Washington Park's Life Story
O. C. Simonds’ gift to Springfield
July 13, 1979
As a strapling in Springfield, Illinois, I was introduced to Washington Park. It lies on the west side of Springfield; I then lay on the east. I found it wonderful, and was a constant visitor from my 20s. It’s changed in the years since, but not essentially, and in some ways has been improved; the iron spring derelict iron spring mentioned below has been restored, for example. Miracles, even in Springfield.
Curious about how the place came to be, I dig some digging that resulted in this history. It runs to nearly 5,400 words—an extraordinary commitment of resources for a small weekly, as IT then was. You can read worse things on the subject.
There are a lot of people who say that Washington Park is the thing about Springfield they like the best. Even the Springfield Park District, which owns and oversees these 150 acres on the city's near-southwest side, doesn't know how many people jog, cycle, picnic, stroll, sight-see, take photographs, throw Frisbees, feed ducks, sleep, read, sunbathe, play tennis, walk dogs, and ice skate in the park in the course of a year. But Springfield's affection for Washington manifestly is greater than the sum of such parts. Parks in other towns may be bigger, but few are better loved.
Perhaps it's because Washington Park, with its hilly and heavily wooded terrain, offers an antidote to people sated by the flatness of the Springfield landscape almost everywhere else; in fact, the park seems much larger than it is because one can never see more than a small part of it at any one time. Perhaps it's because the park offers a sense of rest and immutability in a changing city. But just as Springfield is not the same place it was in 1901, when Washington Park was opened, neither is its premier park.
Before there was Washington Park there was old Washington Park. Old Washington Park stood at the extremity of Henry Schuck's streetcar line, the Second Street route of the Springfield Consolidated Railway to be exact. The park consisted of seventeen acres of open woods on the, eastern flank of the modern park, framed by Williams Boulevard, Vine, Amos, and Lincoln streets. It had been developed as a promotion for the streetcar company according to the formula of the period. Riders sick of the city's stink and noise could trade their nickels for a day of general gamboling on what was then the country-fied outskirts of the city. When the search committee of the brand new Springfield Pleasure Driveway and Park District (SPDPD) personally scouted potential park sites in June of 1900, their first choice was Schuck's park and some 150 acres of similar ground surrounding it.
The land adjoining old Washington Park consisted of Wiggins Grove and part of Williams Grove nearby, both groves named for their owners. The tract was typified by large trees, little underbrush (the forest floor was chewed clean by grazing cattle), broken land sculpted by the four small creeks that intersected it, and not built upon except for a small farmhouse. Much of the highest ground—roughly the western-most third of the tract—was open pasture that offered an unobstructed view of the statehouse two miles to the northeast. Making a park, the search committee told the SPDPD's board in its report, usually required the spending of large amounts of money. "But nature has made these tracts natural parks," they wrote, "which only require a skillful hand . . . to transform them into the most picturesque beauty spots of the State."
Most of the land on the park board's shopping list (99.54 acres) belonged to Noble B. Wiggins, an innkeeper who dabbled in real estate with money inherited from his father-in-law, Horace Leland, founder of the Leland Hotel. Another 32.62 acres were bought from the Springfield Consolidated Railway (which sold its seventeen acres for $4250) and six other owners. Total cost: $24,717.
The board was also pleased to accept as gifts another 18.17 acres east of the park proper for a 300-foot-wide scenic boulevard that would join the park proper at West Grand Avenue (later MacArthur) Boulevard. The land was donated by the children of John Williams, a successful local merchant and banker. This was doubtless intended as a gesture of commemoration to a beloved father, whose name it still bears, but it was also a prescient act of commerce, since the boulevard that took the family name spurred the development of a string of very large and expensive homes on family land abutting the boulevard's south drive. The donations brought the total land for the park and boulevard to a shade more than 150 acres.
Politics and business in old Springfield often resembled a family Christmas gift-opening, and the park district proved no exception to the custom. One of the co-owners of the Springfield Consolidated Railway Co., for example, which was paid $250 an acre for its old park, was none other than George Reisch, who was also a charter founding member of the park board and one of the committee of three who selected old Washington Park. The result of that decision was that instead of having a streetcar line that ended at a seventeen-acre pasture with a cement wading pool, he now had a line that ended at a 150-acre reserve that Reisch himself, in his search committee's report, described as potentially "one of the most picturesque beauty spots in the State." It might also be noted that the Louisa Black who donated land to the park board for Williams Boulevard was the wife of George N. Black, the board's first president. And the man whom the Williams children persuaded the board to commemorate with a scenic drive had been Black's father-in-law and business partner.
The issue of how the land was chosen and acquired is now immaterial. How it was developed is not. The "skillful hand" that the board hired to transform its new acquisition belonged to one O. C. Simonds, a Chicago landscape architect who offered to design the park for $500 plus hotel bills. There are no monuments to Simonds in Springfield, unless one counts the park itself. It was Simonds who devised the general layout of park roads still in use and it was Simonds who proposed building a lagoon by damming the Jacksonville Branch of Spring Creek where it wiggled across the western part of the park site.
Perhaps most importantly, when it came to amending nature Simonds showed a modesty for which subsequent generations of park users have been insufficiently grateful. Roads were designed so as to avoid the unnecessary cutting of trees. The only wholesale physical change made was the lagoon. The only new plantings he recommended were intended not to change the park but to shield park visitors from the sight of buildings outside the park.
When it was finished the following spring. Washington Park resembled London's Hampstead Heath, in concept if not in scale. Writing in 1934. Danish architect and town planner Steen Eiler Rasmussen noted that the heath was not regarded by the Londoner as a "park" at all, even though it, like Washington Park, is artificial space. "To him it is a piece of uncultivated land which—for some unexplained reason—still lies there untouched in spite of the development of the town."
If it were possible to rescue Mr. Simonds for an afternoon from that part of the hereafter reserved for landscape architects, and stroll with him through Washington Park today, how much of it would he recognize? Beginning at the northern entrance at Walnut and Williams Boulevard and walking west, for example, Simonds would note that the boulevard itself is unchanged. Mr. Hay's maples are full grown, however, and the boulevard is planted in expansive formal flower beds and flanked on both sides by houses. Entering the park proper at MaeArthur Boulevard, he would probably first observe that Williams Branch has been filled in. The iron spring has disappeared too, except for remnants of a stone grotto built into the hillside. The district capped the spring under pressure from state health authorities in the 1960s, so that where once there was a stream and foot bridge and arbor there now is only a dusty parking lot.
Walking farther west, Simonds would find the lower lagoon still there, though somewhat changed in shape. For some years it was possible to rent skiffs from a rustically-styled boat shed built on the north (or road side) of the lagoon's eastern arm. Boating on the lagoon became so popular that the boat shelter was enlarged before World War I, and replaced in the 1920s by a more permanent enclosed boathouse built across the lagoon from the original. The foundation of that boathouse is all that's visible today, boat rentals having been discontinued more than twenty years ago and the boathouse razed.
When Simonds first toured the park site, the hill just west of the lower lagoon-to-be was largely devoid of tree cover. He recommended the open vista as a nice scenic counterpoint to the looming trees along the Williams Branch road by which visitors entered the park. Simonds gave more importance in his design to the perception of terrain than subsequent park boards have. The attractions of the hill to Simonds were its views of the stream valley below it and to the south (now Illini Country Club golf course) and the statehouse to the north.
He would be deprived of those views today; the hill has been planted with a miscellaneous collection of conifers and hardwoods. The most dramatic change on the hill, however, is the 132-foot Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon. The sixty-six-bell tower was finished in 1962 and, by standing well above the trees, offers views from its observation decks that even Simonds might envy. From that point Simonds could follow his own road as it curls around the south hip of what became known inevitably as carillon hill. He would find little recognizable once he arrived on the top of the hill, however. Originally a pasture and later an athletic field (it is the largest expanse of flat, untreed ground in the park) the hilltop has been given over to formal flower plantings, the park district's horticultural center, and a parking lot.
Descending to the lower lagoon, Simonds' road rises again as it parallels South Grand Avenue along the park's southern boundary. Originally Simonds intended this stretch to be a sheep pasture, but now it is populated by flocks of people; this is where a succession of park boards have located the park's picnic area, a picnic shelter, the playground, and the tennis complex with its accompanying field house and parking lot.
Simonds would get lost without a guide as he approached the duck pond, as a new road intersects the space there. Ironically, some of the roads added to Simonds' original plan by more ambitious park boards have been taken out again by 1979, so that the present road network is closer to Simonds' original idea than at any other time since the park was built. A road that sliced north and south between the south drive and the iron spring has been taken out, for example, and stands today overgrown with brush and trees, looking more natural than manmade. (Only a difference in paving styles on the curbs hints at where the old road used to connect with the present south drive.) A road that used to lead in a saber-like curve from the iron spring to Fayette Avenue is also gone now, as is a double loop that used to decorate the crown of carillon hill.
One of these new roads is still in use, however, the one that leads north from the Park Street entrance on South Grand Avenue. It runs past the old streetcar shelter, the oldest man-made building in the park and a reminder—unrecognized as such by most of the public ignorant of the park's past—of the park's beginnings. The road curves north past the neoclassic bandstand built in 1926 to honor the memory of Prof. Louis Lehman, the director of the Illinois Watch Factory Band.
A few yards farther to the north stands the park pavilion. Built in the 20s in the style of the rustic Prairie school of architecture, the pavilion in recent years was leased to a concessionaire who rented it in turn for wedding receptions, parties and dances. The latter led to quantum leaps in rowdiness in the park in the '60s by young people. That contributed to the park's unsavory reputation during those unsettled years. But the building was unheated and beginning to show its age and the concessionaire could not make money on it. Some board members wanted to tear it down even though an engineer hired by the board said it was structurally sound and ought to be renovated rather than razed. The only reason it survived is because a hoped-for federal grant to build a successor failed to materialize, and because other board members worried about possible adverse public reaction to its demolition. Ultimately sanity prevailed; the pavilion was rehabilitated and is now used for park district classes.
It isn't just the man-made features that Simonds would find unfamiliar, of course. The park's inventory of living things has changed dramatically too. The park today is both wilder and tamer than Simonds envisioned it. Much quasi-prairie has been mowed and plowed into formal gardens, for example. But it is also true that there is much more dense underbrush and thick tree cover in the park (especially on the hilltops above the lower lagoon and along the creek bed in the park's southwest corner) than there was originally.
Indeed, it is often incorrectly assumed that the park existed in a sort of suspended Edenic state of wildness before it was despoiled by park builders, and that those few wild areas are the sole surviving remnants of that looted legacy. But it wasn't the park district which looted it. As noted, when the SPDPD bought the land it had already been wrenched from Eden and was being used to graze cows. The trees were left to stand because it was more trouble than it was worth to pull them down, since pasture, unlike cropland, did not require a treeless terrain. But the underbrush had been routinely cleared away for years.
After the park district took it over, the corners of the tract ignored by park personnel gradually grew over. The brushy areas are typical of young forests, not old ones; those primordial woods are younger than some of the people who use the park.
Unspoilt nature is not universally admired as an ideal in a city park, however. There are those who prefer their park to be more like their backyard and less like the back woods. By far the most persuasive of the pleaders for a more organized nature in Washington Park is the local garden lobby. The evident local interest in flower gardening sprouted its own seed in the form of the district's horticulture center which was built just west of the carillon in 1971. It cost $390,000—an extravagance by the standards of neighboring towns, which boast nothing so grand—and replaced a dilapidated greenhouse and added a 50-foot-diameter plexiglass domed hothouse. Two more gardens are being planted atop carillon hill. The blossoming of the spot since 1962 has created two parks in Washington Park—what might be called the upper park of garden, sunshine, precise flower beds, geometrized nature, and the lower park of trees, shade, ungroomed nature.
Over the years, few civic groups have been able to resist the temptation to fool with Mother Nature in Washington Park. The gardens were largely gifts to the district. So was the Rees Carillon. So was the O. Lewis Herndon memorial, a shaded patio built in 1967 near the rose garden by the Herndon family. So was the "jognastic trail," $10,000 worth of exercise paths paid for by the local Jaycees in 1978.
Each of these gifts was intended to improve the park. It is a popular, if superfluous, impulse. During the Depression the board was petitioned to build an outdoor auditorium in the park, complete with stage, orchestra pit, and seating. Supporters hoped to use WPA money for the building of what they called "this much needed public improvement."
In retrospect, one may question how much an outdoor theater would have improved Washington Park. That project was dropped, but the idea is far from dead; in the '70s thirty-two public-spirited citizens salvaged five Ionic columns that adorned the old Carnegie Library and donated them to the district with the hope (forlorn, as it turned out) that they would be made part of an outdoor theater. A stranger to the city reading the press accounts of all these projects might reasonably conclude that Washington Park must be a sorry mess indeed, if it needs so much improvement. Of course, in the long run such improvements add more to the district's maintenance budget than they add to the park experience.
There does not now exist a plan for what kind of park Washington is to be. Since there also does not exist among the public a consensus on the subject, park boards rely on public pressure to shape their policies regarding park use. But there is a danger in the notion that parks should be perfectly responsive to a public subject to the whims of recreational fashion. The very fact that fashions in recreation change should stand as a caution against too frivolous a manipulation of so precious a resource as Washington Park. The jognastic trail is an example of such manipulation. In eighty years Washington Park has been a lot of things to a lot of people. A park may—up to a point—accommodate a playground or a garden or even a jognastic trail. But it is not a playground or a garden or a jognastic trail, nor even the sum of those various parts.
There have been more changes made in Washington Park in the last twenty years than were made in the previous sixty. If the park is to survive another eighty years it may be necessary for future park boards to worry more about changes in the way people are allowed to use the park than changes in the park itself. The task may require that certain "improvements"—more tennis courts, outdoor theaters, anything that consumes park land—be forbidden, along with activities that are just as destructive of its atmosphere. The biggest improvement future park boards could make at Washington Park would be to leave it alone.
Sidebar: Not so simple gifts
Park boards are under some political pressure not to turn down proferred gifts, and generally have obliged the givers by finding some corner of the park's increasingly cluttered 150 acres to put them. The result is that Washington Park is beginning to resemble an attic storeroom. The probable reasons for the gifts vary: to memorialize some upright citizen: to spend awkward accumulations of money; to one-up competing organizations; or just to do something to justify otherwise pointless meetings. The official motive, however, is always the improvement of the park.
In 1966. for instance, the Springfield Women's Club gave the board three benches and a small fountain to be placed amidst a modest ornamental garden near the old streetcar shelter; the club's president said that the purpose of the gift was the "beautification" of the park. More recently, the Roman Cultural Society donated $25,000 to pay for walks, a fountain and a reflecting pool which, along with new plantings and the library columns, form yet another garden near the horticultural center—a garden the park district director has said "will improve the area considerably."
The most vivid—and to the park board the most embarrassing—of the park "improvements" is the Jaycees' jognastic trail. The trail was sliced through the hills between the duck pond and the lower lagoon, where the trails have exposed the hillsides to water erosion. Because of their composition of clay and lime they are impassable in wet weather, so walkers and kids riding bikes leave the trail so badly rutted in places that it is dangerous for runners to use without risk of ankle injury. Not that it matters much, apparently; parts of the route are too rugged for many casual joggers, and the exercise stations built along the trail are useful by themselves, but their use interrupts the steady exertion that is the point of running.
In short, the trail was built in the wrong place of the wrong material along the wrong course. The cost in money and degraded terrain is considerable, a cost the more difficult to justify when one considers that the park already boasts, in its road network, a jogging course that both is usable year-around and better laid out than the jognastic trail.
Sidebar: The park's designer
The charms of Washington Park are not entirely Nature's. The human hand is evident everywhere. particularly that of Ossian Cole Simonds, the man who designed the park in 1901.
O. C. Simonds was born in 1855 in Michigan and in twenty-eight years of practice as a landscape architect in Chicago earned himself a national reputation. Simonds was a civil engineer originally, and it wasn't until he was employed as engineer of Chicago's Graceland Cemetery from 1881 to 1898 that be became interested in landscape architecture. Washington Park was one of his earliest commissions as a landscape designer; it wasn't until 1903. two years after the Springfield job was finished, that Simonds took up landscape design full time.
Among Simonds' other commissions are an extension to Chicago's Lincoln Park, Riverview Park in Hannibal, Missouri, and the Morton Arboretum near Chicago. He was the author of a standard text on the subject and lectured at the University of Michigan. A standard biographical sketch published after his death notes that Simonds was "an apostle of the natural rather than the formal in landscape gardening" and developed a style based on sound judgment, common sense, progressive vision and sensitive artistic ability." He died in 1931.
Sidebar: Flower power in the park
"Flower power" in Springfield is a fact, not a slogan, and it has transformed the western third of the park. At the instigation of local rose fanciers, for example, the park board okayed plans in 1962 to build a rose garden on the shoulder of carillon hill. The thirty beds then dug for 1,800 bushes of grandiflora, floribunda, and hybrid teas—musical words to the rose lover—have since expanded to encompass 5,000 plants of 115 varieties whose blooms are the occasion of a popular annual rose walk.
Following that example, the American Iris Society contributed to the planting of an iris garden in 1965 (the only one of its kind in Illinois at the time) that offered 1,000 plants of 400 varieties in beds laid out to the southwest of the bell tower. A dahlia garden (1,000 plants) and a mum garden (2,000 plants) were also planted during the decade. Together they made up what the district calls without a blush "some of the finest and most beautiful public gardens in the Midwest."
Sidebar: Sharing the park with cars
The automobile and Washington Park have always existed in an uneasy harmony. According to local folklore, the first auto accident in Springfield took place in the park, which some have interpreted as a portent. Today, for example, the largest unnatural features in the park are parking lots.
Cars illustrate the changes in the park in eighty years since O. C. Simonds laid it out. The car, of course, has replaced the horse-drawn buggy. In recent years, people are walking, jogging, and cycling, and they have sought increasingly to do it in the park, where they must share roads with cars.
Park authorities keep no count of how many people drive through the park taking pleasure drives or visiting park facilities. They also drive through on their ways home from work; a few years ago the district redesigned park roads in part to reduce cut-through traffic at rush hours by commuters. So far there have been no major accidents, though near-hits and harassment of pedestrians and cyclists by drivers are not rare. But the potential for accidents is high; park police state that the single most common offense committed in the park is speeding by autoists. The park board has banned cars from part of the park for part of two Sundays a month for what it calls Bike 'n Hike days, and the innovation has proven popular. But suggestions that such bans be extended so far have been politely ignored.
Cars pose threats from outside the park, too. Periodically some reckless city council member will propose actually implementing a decades-old city road plan that would extend South Grand Avenue to Chatham Road, biting off 40 feet of right-of-way out of Washington Park in the process. Every time a council member does it the result is letters like the one Janice Cook sent to the State Journal Register in June. "The area of Washington Park," she wrote, "is a jewel any city should treasure, protect and enhance forever . . . How can you even consider touching this valued city treasure?"
Of course, Ms. Cook lives on South Grand, and her worries about increased traffic may not be entirely civic-minded. There is a class of park resident who worry about the park and the marvelous recreation opportunities it affords the public when street extensions past their houses are talked about, but who don't hesitate to burn leaves and so make it impossible to breathe in the park many days during fall, or who let their family pets run loose through it.
Sidebar: As civilization intrudes, nature ebbs
When she was a girl, Springfield naturalist Virginia Eifert used to spend many hours rambling through Washington Park. She lived just up the street from it; her family has said since that she practically grew up in it. Eifert grew up to make for herself a nationally recognized career as a nature writer, but spiritually she never changed from the curious and slightly bewitched girl in the park.
Washington Park is a wild place only in; comparison to the city that surrounds it, but even so there is enough wildness in it to entrance and instruct those who seek it out. For years the park has been regarded by local birders as among the best places in the entire metropolitan area in which to see birds. This is especially true during the spring migrations when passerine species rest and feed at the park before again heading north toward their breeding grounds. Annual spring bird censuses taken in the park routinely turn up more than 150 different species.
But birders report being able to count fewer woodland species in recent years. Instead they see more and more of the birds like the house sparrow, grackle, or starling which, like rats and cockroaches, have accustomed themselves to living around humans. Some or most of the decline is assumed to be caused by a decline in wildlife habitat in and near the park. The underbrush that had been allowed to overgrow the hilltops in the park in the past are perfect places for many birds. But recent decisions by the park board have reduced that habitat by clearing it away for running trails or tennis courts.
One of the unhappier consequences of the city's growth is that Washington Park has become part of the urban ecosystem and thus affected by changes outside its boundaries. Recently a stand of trees across Chatham Road from the park was cleared for a condominium development; though the site is not part of the park politically or legally, it is, or was, ecologically.
Another example: The lower lagoon is connected with the subdivisions and shopping centers of Springfield's burgeoning southwest side by its parent stream, the Jacksonville Branch of Spring Creek. Over the years, and especially in the 1960s and '70s, the lagoon was choked with silt washed into the Jacksonville Branch off farm fields and road and construction sites upstream. By the mid-'70s the lagoon contained more mud than water. In fact, there had been two lagoons originally, but the sedimentation had filled in the southernmost one—where the stream first dropped its silt—and converted it into dry land. Saving the lagoon required an expensive dredging project, begun in the spring of 1977, which also required a redesign of the lagoon.
Civilization intrudes in other ways. Springfield's master road development plan calls for the eventual extension of South Grand Avenue along the park's southern edge to Chatham Road, which would result in four lanes of traffic running within a rabbit's hop of the park's new nature preserve. And rumors persist that the Illini Country Club, with which the park shares several hundred feet of border, will move to a new site in the country and sell off its property next to the park to developers. ' Already perhaps as much as a fifth of the park area is shunned by visitors. It may be coincidence, but those areas are in nearly every case the ones closest to the noise and the stink of adjoining streets. In other words, the pressure of contiguous development has not diminished the park physically. But is has diminished it psychologically.
Sidebar: Building a park: Improving on nature for $1.50 a day
Work began on the park on the morning of June 24, 1901, under the direction of engineer Arthur Hay. Working for $1.50 a day in heat that sometimes reached 140 degrees in the sun, Hay's crews set an example of thrift that present government workers might do well to emulate. Trees felled for roadways had their ends sawn into timbers for park bridges or fence posts, their tops sawn into cordwood and sold, the crooked limbs reserved to work into rustic benches. Sod stripped from roadways was saved to re-sod embankments; when the weather got too hot and the sod died, it was converted into potting soil.
The park board couldn't afford to top their new roads with broken stone as recommended, so Hay used shale from three nearby coal mine dumps—slate mostly, which when burned turned into a stone-like substance the color of drain tile. Exactly 6.563 cubic yards of this reddish shale were dumped and steam-rollered onto the roads. And, as Hay noted later, it made "a very pleasing contrast with the green grass and foliage which has been much admired by capable judges."
The park-to-be underwent other surgeries, some cosmetic, some plainly promotional. There was the old spring in the park, for instance, which bubbled out of a steep clay bluff overlooking the Williams Branch, a rill that snaked across the park's northern edge before it joined the Jacksonville Branch. For years, beginning in the 1860s, water from the iron-rich spring had been sold at the Leland Hotel because Horace Leland believed that it cured rheumatism, gout, and indigestion. By the time Hay's crews arrived the spring had been filled for some time, Leland's successor at the Leland and son-in-law Noble Wiggins apparently having decided that giving away an indigestion cure didn't exactly recommend his cuisine. The spring was dug out and the water piped into a stone well to which a footpath (later covered by a crude arbor) from an adjacent park road was built.
A poem of sorts was written about the spring by an author who wisely chose anonymity. Its thirteen stanzas tell the story about a water witcher named Needham who Leland had hired to find him some water "good and sweet" to replace the often-foul liquid that then came out of the city's water pipes. Having divined the location of the spring, the water was tested ("They took the water to a college/Unto a chemist of great knowledge") who pronounced it "pure." (Hay had the water tested at the University of Illinois, which reported that its mineral content "is considerably in excess of that usually considered desirable in a potable water," which hasn't kept people from drinking Perrier either.) The piece ends with an invitation: "Come all you people, far and near/And drink this water pure and clear/You get it free at the hotel/It cures the sick and makes them well."
Besides building the spring well. Hay decorated Williams Boulevard with eighty-seven new maple trees, cleared some brush, built four bridges and, in his concluding flourish, dug the basin and built the dam for the lower lagoon. (The duck pond on the eastern edge of the park was an inheritance from Messrs. Schuck and Reisch, as was a small pavilion that stood nearby; both were allowed to stand.) All together the cost of improving Washington Park added up to $18,581.76. ●