I grew up at 54th and Galena, just about six blocks from Washington Park, easy walking distance. It was a jewel in my neighborhood and a haven and often a magical place in my childhood. There were concerts at the bandshell on summer evenings. Though my family didn’t go often, I knew they were there. The bandshell is where the 4th of July neighborhood parade ended every year– offering free dixie-cup ice cream with those wooden spoons for everyone. And the zoo was there in those days, always a special destination. I loved the bears, in particular.
But most magical was the lagoon and the building beside it, I forget what we called it. In winter it was where you went to put on your ice skates. You would skate on the ice under those stone arched bridges, with the flakes coming down, hoping some boy would ask to skate with you.
The summer for me was even more special because that building had a second floor, roofed but open on the sides. It was there that my teen-age square dancing group danced on summer evening, the Shirts and Flirts. It was sponsored by the city recreation department, I think. Our caller was from my local church, really skilled at calling something we called “hot hash.” There was no set pattern. He called a whole array of different moves in any pattern he chose. It was romantic, and often a moonlit night, with the possibility of an invitation for a walk home with some fellow.
I went back to Milwaukee for some nostalgia in 2014. My husband and I live in Maine now, after 40 years in Washington, D.C. I went back to the Washington Park and loved seeing the stone bridges still there and the bandshell in good shape. But, alas, my lovely building by the lagoon was gone, replaced by a modern structure that doesn’t seem to relate to the water. There used to be row boats tied up there. And the landscape was much overgrown and wild. Maybe it is better now. I am thrilled that the Olmsted organization is celebrating this park and bringing some attention to it. My modest, central city neighborhood is now a Historic District, to my great surprise.
I do hope you can bring new attention to the preservation of this wonderful park. I have to say I didn’t even learn it was an Olmsted Park until many years later in Washington when I served as chair of the Board of Advisors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. An advisor from DC told me that it was an Olmsted Park, and I was amazed, but realized anew why what it offered was so very special.
Kathryn Schneider Smith was born in Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She started her career as head of the Office of Public Information and then Director of the Office of Publications for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. After moving to DC, she became assistant press secretary to then Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. She was formerly chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Board of Advisors.