January 30, 2016 10:12 PM   Subscribe

We always just called it the Castle Park.

Bob Leathers founded Leathers and Associates to build houses but ended up building playgrounds using design input and labor from the neighborhoods nearby. The playgrounds were famous for their distinctive and maintenance-intensive wooden structures and complex designs. The playgrounds were often so popular they caused problems.
posted by the man of twists and turns (36 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
We had one of these! We called it Wood City, and it was fantastic.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:15 PM on January 30, 2016

Little Knights' Kingdom (school district mascot = Knights).

It was built when I was 14-15. It didn't replace the metal death trap playground I grew up on; instead, it was built across the creek in the woods. The old playground is still standing but Little Knights' Kingdom only lasted about fifteen years. It rotted.

TBH I really, really hate the aesthetic of these playgrounds. The wood gets all weather beaten and the plastic fades in the sun. The mulch is always soggy and I think tire swings look like someone raided a dump.
posted by tippy at 10:34 PM on January 30, 2016

I've grew up with the castle in Toronto's High Park. I had no idea it was part of this larger legacy!
posted by Kabanos at 10:38 PM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think my area has a couple of these - not by Bob Leathers but of more recent vintage, by architects at his firm. They are indeed tremendous playgrounds. I remember the first time we took my daughter to one of them, thinking, "This is what I always wanted a playground to be when I was little." I love that there are parts of the structure that are too small for adults to enter. There's a real sense of potential discovery. I had no idea that these were all over the place; I just assumed some local frustrated architect had offered up his services. They were definitely built by volunteers, it says so on a plaque.

I think the closest one, which is apparently just 11 years old, is a hybrid structure that's part wood and part plastic decking material (Trex or similar). Hopefully that means it has a little more staying power.
posted by town of cats at 10:41 PM on January 30, 2016

"I contend we were duped into building this playground," said Greg Klemick, manager of Upper Dublin Township in Montgomery County. "We didn't know it was going to be this big, and we didn't know the problems it would cause."

Oh my god we truly cannot have nice things.
posted by bleep at 10:49 PM on January 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

We have one of these where I live, it is my children's ABSOLUTE FAVORITE.

What I like about it is that inside the castle's "courtyard," there are a bunch of benches and steps where parents can sit and relax and watch the kids literally run around them, instead of having to walk around the outside of the structure trying to keep an eye on them as they run and run. It's really pleasant to go to with a baby (as well as older kids) or on a playdate because there's such a nice space to sit and chat with the other parents.

The upkeep is significant, though, and it's easy to tell when the Park District is getting behind.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:05 PM on January 30, 2016

"For the critics, that is still too many people having a good time all at once. What riles them more is that many of the visitors are from out of town."

What bleep said.
posted by queensissy at 11:53 PM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had one of these when I was a kid. It was built for the tricentennial of the city (1991).

It. Was. Fabulous.

Looking at that poor, plastic replacement makes me sad.
posted by sbutler at 12:03 AM on January 31, 2016

No concrete slide polished to perfection? #KingPark #Berkeley
posted by parmanparman at 12:25 AM on January 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

There was one of these near us when I was a kid. We didn't go very often, but I remember it being just packed with kids every time we were there.

This is one of those things I never, ever think of as an adult, but just seeing pictures of similar playgrounds makes me think of the smell of an enclosed plastic slide in the summer heat - and then you get to the bottom and the wood chips are all gone, and you immediately get that loamy smell because it rained a week ago and that spot under the slide is still damp.

I know adults have climbing gyms and stuff, but they're not castle- or spaceship-themed, and I think that's a mistake.
posted by teponaztli at 12:29 AM on January 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

These things are over Berlin -- it was one of the things that swayed our decision to move here.
It says something about a city/community that makes awesome playgrounds for the kids.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:16 AM on January 31, 2016

Huh. I just took my son to our Super Playground yesterday. I had no idea it was A Thing, I just thought one of our parks had an unusually awesome playground (Highland Park in Pittsburgh). Well, I mean, it does, but that it's something that a lot of other places have. That I did not know. I only have two complaints:

1. Grownass dudes use it for parkour even when there are kids there.

2. It is really hard to keep track of your kids with all the nooks and crannies. In a couple years this won't be a problem but my son is 3 so I still need to keep one eye on him. My solution is that whenever I take him there, I dress him in bright colors or put a red hat on him. It still requires more active watching than the places we go where I can just sit on a bench and play on my phone, but that's a small price to pay because it's a great space and always full of kids. It was a particularly nice January day yesterday and there were probably about 20 kids, from 1 to 13, there.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:48 AM on January 31, 2016

And so as not to come over all helicopter, I need to keep an eye on my kid because the playground is located in a much larger forested park and there's no barrier around the playground so he could pretty easily just wander off into the woods and get pretty darn lost pretty darn quick. That's my main worry.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:51 AM on January 31, 2016

The Leathers playground in my area was Discovery Playground. A quick googling finds that it's been replaced with a more traditional playground, but I found this lovely photoset of images from the original build.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 5:04 AM on January 31, 2016

Even adult castles are being torn down.

“I think it’s a larger cultural anxiety,” Davis says of the shift towards tighter regulations. “It’s about feeling insecure about our place in the world. This new idea that safety is attainable by creating greater restrictions on our lives.”
posted by fairmettle at 5:52 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I need to keep an eye on my kid because the playground is located in a much larger forested park and there's no barrier around the playground so he could pretty easily just wander off into the woods and get pretty darn lost pretty darn quick. That's my main worry.

also, there might be bears in those woods
posted by thelonius at 6:01 AM on January 31, 2016

Marshfield Mazes. Built in 1988, sadly torn down in 2007. When I was a kid, that was my favorite place in the world. It just seemed so HUGE! No doubt part of that is because I was so much smaller than I am now, but also the twistiness of it and all the tunnels and hidden passages and things really contributed to a sense of exploration. And also I'm pretty sure it was indeed on a totally different scale from most playgrounds.

Wooden playgrounds are becoming a thing of the past. A lot of the old ones were built with old arsenic-treated lumber (Who ever thought that was a good idea? We use copper quaternary nowadays instead.) and anyway those new ones that look like they were made from a single gigantic injection
mold are less splintery and don't need as much maintenance. And kids don't seem to have any trouble having fun on them. But still, I feel like we've lost something there.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:11 AM on January 31, 2016

Huh. I just took my son to our Super Playground yesterday. I had no idea it was A Thing, I just thought one of our parks had an unusually awesome playground (Highland Park in Pittsburgh).

I remember taking my son to the dedication for that playground in Highland Park probably in '91 or so. We went back quite a few times after that, he always had a blast.
posted by octothorpe at 6:29 AM on January 31, 2016

I can't confirm whether Leathers designed Treasure Island in St. Paul but I can confirm that it is awesome.
posted by Flannery Culp at 6:51 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh no! I just looked for pictures of the giant wooden playground I loved as a kid, at Queeny Park here in St. Louis, to figure out whether it was Leathers creation. It seemed similar. Unfortunately, while the cobbled climbing hills and concrete pipes to crawl through are still there, permanent as anything, as is the pea gravel, the playground itself now looks way smaller. It's just another plastic-and-metal thing, with much less wood than I remember. I'll never forget running around in that fortress-like set of structures at Queeny as a kid.
posted by limeonaire at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2016

This is so cool! I spent more years of my life than I'd care to remember in Ithaca, NY and we had one of these cool playgrounds very nearby. We would often walk there in the evenings and pretend to be kids again. I had no idea of the Ithaca-specific history of this style of playground. Thanks for this post.
posted by peacheater at 7:43 AM on January 31, 2016

When I think back on it, I had a surprisingly "free-range" childhood, which may be otherwise known as "growing up in the 80's". I remember playgrounds that scared the shit out of me, while not thinking twice about climing trees over the creek that ran by our home.

Chicago was limiting at first, while we gathered our bearings. During this time, "Dorothy's Playlot" in OZ Park was being built. Our school was part of this, but my family was not. I remember assemblies and penny-drives during a time when playgrounds seemed irrelevant.

It was awesome. This playground extended our childhood, as pre-teens navigating a ton of crap, we could drop those concerns, catch a bus and enter a world of play (and to this day, I'm amazed by the therapeutic power of the imaginative play we enacted will contending with the collective trauma of our lives). It was a park where we could feel safe. It holds magic in my heart and memories, but lacks that inspiration as an adult.

Of course, it's nearly 30yrs old now, and google reports that it's undergoing a new series of repairs. I'd love to see a history of the park, collective memories and difficulties alike. The most detailed information I found comes surprisingly from dnainfo. Oz Park's 'Deteriorating' Playground Getting $157,000 in Repairs
posted by bindr at 8:31 AM on January 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

We had a swing set and slide that go so friggin hot in the summer and some steel tubing put together in the shape of an Apollo module. We had one of those spinning things too. My best times at that park were looking for frogs and bugs in the woods while my mom sat on a bench smoking a cigarette chatting up the other ladies sitting on the benches smoking cigs. After what seemed like a long time but was probably no more than a half an hour 45 minutes tops, I would hear my mother scream at the top of her lungs, "Augie, we're leaving! Come here NOW!" and then she would cough from all the cigs and chatting. This was in the late 60's and maybe early 70's.

These sets are really neat. However, they are the beginning of the end of kids making their own fun and doing stupid things with rocks and sticks in the woods.
posted by AugustWest at 8:40 AM on January 31, 2016

We had one of these when I lived in Chicago, at Indian Boundary Park. My wife was one of the volunteers that built it, and my kids loved it when they came to visit. I don't know if it is still there, but I like to think it is.
posted by pjern at 8:43 AM on January 31, 2016

I do not remember it. Does that mean my childhood was not awesome? Have I been living a lie? I must reassess...
posted by Splunge at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2016

We still had playground equipment made out of jagged, rusty steel decorated with peeling lead paint when I was a kid. These fancy wooden things were years off in the future.
posted by octothorpe at 10:21 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just skimmed the article. Vernon Hills, Il. just demolished their own Castle Park at the end of this last summer. There are architect's renderings at the Park District headquarters of the castle-themed plastic travesty which is slated to replace it.

We once had nice things.
posted by Reverend John at 10:23 AM on January 31, 2016

My grade school had a wonderful wooden playground (actually two of them) when I was there (late 70s-early 80s.) There was also another wooden playground at the park across the street from the school. They may well have been Leathers playgrounds - I wish I could find pictures of them as they were.

Alas, none of them remain. The school playground was replaced by a plastic playground, and I think the park playground is just gone.

We once had nice things.
Indeed we did...
posted by SisterHavana at 2:01 PM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

So, after I moved into an old Victorian this summer, I found myself watching a lot of "good" do it yourself shows to better understand certain not so fun aspects of owning an old home. One of the best shows that I got hooked on is a Canadian one called "Holmes Makes it Right" wherein Mr. Holmes brings his expert team in to properly repair the bones of old homes instead of just cosmetically hide up problems and face lift the kitchen. The show is outstanding.

Anyway, because of his expertise, and apparently the beloved Ness of his show, he was brought on to fix the park in Toronto after it burned in a five alarm fire. While the episode is not available illegally on youtube, there are several segments with him that are. Including this half hour here. If you can find the show on DiY or HDTV it is absolutely a labor of love to repair one of these castle parks.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2016

When I think back on it, I had a surprisingly "free-range" childhood, which may be otherwise known as "growing up in the 80's".

I think it depended on where you grew up. In the middle of the city, I was not allowed to cross a street alone until I was ten or eleven. (And I don't think I went out of our yard alone until age nine.) My daughter will probably be about the same (she's nine right now and can go to neighbors with no street crossing on her own, as long as we know where she is). I have to imagine plenty of kids in the country can roam a much wider area.

The Castle Park near me was rebuilt a few years ago. It's no longer wood, but still has castle-ish turrets, with a dragon-ish feel. It's actually pretty amazing.
posted by Margalo Epps at 2:45 PM on January 31, 2016

I live near Penny Park in Evanston and my kids enjoyed it a lot growing up; it is a place with a lot of scope for the imagination. Lucikily, as of October, it seems that those who favor keeping and renovating the eisting wooden structure have prevailed as the Council has voted to find a new contractor for the renovation.

One of the things I noticed in my playground going days was that the new style plastic and steel parks were often so “safe” and sterile they were boring, so they were then used in ways that subverted their intended use, such as climbing on the outside of structures or up onto their roofs, making them far more dangerous than a semingly more challenging structure.

The two playground injuries my kids had in Evanston parks — one cut on a sharp piece of metal needing stiches, one broken arm from an unlucky fall — both were on new plastic and metal structures (being used appropriately). None of my kids were ever hurt in many hours of playing in Penny Park.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:45 PM on January 31, 2016

I'm not sure if this counts or not (the wiki says it was built by volunteers), but it sure looks like one of those parks. Right now it's boarded off/supposedly going to be torn down, sigh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:21 PM on January 31, 2016

I went to this one a few times as a kid and it was definitely the best playground I ever got to play on by far. That link is a WaPo article from 1982 which mentions that it was designed to be accessible -- which of course it was, they built it at a school for kids with disabilities, but I never noticed that it was anything other than an awesome playground.
posted by clavicle at 6:43 AM on February 1, 2016

We have two of these not far from me.
posted by prepmonkey at 7:54 AM on February 1, 2016

There was a brand new playground like this, in the town where I lived when I was in my early 20s. My friends and I would go there at night and play like little kids in there. We loved it.

But our fun was sometimes interrupted by teenagers who would want to know if we were there to drink. This was completely offensive to us. We wanted to act like five year olds, not drink! And no we won't buy booze for you jerks! Then the cops started to come by regularly to kick us out, so we stopped going. We weren't there to cause trouble; we just liked the place, and we understood that the cops couldn't tell the difference between the different kinds of night users of this park. But it was one of those "this is why we can't have nice things" moments. :(

Now I am married to someone a little older than myself. He was one of the volunteers that built that playground in 1984, when he was a young parent.

Anyways I think fondly of it, and it is still there, though I haven't played there in 30 years and never had any kids of my own to take there.
posted by elizilla at 8:38 AM on February 1, 2016

The Sugar Sands Park in Boca is awesome but currently closed for renovation. Not too worry, the budget friendly carousel and AWESOME SCIENCE CENTER right next to it are still open.
posted by bq at 10:50 AM on February 1, 2016

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