”

Brenda and I discuss the role of public archives and museums in the course of our conversation and she determines that the Smithsonian Institute could have some interest in the documentation, or preservation of playgrounds. We dream a little larger and imagine an outdoor living museum that is full of working equipment dating back as far as the 1920s. It’s a place where kids come to play and learn and experience some of the same simple pleasure thrills and spills as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

Brenda is in for the long haul. With the exception of a couple of exhibitions and the website, her time over the last few years has been dedicated primarily to shooting. She is now starting to invest more effort in publicizing the portfolio.

“It’s been fun. It gets me outdoors and I love being outdoors. Now that my kids are a little older I can take them with me to shoot. I think I’m going to be shooting playgrounds for at least the next 10 years, anywhere I see an old one I’m just going to be taking pictures.”

Brenda’s playground prints are available in a limited edition of 85 for each photo. Currently, the only size she prints is approximately [depending on crop] 18 x 12 inches. She prints them herself using archival pigment inks and on premium fine art paper. They’re available framed or unframed. Check Brenda’s website for other details.

If you’re in the Colorado area, Brenda will have 19 of her playground photos on exhibit from March 3 to April 30 at the Reed Photo-Art Gallery in Denver.

At the 2009 Palm Springs Photo Festival, Brenda was one of 16 exhibitors selected from 230 entries. Her slide show was very well received by the audience.

Playgroundology will check in periodically with Brenda for news. She’ll continue shooting in the Colorado area during the spring. In the summer she’ll be in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. If you see an intrepid photographer looking for interesting angles and playing with the light, it could be her.

All photos copyright Brenda Biondo.

Photo locations in order of appearance: Colorado Springs; La Junta, CO; Canon City, CO; Boulder, CO; Denver, CO; Riverview, PA.

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.