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Milwaukee's Olmsted Parks

Lake Park

     Among the first land recommended for purchase by the newly formed Milwaukee Board of Parks Commissioners was the 124 acres along Lake Michigan that extended from the Water Works Park at Terrace and North avenues to Burleigh Street (now East Kenwood Boulevard). This land cleaved by the North Point Light Station (built in 1855), was acquired in 1890. The site’s unique features included high shoreline bluffs, several natural ravines to the lake, and a densely wooded area to the north on land that was previously a farmstead and privately owned recreation area known as “Lueddemann’s on the Lake.” In 1893, the Federal Government allowed for the creation of park around the lighthouse, which was moved inland in 1888 because of dangerous bluff erosion.  


     Starting in 1892, Olmsted met with city officials several times in Milwaukee, following a period of correspondence beginning in 1889 to consult on site selection of land for parks. Olmsted’s firm provided numerous planning documents, including a General Plan of Lake Park, dated 1895. This plan largely respected the site’s topography although one ravine was filled in to create an open “pastoral” meadow, which became a six-hole golf course in 1903 and was later expanded in 1930. Specific “concourses” were designed with vistas to facilitate enjoyment of the park and the park was given a shoreline road that connected to a major pier jutting into Lake Michigan. Along with, the Olmsted’s vision called for winding paths and footbridges, bridges as part of a grand carriage drive and pedestrian promenade. Architect Oscar Sanne designed four of the park’s five ravine bridges built between 1893 and 1898. An open meadow characteristic of the one in Central Park afforded visitors picturesque views across the park and after it became a golf course in 1903.


     Trees lined both sides of Lake and Park (now Wahl) avenues along the western edge of the park and along the entrance to Newberry Boulevard, which Olmsted designed as an elegant “parkway” linking Lake and River parks. Buildings originally proposed for the site included a public pavilion and nearby bandshell (built in 1903 by architects Ferry & Clas), a refectory near Shore Drive (now Lincoln Memorial Drive) and a streetcar station at the end of Folsom (now Locust) Street.

Lake Park Bridge with Horse
Early Postcard of Lake Park

Riverside Park

Riverside Park
Riverside Park Pavilion
Riverside Park

     In 1890, Milwaukee’s park commission purchased land abutting the Milwaukee River from the Cream City Land Company to advance its mission to create a system of parks connected by handsome boulevards. Olmsted named this planned system a “Grand Necklace of Parks.”

The 24-acre site between the Milwaukee River and Oakland Avenue at the western end of Newberry Boulevard consisted of forested areas and a natural ravine that ended in a secluded bay flanked by high bluffs along the river.


     It was described in the 1890s by the park commission as “a picturesque little tract cuddled down in the valley of the Milwaukee River above the dam, its location such that ample opportunities for boating in the summer and skating in the winter are afforded.”


     Though bisected by the Chicago and North Western Railway, a tunnel was built under the tracks so that people could safely traverse the park. The Olmsted’s plan transformed the natural path of the ravine into a carriageway that started with a carriage turnaround along Oakland Avenue defined by a semi-circle of maples. Olmsted advocated for streetcar stops in, or near, each park so that they were accessible to all, and created pathways that allowed visitors to experience ever-changing scenic views.


     Once a major gathering point for people, River Park, which was renamed Riverside Park in 1900, had a beach-like area and boating dock. In winter, the park was a prime place for ice skating, hockey, tobogganing, and winter carnivals. A pavilion, with a long stairway leading to the river’s edge, topped the bluff. The area west of the original railbed (now the Oak Leaf Trail) boasts a grove of mature oaks and an oval path called the Olmsted Promenade. This part of the park most reflects Olmsted’s original design ideas.


     In the 1970s, decades after river pollution had deterred swimmers and the park gradually became run-down, much of Riverside Park was ceded to the recreation division of Milwaukee Public Schools. The tunnel was filled in and land was regraded for athletic fields and a track for Riverside University High School students. In response to increased degradation and crime, neighbors formed the Friends of Riverside Park, which led to the establishment of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) in 1991, and more formal stewardship of the park.

Washington Park

     In an effort to provide parks throughout the county, the Milwaukee Board of Park Commissioners envisioned a park west of the city were land was more available. So, in 1891, the commission purchased 125 acres between 40th and 47th streets. The five tracts of land earmarked for West Side Park or West Park extended from Vliet Street to Pabst Avenue (now Lloyd Street). While Olmsted considered this site too far from the city center, he admired its large forested area and the higher elevations found there, and designed a “pastoral” park with ample areas for picnicking.


     Olmsted’s plan for West park also called for building a seven-acre lagoon in the northeast section of the park. When land north to Lisbon and east to North 40th Street was acquired, the park was further expanded. The park’s open meadow were first laid out by Olmsted and his firm with a single system of looping roadways, then separate pedestrian walkways and curving carriage paths were added. Once finalized, supervision of the planting according to Olmsted’s plan was carried out by Warren H. Manning in 1896 and 1897. During this time, Manning oversaw the introduction of over 12,000 trees and shrubs to the project, according to park commission annual reports. 


     As was their custom, the Olmsted firm urged city officials to have some form of public transportation near each new park to ensure they would be accessible for all. The streetcar went to West Park by 1896 and soon it was the most popular public place on the west side. “One of the great attractions is the lake… At least 35,000 people enjoyed boats provided by the commission,” according to the 1897 report. It also soon became the most popular park for ice skating.


     A play area was also added, and care was taken to ensure that there would be vistas or prospects, along the lagoon and across the park. As was the case at Lake Park, all streets bordering the park were lined with trees on both sides to shield park visitors from the surrounding neighborhoods, and create an even greater green oasis within the city. Ultimately, city officials chose to connect Washington Park with Sherman Park via a green boulevard. Sherman Boulevard is thus akin to Newberry Boulevard. Both are green “parkways.”


     Olmsted’s master plan included a one-acre “deer enclosure” in the southwest corner of West Park after Louis Auer and Gustave Pabst donated animals for it. That modest beginning eventually led to the creation in 1910 of Milwaukee’s zoo within a section of the park, which gradually expanded to include more than 800 animals on 23 acres. Other park additions by 1902 included a boathouse, a horse racing track, grandstands, stables and a wood-frame gazebo for musical events.


     In 1900, the park was renamed Washington Park as part of the nation-wide trend naming parks after famous men in history. Washington Park became home to Milwaukee’s first public golf course in 1903 (with six holes). It was later razed for zoo expansion. Eventually the zoo outgrew its location in the public park and, in 1963, was moved to its present location. With funds from Emil Blatz, a much-needed new open air bandshell, known as the Temple of Music, opened in 1938. This Art Deco stage designed by Fitzhugh Scott became the site of classical, operatic, and popular concerts attended by thousands. It was home to the immensely popular “Music Under the Stars,” a concert series that included many nationally renowned performers. That series continued until 1992.

Washington Park
Washington Park Bandshell
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