The Mid-Century Modern Playground
text and photos by Lynne Rostochil
With the 4th of July weekend coming up, many of you — especially those with kiddos — may find yourselves spending some of your holiday time hanging out at a local park enjoying a picnic, taking a break from boating, or enjoying a fireworks display. So, in honor of all things summer, even those pesky mosquitos, I thought I’d share some photos of iconic mid-century playground equipment I’ve found throughout Soonerland. First up, a couple of oh-so-Jetson’s rocket slides celebrating the all things Space Age — one in Ada:
and one in Edmond:
According to the very informative and interesting website, play-scapes.com, many of these rocket slides were created by Jamison Manufacturing Company and debuted in the early ’60s, just in time for Kennedy’s announced space race to the moon. The best rocket slide that I’ve seen in Oklahoma called Stars and Stripes park home for over four decades until it was dismantled a few years ago. Here’s an image of a sister of the Stars and Stripes slide in the aptly titled book, Once Upon a Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920-1975 by Brenda Biondo (photo by Biondo):
And a vintage ’70s photo of the Stars and Stripes rocket slide:
Sigh…. I’m still so bummed that the rocket is gone at Stars and Stripes, but Oklahoma’s playgrounds are filled with other great vintage equipment, such as these gems that await tiny players in the Village’s Mike Bumpass park. I especially love the centipede:
Yes, those are my tots playing on the merry-go-round a l-o-n-g time ago when they thought this was the most exciting ride in town.
There’s nothing better than a butt burner of a slide, and this great park has two of them:
Love that candy cane striping!
Another Village neighborhood play spot, Johnson Park, has more vintage goodies, including a few spring riders:
and this crazy ringed thingy:
Ripper Park in Bethany is home to a lot of old playground equipment, too, like this springed see saw:
And this fun jungle gym/slide:
As a personal aside, I played at this particular park quite a bit when I was a wee miss. Back then, my mom and aunt would pack picnic lunches, and my cousins and I would spend the whole day at the park that, at the time, I thought was the size of a small state. I could run for what seemed like days without ever feeling the tug of my mom’s hand on my shoulder reigning me in from getting too close to a street or other places she deemed dangerous. Ripper Park symbolized complete freedom to my three-year-old self. I particularly remember loving the feeling of my tiny tush sizzling on this steaming hot slide. I’d sit and sit and feel my butt get hotter and hotter and try to hold out as long as I could before I’d take off running for the nearest water source – the nearby kiddie pool — and jump in to cool off. When I returned to Ripper Park a few years ago to shoot these photos and recapture my little kid youth, I once again sat down on the hot, hot slide. Obviously my butt wasn’t in as prime sizzle condition as it was a million years ago, though, because I lasted just a few scant seconds until the pain overwhelmed me and I quickly leapt up before my bottom half melted into oblivion. So much for reliving your childhood….
Another Metro playground that is pretty much intact from the time it was built is the Kiwanis Park in Warr Acres. Surrounded by a neighborhood of modest mods and a fantastic fire station/town hall designed by Robert Vahlberg, the park has several pieces of vintage playground equipment that I’ve never seen anywhere else, like this swinging teeter totter/climbing thing:
How nutty but cool is that?
I’m also completely in love with this Streamline-styled train:
And these munchkin see-saws aren’t too shabby, either:
Life is always good when you have a few teeter totters to ride on (and jump off of in mid flight, so you can try to bump your opponent off as he/she makes a hard and oftentimes painful landing):
Another neighborhood park, this time in Lansbrook, boasts a completely different look in playground equipment that became popular in the 1960s:
Until Terri and Robyn told me about this park recently, I had no idea that Oklahoma City was home to some of the most iconic sculptural concrete playground equipment ever made. Artist Jim Miller-Melberg created this stunner (called the Tree form), along with many, many others. According to his website, http://jimmillermelbergsculptor.com/play-sculptures-title.html:
In the 1950’s several sculptors, notably in Scandinavian countries designed sculptural forms for children’s playgrounds and there was experimentation in the design of playgrounds and equipment or objects to foster what was called “Creative Play”. In 1958 when I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I was commissioned to design a sculpture for an elementary school playground. The budget was limited so I came up with the idea making a mold directly instead of making a sculpture, then fabricating the mold. I designed a curved wall section to be cast in concrete. I had a company that made steel molds for septic tanks to fabricate a two part mold and I designed two part aluminum castings to provide holes in the wall to be used for climbing or for crawling through. The concrete castings were to be 6′ high by 7′ wide and could be used as a modular unit to create an enclosure or a serpentine wall.
My general idea about Play sculptures and play grounds was to provide an environment for imaginative game playing for children.
There’s no doubt that generations of lucky kiddos have spent countless hours playing such imaginative games “fort,” “war,” or “house” while climbing on, over, through, and under Miller-Melberg’s concrete creations, such as the Castle:
I think that the set designers of the first “The Planet of the Apes” movie, which was filmed in 1967 and released the following year, may have spent a lot of time with their kiddos at a Miller-Melberg designed park and drew inspiration from the sculptor’s playground designs. Have a look at this movie set still and see what you think:
Compare that with this cluster of Miller-Melberg’s sculptures at the Lansbrook park:
See some similarities?
Here’s another sculpture that looks like, hmm, I-don’t-know-what … a cross between a half-twisted piece of aged Swiss cheese and a nun’s super starched cornette, maybe? See what you think — the sculpture:
Some yummy Swiss cheese:
A nun’s cornette:
What do you think — is that close? This is such classic sculpture, though, isn’t it:
And I do love this wavy, perforated wall and the concrete seats:
Lansbrook is home to two other play areas with these sculptural pieces of equipment. The second is on the lake:
And the third is in the heart of the neighborhood:
One of the best preserved mid-century playgrounds I’ve ever seen is in Ponca City. Here are some of the fantastic treasures it holds:
I have no idea what this potential scorcher is called or even how you’d really play on it, but it’s still pretty darned cool. Looking at it, I imagine the multitudes of really angry mothers who have scolded dripping wet, muddy, and crying offspring who couldn’t take the heat and slid off this oddity and right into the unintentional but well-placed moat below. Ahh, yes, good times!
Here are a couple of other goodies at this park:
A park near downtown Ada is home to the rocket slide I showed you earlier, along with some cool swings and bars:
And that’s it for our mini-tour of mid-century playgrounds in Oklahoma. I’m sure there are many, many more around the state, so if you know of any, post some photos of your finds on our Facebook page.
To end this post with a big wow, here’s a photo of what is, I think, the coolest piece of playground equipment ever, Bruce Goff’s Play Tower at Sooner Park in Bartlesville. The long-closed, 50-year-old tower was recently dismantled and is undergoing a summer-long renovation, and it’s so exciting to think that kiddos (and a limber adult or two) soon will be playing on this beauty again:
For more history about the Play Tower, click the link at the bottom of this page:
You can also learn more about vintage playgrounds and some of the theories behind creative play here:
UPDATE 10/8/14: Robyn found this great Noguchi-designed playground in Atlanta:
UPDATE 6/17/15: Here are a few photos of the newly restored Play Tower in Bartlesville: