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Tarnished masterpiece

Lake Park fraying around the edges

Last Updated: Sept. 6, 2003

First of three parts

If the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted were alive today, chances are he would recognize only one of the three parks that he and his Brookline, Mass., firm planned in Milwaukee more than a century ago: Lake Park, a leafy, east side refuge perched atop a 1.2 mile-long bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The city's other two Olmsted parks, Riverside and Washington, have lost much of their original character.

29792Endangered Legacy
Photo/Jack Orton
Jerry and Irma Neal of Franklin walk across the Ravine Road bridge in Lake Park last week after having lunch with their daughter at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, located in the park just south of the bridge. Though the park is one of Milwaukee County's oldest and most beautiful, there is evidence of two decades of deferred maintenance - including soil erosion beneath this bridge.
About the Series
Most cities would kill to have even one park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary founder of landscape architecture in America. Milwaukee has three: Lake, Washington and Riverside. But that legacy is threatened by disrepair and an uncertain funding base.
Sunday: Lake Park, like the rest of the county's 15,000-acre park system, has had deferred maintenance for two decades and now faces an aggressive budget-cutting plan approved by County Executive Scott Walker that could make it even harder to keep up.
Monday: Washington Park remains a beautiful refuge despite problems - a crumbling band shell smeared with graffiti, a lagoon clogged with trash and a misperception that the park is a crime haven. Across town, Riverside Park looks very little like an Olmsted park anymore, but it still embodies his notion of the role of green space in a city.
Tuesday: Some parks advocates believe the Milwaukee County system is dying a slow death because of an overdependence on the property tax. But there is now talk of finding other ways to fund the parks, including a conservancy approach that revived New York's Central Park.
Photo/Jack Orton
Not all is decay in the parks. The grand staircase that leads from the Lake Park Pavilion down to Lincoln Memorial Drive was rebuilt and replanted by Milwaukee County in the past few years.
It's a countryish atmosphere in the middle of a big city. And I feel safe. There are always people around.
- Laura Freitag, 25,
Teacher from Oak Creek
Lake Park
Photo/Milwaukee County Parks Department
Sightseers in a horse-drawn "tallyho" carriage tour Lake Park in 1914. The park encompassed what had been a private amusement garden, Indian burial mounds, the North Point Lighthouse and woodland areas.
Photo/Milwaukee Public Museum
This 1910 photo was taken two years after Lake Park's grand staircase was built. It led to a now-defunct stadium and seating area below the park's pavilion.
Olmsted achieved his purpose. My head is clear. To me, the park is very therapeutic.
- Donna Nesbitt, 59,
Hiker in Lake Park
Related Story
Olmsted: Nature his canvas

"You can still look at Lake Park through the eyes of Olmsted. Yes, it has problems, but nothing terrible has happened to it," says Marcia Coles, president of Lake Park Friends, the group of neighbors and Olmsted buffs who fiercely protect this lakefront sanctuary and are raising money to restore it.

But Lake, like the rest of the county's 15,000-acre park system, is threatened by two decades of deferred maintenance, the result of declining taxpayer support. The park's popular par-3 golf course closed early this summer in one of many cost-cutting moves, and it may not reopen.

Meanwhile, an aggressive budget-cutting plan approved by County Executive Scott Walker, who recently fired the parks department's top brass, would result in the layoff of half of all front-line workers in the county parks this month. In response to those cuts, a union leader has threatened to ban volunteers such as Lake Park Friends from the parks, which would make the job of maintenance even more difficult.

Crisis not obvious

At first glance, you'd be hard-pressed to see the evidence of the crisis at Lake Park. Its expansive, manicured open spaces are bordered by lush woods and connected by picturesque limestone bridges and serpentine paths.

In these waning days of summer, the park is alive with roller-skaters, joggers, sunbathers, bicyclists, strollers, tennis players, lake watchers, lawn bowlers and, at a playground on the north end, frolicking kids.

The recreation-seekers may know little, if anything, about the 140-acre park's troubled future, and much less about Olmsted, the founder of landscape architecture in America, and his theories about the restorative effects of parkland. But they are his beneficiaries nonetheless.

Despite the threat of rain on a recent windy afternoon, Laura Freitag and her friend Dina Komisar, both 25-year-old teachers, were enjoying the sun on folding chairs in the big, tree-lined meadow off Wahl Ave. Freitag, who lives in Oak Creek, comes here a lot.

"It's worth the drive just for this scenery," she says. "It's a countryish atmosphere in the middle of a big city. And I feel safe. There are always people around."

"You feel refreshed just being here," says Komisar, of Whitefish Bay.

Donna Nesbitt, a hiker who is vaguely aware of the Olmsted connection, agrees. "It's very Zen-like," says the 59-year-old space planner and nursery owner, who lives in the neighborhood. "Olmsted achieved his purpose. My head is clear. To me, the park is very therapeutic."

That was exactly what Olmsted intended when he and his partners were engaged in 1889 by the city's park commissioners to plan Lake and West (later named Washington) parks. In fact, after a visit to Milwaukee in February 1893 to explore the two sites, Olmsted chided the commissioners for not locating the parks closer to the city center, where factory workers could renew themselves on the scenery and fresh air.

The city fathers, looking out for every penny, got Olmsted's planning skills later that year at the bargain rate of $12.50 an acre because he was working in Chicago at the time, designing the landscape for the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World's Fair. That meant he didn't have to travel all the way from his offices outside Boston.

The designer's palette

Lake Park, on the eastern edge of what would become the mansion-lined streets of Milwaukee movers and shakers, would encompass what had been a private amusement garden, Lueddemann's-on-the-Lake, as well as Indian burial mounds, the North Point Lighthouse and woodlands thick with oak. Although Olmsted generally favored following the natural contours of the land, he wasn't above rearranging it here and there: Three ravines at the southern end of the park were partially filled in to create more usable open space.

Christian Wahl, a Bavarian immigrant and retired industrialist who headed the park commission, played a key role in carrying out Olmsted's plans. But much of the planting at Lake Park (and at Washington and several other local parks) was supervised by Warren Manning (1860-1938), a member of the Olmsted firm who shared his employer's romanticized vision of nature.

"Olmsted provided the broad strokes, but it was Manning who filled in the details," says Bill Grundmann, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

As they have educated themselves about Olmsted, the 250-member Lake Park Friends have grown increasingly passionate about preserving this chunk of his legacy. They help clear out invasive species such as garlic mustard. They're working with the parks department on a long-range plan to restore historic plantings. They sponsor environmental education events, including tree walks that spotlight the park's champion trees, some of them estimated to be 180 years old.

And, like their early 20th-century predecessors, they hold summer evening concerts. They're also working with a neighborhood preservation group on restoration of the North Point Lighthouse, parts of which date to 1868. They're raising money to restore a badly eroding ravine off Locust St.

Beginning to fray

But volunteers can do only so much. This cherished east side icon faces profound challenges beyond the capability and resources of the Friends: The park's infrastructure is in disrepair, a casualty of long-delayed maintenance.

The stonework abutments of the famed Lion Bridge near the north intersection of Wahl and Terrace avenues are crumbling and its balustrades are cracked. Erosion nibbles away at the soil beneath a steel-arch bridge near the center of the park. Stonework overlooks are falling apart. The park's entire drainage system is collapsing.

Bluff erosion, a problem even in Olmsted's day, is a continuing worry - and one reason county parks officials were alarmed in 2001 when a Wahl Ave. resident took it upon himself to cut down bluff-side trees that were blocking his view of the lake. Park neighbors recently collected $6,000 for Lake Park Friends to underwrite professional brush-pruning.

"Dealing with these issues is a county responsibility," says the Friends' Marcia Coles. "But when they barely have the money to mow the grass, what can you do?"

With the parks department's top leaders now fired, Coles' group has lost the people with whom it had forged productive partnerships. And even if the Friends carry out their plan to raise money for rebuilding a rustic wooden footbridge, Coles wonders: "Is there going to be anybody to actually build it? And who is going to cut the grass and pick up the garbage?"

Walker, the county executive, notes that under his budget proposal, mowing, maintenance and construction would be handled by a merged staff of parks and public works personnel. "That could actually free up more people to mow the grass in the summer months," he says.

Despite the union's threat to ban volunteers, Walker stresses that all existing partnership agreements will remain in force. "It's the right thing to do, and it's also more economical for us," he says.

But don't expect an immediate cure for the park's deteriorating infrastructure. "I'm sure we're talking in the millions" to make all of the needed repairs, says Joe Westphal, the county's deputy regional manager for central-area parks, including Lake.

"Bridge repairs and some of these other items have been on the major maintenance list for several years," he says. "But they're in competition with other things. It's a glacial process, moving up on the list. You're always asking: What's going to collapse first?"

Westphal and Sue Forlenza, the unit coordinator for Lake Park, are typical of a dedicated county parks staff that continually struggles to do more with less. The two give thanks every day for the Lake Park Friends group.

"Without them, I don't know what we'd do," Forlenza says. "They take a lot of the burden off us."

Adds Westphal: "They are the most involved support group I've ever seen. They are our eyes and ears."

From the Sept. 7, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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