Cleveland’s Van Cleve: A Playground or a Pond
A tantalizing paragraph.
“Professor Cleveland submitted a plan of the improvement of the 2nd Ward Park, whereupon Commissioner Folwell moved that that part of the park designated as a play ground be changed to a pond and that so changed the plan be approved.”
“2nd Ward Park” was later named Van Cleve Park. It was the first park in southeast Minneapolis, not far from the University of Minnesota. I find it odd that the park board would create a pond in a city full of lakes, streams and rivers, but more significant, and unexpected, is what the pond replaced in the plan. A playground. Huh! Horace William Shaler Cleveland, often referred to in Minneapolis by the honorific “Professor,” never seemed a playground sort of guy.
The paragraph appeared in the proceedings of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners from its meeting of May 19, 1890. That date is important because at that time few playgrounds existed. Anywhere.
Unfortunately Cleveland’s drawings for Van Cleve Park didn’t survive. Six of his other park designs — large-scale drawings — are owned by Hennepin History Museum, but the Van Cleve plan is not among them. Neither was it ever published in an annual report, as several other of his plans were. No documents explaining Cleveland’s intent with his plan have been found either, so we really don’t know what type of playground he imagined for the center of the new park. We can only guess.
The Infancy of Playgrounds
The idea of public space devoted to play was still quite new at the time — to Cleveland and to everyone else. In his most famous book, Landscape Architecture as Applied to the Wants of the West, published in 1873, Cleveland mentioned “play ground” only as something that might be desired in the back yard of a home. In his famous 1883 blueprint for Minneapolis’s park system, Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis, he doesn’t mention play or playgrounds at all. Even in the notes that accompanied his first six individual park designs in Minneapolis (unpublished) in 1883 and 1885, he never mentioned play spaces. Yet, in 1890, when he was 76 years old, Cleveland proposed to put a playground in a new park.
The idea was just being explored elsewhere then. In 1886 Boston had placed sand piles for kids play in some parks. The next year San Francisco created a formal children’s play area in Golden Gate Park. In New York, reform mayor Abram Hewitt supported a movement in 1887 to create small, city-sponsored combination parks and playgrounds, but that effort bore little fruit until a decade later. In 1889, Boston created a playstead at Franklin Park and an outdoor gymnasium on the bank of the Charles River, a collaboration of a Harvard professor and Cleveland’s friend Frederick Law Olmsted. Historian Steven A. Riess calls it the “first American effort to provide active play space for slum residents.” (See Riess’s City Games for a fascinating account of the growth of sports in American cities.)
The social reform movement, which later helped create playgrounds in many cities, was gaining steam with the publication in 1890 of Jacob Riis’s, How the Other Half Lives, a glimpse of grinding poverty in the slums of New York. That movement would have an enormous impact on cities in the early 1900s, especially Chicago, which became the playground capital of the United States, led in part by Jane Addams of Hull House settlement fame.
Even though Cleveland addressed many of his efforts in civic improvement to providing fresh air, green spaces and access to nature’s beauty for the urban poor, especially children, he seems an unlikely proponent of playgrounds in parks. Based on the bitter complaint in a letter to William Folwell, July 29, 1884, I had taken Cleveland to be opposed to any manufactured entertainments at the cost of natural beauty. He wrote from Chicago,
“There’s no controlling the objects of men’s worship or the means by which they attain them. A beautiful oak grove was sacrificed just before I left Minneapolis to make room for a baseball club.” (Folwell Papers, Minnesota Historical Society)
Yet, we have proof that Cleveland had a much more positive view of play areas for children in parks than he had of ball fields. A playground at Van Cleve Park, would have been a first in Minneapolis parks.
The Pond Instead
With the revised plan of the park approved, construction of the pond began immediately in the summer of 1890. A pond of 1.5 acres was created in the southern half of the park. The earth removed to create the pond was used to grade the rest of the park. That winter the park board had the pond cleared of snow so it could serve as a skating rink, too.
There must have been problems keeping water in the pond, because the next summer it was drained and the pond basin was lined with puddled clay. An artist’s rendering of the park in the 1891 annual report shows a fountain spraying a geyser of water in the middle of the pond. I’ve never seen a photo of such a fountain at Van Cleve, or read an account of it, but a similar fountain was built into the pond at Elliot Park, the only other pond created in a Minneapolis park, so it is possible a fountain existed. The park board erected a temporary warming house and toilet rooms for skaters on the pond beginning in the winter of 1905.
When Theodore Wirth arrived in Minneapolis as park superintendent in 1906, he placed a priority on improving Van Cleve Park as “half playground, half show park.” He recommended creating a sand bottom for the pond so it could be used as a wading pool and building a small shelter beside it that could double as a warming house for skaters.
The first playground equipment was installed in Van Cleve Park in 1907, following the huge popularity of the first playground equipment installed at Riverside and Logan parks in 1906.
The shelter was finally built in 1910, along with shelters at North Commons and Jackson Square. The Van Cleve shelter was designed by Minneapolis architect Cecil Bayless Chapman and was built at a total cost of just over $6,000. It included a boiler room, toilets and a large central room. The Van Cleve shelter was considerably more modest than the shelters at Jackson Square and North Commons, which cost approximately $12,000 and $16,000 respectively. On the other hand, neither of those parks had a pond. (Jackson Square actually had been a pond at one time, however, called Long John Pond. The cost of the Jackson Square shelter rose due to the need to drive pilings down 26 feet to get through the peat on which the park was built.)
Wirth published a new plan for Van Cleve Park in the 1911 annual report. Although he claimed that Van Cleve demonstrated that a playground and show park could exist without “interfering” with each other, the playground occupied only a narrow strip of land between the pond and 14th Ave. SE. There were still no playing fields of any kind in the park then.
In 1917, Wirth recommended pouring a concrete bottom for the pond, really converting it into a shallow pool. Two years later the park board did pave the pond basin, but with tar macadam.
Very few improvements were made at Van Cleve, or any other park in the city, for many years from the late-1920s to the late- 1940s. In 1935, in his last year as park superintendent, Wirth recommended that a swimming pool be built at Van Cleve in place of the pond, but the park board didn’t have the money for such a project during the Great Depression.
The park did get its share of WPA attention in 1940 when the federal work relief agency completed several renovations on the Van Cleve shelter to improve its capacity to host indoor recreation activities. Also included in those repairs were such basics as a concrete floor in the shelter’s boiler room. Comparing the two photos above, it’s obvious that the veranda was enclosed and the ground around the shelter was paved as well.
The man-made pond was finally filled in 1948. A modern, much smaller concrete wading pool was built to replace it the next year. The little rec shelter stood until a new community center was built at Van Cleve in 1970. By then Van Cleve, like most other neighborhood parks in the city, had been given over almost completely to active playgrounds and athletic fields.
Despite Cleveland’s aborted provision for a playground of some kind in his plan for Van Cleve Park in 1890, I imagine him astonished and a bit saddened to see neighborhood parks change so completely from the pastoral reserves and quiet gardens he had once preserved or coaxed from the urban landscapes of his time.
David C. Smith minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith