Cold War era rocket ship playgrounds
January 31, 2020 1:07 AM   Subscribe

NASA photographer Lauren Orchowski had been documenting the Cold War era rocket ship playgrounds that were mass produced and installed by rural, suburban, and metropolitan communities on both public and private land at the height of the 20th century Space Race.
Other collections:
Telescopes in the rain
Fireworks stands
Prompted by this photo from Rocketship Park in Torrence.
Via mltshp
posted by growabrain (29 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I have a vivid memory of playing on a rocket ship playground in Los Angeles about 45 years ago. I've often wondered about what the playground really looked like, because I remember a tall, gleaming, multi-story rocket ready to take off. Thank you for posting these!
posted by Crankatator at 4:32 AM on January 31, 2020 [6 favorites]

I also had some sort of fugitive childhood peak experience on encountering one of these.
posted by thelonius at 4:55 AM on January 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

There was one we spent some time in at the ginormous park in east Pasadena — Victory Park. It’s long gone by now.

I can still hear the wheel squeak and wobble.
posted by notyou at 5:23 AM on January 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nice, thanks!
posted by carter at 5:59 AM on January 31, 2020

Ah, the rockets of Broad Ripple Park, Indianapolis were a delight. Multiple rockets with a gantry in between. And I was four years old and America was sending rockets to the moon on the regular. It was a different time.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:01 AM on January 31, 2020 [5 favorites]

My father was the Director of the Parks Department for Highland Park, Illinois when I was little. He used a particular park, Sunset Park, which was by far my favorite, as his testing ground for new equipment to be placed around town. Often he would try out a novel new piece of equipment by buying one, having it installed and then bringing me there to see if I liked it. I wasn't the only kid using the equipment obviously, but I was often first, and of course he was biased towards my opinion.

But I digress, in the center of Sunset Park was a MASSIVE metal climbing rocket. It was four full building stories tall, with a slide, not at the first, but the second floor. The metal would heat up in the summer sun to scalding temperatures, but it was worth the first degree burns and tetanus to gaze out in glory upon reaching that fourth floor with all the world in your view. Per google street view, the original rocket has been replaced with a large, but safer and tamer nod to the old metal masterpiece.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2020 [8 favorites]

A small playground near me has a Möbius strip shaped climbing thing, which is kind of novel.
posted by thelonius at 7:16 AM on January 31, 2020

Splendid and melancholic.
posted by doctornemo at 7:33 AM on January 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was hoping to see my childhood Rocket Park in Clear Lake City, but here is a great photo.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:40 AM on January 31, 2020

These are so cool. I wanna climb a rocket, and then swing really high like I'm going to launch myself into orbit. (I always chickened out and wouldn't jump off the swing at the high point though. This risk averse nature is no doubt why I never broke any limbs in childhood, but also why I am not an astronaut.)

I would read a whole book about playground theme eras. All the hot new playgrounds when I was young were ship themed, which was pretty neat. The newish playground they put in the riverwalk park in the small southern Virginia town where my mom lives is forest themed, I guess. There is a tree structure and some fun boulders to climb all over. Probably some sociologist has done an in depth analysis of what our mass produced playground equipment eras say about our cultural aspirations for our children. If not, they should!
posted by the primroses were over at 7:57 AM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would read a whole book about playground theme eras.

Once Upon A Playground: A Celebration of Classic American Playgrounds, 1920–1975 by Brenda Biondo.


• Foreword, by Susan G. Solomon
• Introduction
• 1920s & 1930s
• 1940s & 1950s
• 1960s & 1970s
• Afterword, by Darell Hammond
• Acknowledgments
• Photo Locations
• Historical Image Credits

posted by snuffleupagus at 8:07 AM on January 31, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm wondering about the one in Virginia by the creek, which looks like it would be a menace unless the creek was flooding.
posted by tavella at 8:17 AM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ask and ye shall receive, heh. :) Thanks, snuffleupagus!

Off to google for a post 1975 supplement...
posted by the primroses were over at 8:17 AM on January 31, 2020

There was one in the bay-side playground in Seaside Park, New Jersey, where I played as a kid. I think I never trusted it and so wouldn't go up to the top.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:38 AM on January 31, 2020

Susan G. Solomon's work seems well regarded, but her historically oriented book is out of print and hundreds of dollars on Amazon.

Same thing with Playscapes, on the playground work of designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

What I can see of the Noguchi design style reminds me of this climbable sculpture in L.A.'s Westwood Park, near where I grew up.

Playground Design
by Galindo appears to be a collection of photos of current playground designs from around the world.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:41 AM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I fell from the top ladder of one of this style, landing hard on the floor below and banging my head (with a resounding metallic "bong"). Probably around 1976, somewhere in suburban Boston. One of my earliest clear memories.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:07 AM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

One of the staples of the Fallout universe is long-abandoned playgrounds with rocket ship- and flying saucer-shaped climbing structures.
posted by hanov3r at 9:16 AM on January 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

Des Moines has a restored rocket slide in Union Park.
posted by TrialByMedia at 9:24 AM on January 31, 2020

Not sure how I missed it, but Solomon's book is available used at normal prices.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:27 AM on January 31, 2020

This reminded me of our favorite playground -- Dinosaur Park in San Gabriel, CA.

Actually Vincent Lugo Park:
This beautiful park is home to La Laguna de San Gabriel, also known as Dinosaur Park, which has been named one of nine of America's coolest playgrounds! La Laguna is home to 14 concrete play structures and an adjacent picnic area with 10 tables and barbecue area, which can accommodate up to 100 people.
Saved from the wrecking ball by these folks: Friends of Laguna, where you'll find photos of the concrete creatures in action.

Who was Vincent Lugo? I wondered, too. Back Story, plus lots more photos of the playground.
posted by notyou at 10:19 AM on January 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

I remember as a little kid being so excited when we arrived at a park that had one of these. It was the best to play up in the upper level of them. I also remember being puzzled, wondering what was up with them--when I encountered my second and third parks with one, I realized that they were a thing, not just the theme of one playground by my house. I think that they were just in the process of being replaced when I was a kid in the late 1970s-early 1980s, and I also noticed when they were all gone.
posted by umbú at 11:00 AM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

I remember that at the top of the rockets there was usually something like a steering wheel. That seems kinda funny now, but there's nothing kids like more than turning a crank or spinning a wheel.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:15 AM on January 31, 2020 [4 favorites]

We had one of the rockets at North Oaks park in what was then Canyon County, but is now the City of Sant Clarita in northern Los Angeles County.

To be honest, the thing was so dangerous that I wouldn't be surprised if 200 kids a year went to the doctor/hospital because of burns. It was all metal and mostly in direct sunlight, and just being outside in 110+ temps was bad enough.

All the parks in our city got updated with the "safe" style playgrounds about 25ish years ago, and to be honest, the new style was more fun anyway. Although, in fairness I was in high school by then, so maybe the kids at the time disagreed.

However, on the other side of town in Saugus we had a giant robot (that apparently you could just buy from the company that made them, holy shit) that just got fenced off rather than torn down during the great "safety-ing" of the mid 90s. It's still there I believe, it just had grates welded into it so kids couldn't use it (and also get severe burns).
posted by sideshow at 11:30 AM on January 31, 2020

I have a lot of fond memories of the rocket ship at the park when I was a kid. Interestingly since it was Downey, CA (the home of North American Aviation - later Rockwell - later Boeing, later the plant closed down entirely), one of the parks in town was called Apollo Park.
posted by tclark at 2:14 PM on January 31, 2020

"Why can't I have a rocket park"

-Cadet Veruca Salt.
posted by clavdivs at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2020

How the space age influenced design (Popular Science)
posted by Brian B. at 7:25 PM on January 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

This made me remember a "rocket ship" (more like a cruise missile) in the playground from when I was a kid, and I found a picture of it from the same era. Unfortunately it's a bit cropped; I remember there being a sphere on the nose of it that a kid could crawl into.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:30 AM on February 1, 2020

Ah! Found another photo of the same model. Nostalgia.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:32 AM on February 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older One for Your Anxiety Dreams   |   Life in a Cubic Foot of My Lawn Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments