1956: The Parkmaster of Lafayette Square

 

 There is a marker set in the ground near the Mississippi Street entrance to Lafayette Park. It looks like a headstone – concrete chipped by decades of reckless mowing and brass long ago gone green with age. You can read “Creative Play Area” on the plaque, and might wonder about it, as it overlooks a largely blank stretch of grass and a shallow dish of concrete that was once a fountain. Yep, you’d have to be creative indeed to consider it a special kind of play area. But it didn’t always look this way. The simple marker memorializes a playground once installed here, as well as the man behind it

By 1954, Albert Preston Greensfelder (1879-1955) had  been a champion of park and playground development at the local, state and national level for over 25 years. AP helped launch the Missouri State forest system, and the purchase of Washington State Park, Rockwoods Reservation, and Creve Coeur Park. 

Although Greensfelder was neither a hunter nor a fisherman, he was a recreational visionary, noting that if St Louis

AP Greensfelder in 1931

County didn’t then buy available park space to develop around, “it will eventually have to buy it by the square foot instead of by the acre.”

AP also had an antipathy toward incarceration. He stated, “Human beings constitute the greatest wealth in any community. Man builds great cities and imprisons millions of his own kind in them. We build jails first and recreational facilities last, yet when we show visitors around our cities, we take them to the parks, not the prisons.

It was in 1954 that the aging developer spearheaded passage of St Louis County Prop 6, a $4,500,000 bond issue for acquisition of additional park land. At the time, there were only three parks in the County system; Jefferson Barracks, Sylvan Springs and Creve Coeur Lake. He wanted to acquire Tilles Park from St Louis City and develop Babler State Park.

Echoing his middle name, AP was born on Preston Place in Lafayette Square, but his family relocated to Olive Street Road in St Louis County when he was still a boy. His father founded the St Louis County Bank. Young AP rode a horse three miles to the Mount Olive School, and went from there to high school at the Manual Training School, and graduated from Washington University with a  degree in engineering in 1901. 

It must have been a boom time to be a graduate engineer. He was soon engaged in construction of the Terminal Railroad of St Louis, the special train that would shuttle visitors to the 1904 Worlds Fair. He joined Fruin-Colnan Contracting Company in 1906, serving as president for thirteen years and CEO for another nine. 

His extracurricular accomplishments were many and notable. In 1930, he was a representative to the International Congress on Building and Public Works in London, and in 1939, a similar Congress on Housing and Town Planning.

Greensfelder also served as president of the Associated General Contractors of America, and the Society of Engineering Contractors, was University City Plan Commission chairman for 25 years, St Louis County Plan Commission chairman for six years, and held board positions on the Recreation Committee of the Metropolitan Plan, Missouri Planning Commission, Missouri Conservation Commission, the National Capital Park, and Mississippi River Parkway Commission. 

At 74 years of age, the irrepressible AP organized Experience, Inc., a group of retired business professionals to mentor younger people in business development, and to design and execute civic improvements. Unfortunately, he died shortly after, in early 1955.

In November of 1955, the estate set up by AP Greensfelder endowed the City Board of Public Service with a $7,500 gift. The City accepted and announced that it would use the funds to place “the newest creative type of playground equipment” in Lafayette Park. This playground would then be dedicated to his memory.  

And so it was. Seven months later, in late June, 1956, the AP Greensfelder Creative Play Area was dedicated in the park. Palmer Baumes, Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, and Mrs Edward Brungard, Director of Public Works gave short speeches. When the ribbon was cut by Mrs Blanche Greensfelder, nine year old Kurt Turpen of 1540 Mississippi Avenue thanked her on behalf of the neighborhood and gave her a certificate of appreciation. Then 250 children raced to be first to use the new equipment there. Lafayette Park was chosen because it was the park in which Albert Greensfelder played as a child. The Post-Dispatch wrote that the whole concept was the work of psychologists, to “give children a chance to use their imaginations.”

Here are two views of the new playground in 1958, courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. 

  Lafayette Square’s king of concrete art, Bob Cassilly, would have likely approved of the highlight from this new installation; a ten-ton reinforced concrete spiral slide.

Spiral Slide Globe Democrat 1958

There were arc-shaped ladders, an accordion shaped climbing apparatus, and the “Fantastic Village.” 

The Fantastic Village was a creation of Virginia Dorch Dorazio. From 320 entries, it won a creative playground design contest sponsored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1954. It was commercialized by a company called Creative Playthings, and sold for $1,395.00, (shipping extra). It consisted of five precast concrete and steel block forms with abstract cutout designs, ladders and poles. It could be assembled in any number of ways.  

The original units were painted in  bright primary colors, and the combination of cutting edge abstract design and color would have made for a tough sell in historic Lafayette Park  later in the 20th century. I was unable to identify a contemporary example of one still in use, so have to assume that they were all eventually torn down, but it was definitely a product of its postwar time.

Anecdotally, the fountain, which again, is all that remains of the original area, spouted water and was fun to run through during hot St Louis summers. A rougher park then, the occasional broken beer bottle in the water feature would lacerate a bare foot, and eventually it was shut off by the city. 

On the death of AP’s widow, Blanche, a mere six months after dedication of the Lafayette Park play space, the Greensfelder estate was transferred into two trust funds, valued at over $1.2 million; one for the benefit of public planning and civic development, and the other to promote development fo more public parks, playgrounds and conservation projects. 

AP Greensfelder is known today as the father of the St Louis county parks system. 

Several park volunteers planted some smoke trees near the Mississippi Avenue park gates today, 50 feet or so from the Greensfelder marker. We leaned on our shovels and smiled as the kids from Lafayette Prep recessed to the newer and far safer playground space near the Kern Pavilion. It was one of the last of our good autumn planting days, and the laughs and shrieks of the children were a perfect compliment to some easy digging in remarkably good city soil.

Thanks to research sources, including;

St Louis Globe-Democrat; January 3,1954; Page 45 – Profile of AP Greensfelder; April 25,1956 – “Children’s Fun Village” Completed on South Side; June 30,1957; Page 3 – “$1.2 Million Trust Funds Created For Public”

St Louis Jewish Light; August 25,1971; Page 7 – “AP Greensfelder Called Father Of County Parks System”

St Louis Post-Dispatch; November 1,1955; Page 3; June 28, 1956; Page 29 – “Fantastic Village Play Area Dedicated” Staff photo of spiral slide from same issue.

Cultural History of Fantastic Village from Mondo Blogo, a wonderfully random blog http://mondo-blogo.blogspot.com/2012/03/creative-playthings-catalog.html

Design Museum Foundation;  https://designmuseumfoundation.org/blog/2017/06/08/history-play-part-2/

Cultural Ghosts Blog;  http://culturalghosts.blogspot.com/2014/09/ Sep 25 2014 Anonymous blog ended too early, in 2017. Specialized in forgotten and unreported past Culture

 

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