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New Hart Park Play Features Evoke Wauwatosa in a Native State

Children of all ages and abilities can reach and explore the heights in pre-settlement themed structures designed for imaginative play.

Explore and discover. Learn. But most of all, play.

Children visiting Playground this spring will be greeted by a landscape designed just for them, where imaginations can run wild, climb and clamber.

They will find hollow logs, lookouts, rock formations, a massive half-finished dugout canoe, all created to inspire the feeling that each child could be a companion of Pere Marquette, coming across a place unknown — except, of course, to the Native Americans who had lived here for millennia.

The installation of the features should be finished by the first week of May, and the full playground completed by the end of May with the finishing of a "poured-in-place" rubberized safety surface.

The "pre-settlement" theme of the new features means "before European settlement," yet reminds us all that the Wauwatosa region was in fact settled since long before.

Children who cannot run, climb or clamber — those with disabilities, even ones confining them to wheelchairs — will not be shut out of the experience.

They may not be able to climb hand over hand up to the "Eagle's Nest" perched 8 feet off the ground atop a giant oak, but they can easily get there — the deck will be ramped off the equally accessible play equipment already installed.

They may not be able to clamber onto the top of a huge hollow log, but they can certainly wheel in, and once in, turn fully around to take in the feel of exploration.

Wauwatosa architect Ed Haydin of the firm Engberg Anderson, who designed both the layout of the standard play structure and the new themed play features being installed, made sure that accessibility was built in everywhere possible.

"We felt that access was paramount," Haydin said. "The hollow log is 5 feet high with wheelchair radius inside. Every level can be reached.

"In approaching this, we said, 'If a child can't reach the top, we haven't done it.'"

Thematic, but designed principally for play

In creating the themed features, Haydin constantly reminded himself that the result could not be what might amount to an open-air museum or monument.

"The pre-settlement theme was inspired by Native Americans and the ," Haydin said. "There will be incidental contact with history. There will be incidental learning.

"But it's a playground above and beyond anything else. This interpretation is designed not to get in the way of play.

"It's not here for adults — let's just get that straight."

Haydin was also conscious of the risks inherent in interpreting another culture. He took pains not only to do extensive research but also to consult.

Jacqueline Schram, of the Office of Public Affairs at Marquette University and a member of the Ojibwe Nation, advised Haydin and, in a sense, signed off for people of the several nations of Native Americans.

Words written in the rocks and trees

Among the subtle messages Haydin wanted to include were evocative quotations inscribed into the stone- and tree-like features.

The quotes Haydin chose, though, were not straight from the tongues of Indians. They were from the verses of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic "Song of Hiawatha."

Saw the fire-fly, Wah-wah-taysee,
Flitting through the dusk of evening,
With the twinkle of its candle
Lighting up the brakes and bushes,
And he sang the song of children.

"At the outset, I was very concerned with the use of 'Hiawatha' on any piece of the play equipment because of the misappropriation issues related to Native American identity," Schram said.

"It was easy to conjure up little voices in the playground of my mind saying the stereotypical 'How!' and giving the 'tomahawk chop.'"

Haydin showed her the passages he wanted to use and how he wanted to use them — a few brief epiphanies inscribed in unexpected places — and he agreed not to include any attribution to the source. No "from 'Hiawatha,'" no "by Longfellow."

"I think the text (Haydin) pulled from Longfellow's work blends perfectly with the theme of the park," Schram said of the outcome, "and is such a nice gesture back to Wauwatosa, as well as its original inhabitants."

Digging deep into local prehistory

The historic Schoonmaker Reef, acquired last year by the city, played into a number of play pieces, including slides that emerge from rock formations and fossils buried and ready to be unearthed in a large sandpit.

The fossils were chosen from the catalog of the Silurian Age of 425 million years ago, including trilobites, cephalopods and sea scorpions of types first encountered by paleontologists in the Schoonmaker Formation and spread to museums around the world.

Conceived in Tosa, handmade in Minnesota

The fossils, logs, canoe, tree and bedrock outcrops were made by Themescapes Inc. of Forest Lake, MN. Project superintendent Matt Carlson, on-site Tuesday, said the pieces were made by shaping a form of welded steel rebar, then spraying fiberglass-reinforced concrete over it.

"Then we trowel on more by hand, building it up, and finally it's hand-textured and, obviously, painted," Carlson said.

Setting the huge pieces in place is an adventure, Carlson said, "like putting together a very big puzzle."

Dean Schulz, site superintendent for Selzer-Ornst, the general contractor on the playground project, was on hand "just overseeing everything" — and he was impressed.

"It's amazing how realistic it looks," Schulz said. "And it's all done by hand. Pretty cool."

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