Thursday, July 3, 2014

Modernist Playgrounds of My Youth, Part 1

As the upcoming holiday weekend approaches and the weather gets hot, I’m spending more time outside.  Now I’m mostly working around my house, but when I was younger the warmer summer months meant playing outside.  Playgrounds and play areas for kids are different from when I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, and I wanted to take some time to examine those differences by investigating one of the playgrounds I frequented as a child.  My research into the topic yielded more information than I expected, and I realized that as a child I was playing on important modernist designs (now lost, in more ways than one).

I’ll begin with a short explanation of how I got to this topic in the first place.   I started by trying to remember details of a playground I went to as a child.  The Hilery Park Playground in South Buffalo is not one of Buffalo’s most well-known parks (Frederick Law Olmstead’s much more respected Cazenovia Park is just a few blocks away).  It’s really just a glorified school playground, attached to the Hilery Park Academy (known as Public School 27 when I was a kid).  Thinking back, it really epitomizes the differences in children’s play spaces then and now.  Today safety is rightly a major concern.  Playgrounds are built on grass or mulch, and plastic is used for much of the construction.  The Hilery Park playground in the 70s was very different.  All of the play sculptures there were concrete, and everything was built over asphalt.  There weren’t many trees for shade.  This may seem strange to parents today, but I never felt at risk there.  Even though everything was made of rough concrete that got constantly blasted by the sun, I have only good memories of the place.  The hardness of the playground must not have concerned my mother much either, since she took me and my siblings there all the time.  I think safety concerns have trumped originality as of late, and all playgrounds today really look the same.  Spiral slides, a rock climbing wall, maybe some elevated walkways and passages are the norm.  Hilery Park stood out to me (even as a child) because it was different and special.  My research revealed to my how special it once was.

Sadly, the turtle I played on as a child was not built over sand.

What really started me down this path was researching one of the playground’s features.  I remembered that there were large concrete turtles that once stood there.  These turtles (there were two of them I think) could be climbed on or crawled under.  Doing a little digging on-line revealed that these turtles were popular across the country, and many are still left.  Those that are still in existence have at times been the focus of preservation efforts, so I’m not the only one who fondly remembers these rounded green beasts.  I won’t go into their history too much here, since they are much loved and there are several websites that track their history and locations throughout the US (including this map, which documents many existing and lost turtles.  It’s incomplete, though- Hilery Park isn’t on the list). 

Page from 1956 catalog
I soon discovered that the turtles were designed and produced by a company called Creative Playthings, and they first appeared in the 1950s.  The website Mondo Blogo posted an entire catalog of the company’s products (view it here) dating from 1956.  The turtle play sculpture is featured prominently in the section on play sculptures, indicating that it was popular even then, while it was still in production.  As I scrolled through the pages of the catalog, I noticed not only the turtles, but other features of the Hilery Park playground were apparently sold by Creative Playthings as well.  Triangular ramps that I remember running on as a child were featured, as was a large fort-like construction called The Fantastic Village.   These were a part of my childhood memories as well, and I wasn’t expecting to find them.  (more on those play sculptures in my next post).

Reading through the catalog, I realized one of the things that truly makes writing this blog enjoyable.  It’s really a form on time travel.  Seeing all these play sculptures in the same catalog, and knowing that they once all graced the same playground, puts this catalog in the hands of a Buffalo city planner over 50 years ago.  I can start to understand the decisions that were made that would impact generations of children in South Buffalo.  The catalog I found record of was from 1956 (according to the poster) and I am guessing that the Hilery Park playground must have been supplied with the Creative Plaything products at or around that date.  I played on them as a child in the late 70s and early 80s, so for at least 30 years these objects were a part of the neighborhood’s fabric.  Will the generic metal and plastic playgrounds of today hold up for another 30 years?  Possibly, but they certainly won’t be remembered for their unique designs.

For my next post, I’ll explore the Fantastic Village; kid tested, MoMA approved.