Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Preservation Is Child's Play: Saving a Mid-century City Park 

12-09-2015 17:35

In 2006, with construction documents for a park renovation at 30 percent completion, all environmental reviews in order, and demolition scheduled, four neighbors joined forces and jumped into preservation and advocacy for a modern resource. While preservation and advocacy were new to us, we did have a unique set of skills: Of the four founding members of “Friends of La Laguna,” two were professional historians (of the ivory tower ilk), one was a contractor (who also holds a law degree), and one was an engineer (married to a Parks and Recreation commissioner). The threatened resource that had sparked our rapid-fire, grassroots advocacy effort was a modernist, folk-vernacular playground created by a Mexican concrete artist, Benjamin Dominguez. The playground is formally named La Laguna de San Gabriel although it is most commonly called “Monster” or “Dinosaur” Park. Admittedly, it is much easier to advocate for a modern resource that smiles at you.

La Laguna playground was built in 1965 and was intended to serve as an attraction for San Gabriel residents and visitors alike. It embodied the prevailing principles of playground design, blending recreation and aesthetics. In the words of Frank Caplan, the founder of Creative Playthings and a figure at the forefront of post–World War II playground design, parks should provide, “an opportunity to observe sculpture and examine the arts and crafts of the community. The park is a museum, zoo, native folklore center….”1 For 45 years, this playground has been a meeting place for the community and an icon for the city, yet it was an icon for a particularly unique play experience and little more. The artist and story of its creation faded and the playground was simply considered a hidden treasure by residents.

In 2004, two years prior to our entry into preservation, my husband and I (the ivory tower historians) chanced to meet the son of Benjamin Dominguez, the playground’s creator. Although the playground had been part of my husband’s experience for more than three decades, the idea that the playground was also art was a revelation. Fernando Dominguez was visiting Laguna playground because his father’s Las Vegas playground had just been demolished. He was looking to see if any others remained. We exchanged addresses and assured him that our community would never let such a unique and remarkable playground be demolished. Two years later, we were calling Fernando in a panic and driving to his home in Las Vegas to collect oral histories, documents, and photographs. We’d been informed that the playground that had charmed us for years was no longer safe and needed to be replaced.

Within three months of our frantic phone call and research trip, the City of San Gabriel had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the newly formed nonprofit organization Friends of La Laguna (FoLL), and plans for demolition had shifted to plans for preservation. Like our resource, our effort to save the playground is not typical, but when considering advocacy for resources that are not “yet” or not “readily” on the radar screen of what is considered historic, there are lessons that we can draw:

First, our advocacy for “Monster Park” confronted, front and center, the “safety issue.” This is a common phenomenon: Modern resources and the spaces associated with them are blamed for social problems, whether they are safety issues, access, lack of accommodation for the disabled, crime, homelessness, etc. As we organized to save the resource, we heard concerns about crime, drug use, and safety. The playground does not cause these problems, yet it is blamed for these problems. One task was to separate the resource from the hand-wringing over the social problems that it purportedly caused.

Communicating historic relevance to the community is another challenge for advocates of modern resources. “Monster Park” is located in San Gabriel, home to a Spanish Mission that was founded in 1774. For our community, the Mission is the measure of what is historic. Our goal was to communicate that history includes change over time. We worked with our community to articulate the trajectory of San Gabriel’s history through its post-war development and population boom. Age may speak for historic relevance, but it does not communicate significance.

Lastly, bringing the community on board with an advocacy effort is essential when it comes to modern resources. While it may not be love at first sight, you can educate the broader public by helping them appreciate the function and use of a modern resource. If you can do that, you will better be able to communicate value. If the value is understood in terms of how the community can experience the resource, you can create the leverage necessary to protect modern resources.

The “Safety” Scapegoat

La Laguna playground showed its age when the city made plans for a larger park renovation. In the words of the city newsletter: “…the once vibrant, eye-catching Dinosaur Park has received a lot of wear and tear over the years, and due to safety and maintenance concerns, the climbing structures must be removed.”2 The safety problem is a common charge levied against modern resources and often the sole complaint against historic playgrounds. In San Gabriel, the city had done its due process and notified residents living in the vicinity of the park. On two occasions, groups organized to stop the demolition. However, the “safety argument” proved insurmountable.

The advent of “no-risk” playground design in the 1980s spelled demolition for most post–World War II playgrounds. The playgrounds built in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s represented a creative period in playground design during which artists (such as Isamu Noguchi) and architects (such as Robert Royston) designed play areas in public spaces that would blend aesthetics with recreation. Efforts to comply with the modern safety standards have resulted in the wholesale demolition or neutering alteration of these landscapes.

The scenario at La Laguna playground was no different in this sense. In our first meeting with the director of Parks and Recreation, we learned that La Laguna did not comply with modern safety standards, as shown by a safety assessment. Efforts to bring it into compliance would be cost-prohibitive and, in some cases, impossible. Therefore, demolition and replacement was the only option.

Our first strategy was to move the conversation from potential, possibility, and hypothetical to actual. We asked for the safety claims that had been brought against the city. We asked for the records of injuries. When the city provided none, we were able to turn the conversation from “safety” to liability. Liability can be managed and interests can be protected.
Safety is important. The board members of FoLL are parents to 11 children; we too have an interest in keeping children safe. However, this playground was designed with child’s play in mind, as are most. We spent a great deal of time talking to child development experts about children’s need for play. Within that discipline and within the scope of playground design is the principle of “self-selecting play.” This is the play experience that we seek to preserve.

Playgrounds built to modern specifications embrace proscriptive play: The equipment should guide each child through the activity. That strips away a creative engagement in play. It prevents children from testing their limits and measuring their development. As I worked on this article, my fourth child reached the critical milestone of climbing the whale “all by my sel-fes!” We are working with the city to take baby steps on this issue and will find a solution that protects the resource, protects the child, and protects the experience.

Aging, But Not Old

A second shared challenge is the perception that modern resources are old yet lack any historic significance, in part because their creation falls within living memory. Our advocacy effort received vital support from the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee and, through its work, we learned a great deal about how to educate the public about modern resources. However, we did not earn the “ear” of our local historical association until after we had entered into a MOU with the city. When we did meet its leaders, hostility and dismay best describe their comportment. From their perspective, four young residents were wasting energy trying to save a decrepit playground when time could be better spent saving the remaining adobes in San Gabriel. We engaged our community in a discussion about “book-ends” and the need to physically frame the historical narrative. We asked them to call out the significant buildings and places that have marked the full arc of the city’s history, including their experience and place init. This allowed us to talk about the “Modern Period.”

One of the most fundamental traits of modern resources is that they are designed with a diverse and large population in mind. The 1960s was a time when society as a whole became more inclusive. “Public” was intended to be more open and representative. All types of people were supposed to feel included and recognized in the public sphere, and they could do so because public spaces began to incorporate broader socialand cultural trends. As suburban areas grew and developed, public spaces emerged to distinguish one city from the next and to be truly public spaces—not simply civic spaces. In a letter to Los Angeles County Supervisor Frank Bonelli, Benjamin Dominguez argued that with his sculptures, “The Los Angeles Area…can have in its public parks the distinction and excellence of their ancestry.”3

Eventually, what we were able to communicate was that playgrounds are generational and cyclical. La Laguna playground represents a particular period in time and an important phase of the city’s history, yet the experience of play knows no bounds. The playground is a place where the center of energy does not change. Children continue to interact and function in the play space just as they have for the last 45 years. In that generational cycle, as children become adults, their experience of the space changes yet their understanding of its function does not. What bothered us and motivated us was the fear that our grandchildren might be deprived of a chance to play in this uniquely designed playground. A historic playground can unite generations through a shared experience of play.

Falling In Love With Concrete

As I mentioned before, it is much easier to get people to fall in love with a modern resource that actually smiles at you. Our efforts captured considerable media attention, in part because when you say that the city is going to destroy a lagoon, journalists perk up. When you stand next to Ozzie the Octopus or Sandy the Sea Serpent and ask how the city could bulldoze a grinning face, reporters take a photo. Mostly, though, when you show children running through sand, hugging a seal, or clambering into a lighthouse (to escape, of course, down the back of a dragon), people want to know why that experience is being taken away.

It is one thing to compose an impressive photo that captures the “artist’s eye” for a building or landscape. It is quite another to also communicate the function and use of a space. In the case of La Laguna playground, a still photo can simultaneously communicate artistry and function. We did have our detractors who felt that the park would be better served by replacing La Laguna with modern play equipment that was “clean,” “safe,” and “new.” But when we were able to demonstrate the different experience that children have playing on play-sculptures, we were able generate an appreciation rooted in use.

Saving La Laguna

During the three months of advocacy before Friends of La Laguna turned the city from demolition to preservation, every day was a scrambled blur of talking to anyone who would listen. We kept constant public and media pressure on the city, strategized incessantly, and explored any and all opportunities that presented themselves. Very quickly we determined that the value of La Laguna extended beyond nostalgia. (We were not going to save La Laguna simply because my husband played there as a child.) Once we knew that the value was greater than our own individual experience,we prepared for drastic action: If we needed to bring a lawsuit, we would;if we need to change the law, we will.It is our intent to turn stewardship ofthe resource over not to our children but to our grandchildren’s children. Simply put, a ribbon cutting doesn’t mean our work is done.
In hindsight, we can identify three strategies that served us well: First, our ability to move people. While those living in the immediate proximity of the playground were notified, the announced demolition of the playground came as a surprise to our community. If we could not mobilize people to speak up for the resource, we mobilized them to speak out about their concern that due process may not have been followed.

Second, we consistently brought solutions. We were adamant that we would not simply raise objections, but that we would work toward solutions. When the city indicated that there were not funds to preserve and protect the playground, we got to work and started fundraising. When the city indicated that it did not have the staffing to manage preservation, we organized and sought training. We have found support and advice from any and every community and preservation organization. We also talked to the “usual” opponents of preservation, trying to understand their position. It serves us well in navigating a course toward a capital campaign to save our resource.

Lastly, by bringing people in, making the process public, and offering solutions, we were able to hold our elected officials accountable. We realized that our city staff did not live in the city, and consequently may not have been as attuned to “the places that matter” to residents as we would have liked. Identifying a problem resulted in a passive response from staff and council. Bringing a solution required action by all parties.

A few months ago, as I sat at “Monster Park,” a four-year-old boy burst through the landscaped “Island Berm” and into the Sandy Lagoon. Repeatedly he yelled, “Whoa!” as he wove his way around the concrete sea creatures. Following behind him was his grandmother who exclaimed, “I can’t believe it is still here!” She had raised her family in San Gabriel, moved to Northern California, and was back visiting friends. She had hoped to bring her grandson to play at the “best playground around” before heading to Petrillo’s Restaurant to get a pizza (which would travel home to her husband). Petrillo’s turns 50 in 2016…and happens to be housed in a “quirky” International Style building. These are the places that matter. Guided by those values, Friends of La Laguna will remain vigilant.




1 Frank Caplan, Parks and Recreation, January 1960.
2 San Gabriel Grapevine Newsletter, Autumn 2006.
3 Benjamin Dominguez, letter to Los Angeles Supervisor Frank Bonelli, 1962, Dominguez Family archives.

Publication Date: Summer 2010

#ForumJournal #Modernism

Author(s):Senya Lubisich

Related Entries and Links