Passing the Test of Time
Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse in Philadelphia
By Kelli Anderson
Perhaps nothing tests recreational design so well as the test of time. The 107-year-old newly renovated Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse in Philadelphia certainly has passed with flying colors.
With more than 1,000 children per day still visiting its 6-acre wooded parkland, iconic 44-foot wooden slide and unforgettable mansion-like 24,000-square-foot playhouse, Smith has established itself as a quintessentially Philadelphian experience.
"Everybody feels like Smith is part of their community," explained one patron. "It's like Philadelphia's back yard."
The success of this beloved and historic Philadelphia recreation site is due to its unique visionary beginnings and a commitment over the years to stay true to that vision. When Richard Smith and his wife Sarah established the park and playhouse with a trust in memory of their son, they envisioned a beautiful country environment where urban children could flourish through play, free of charge.
Sparing no expense, the Smiths had one of the foremost architects of the day, James H. Windrim, design the enormous playhouse.
"Smith honored children's needs," explained Hope Zoss, the playground's executive director. "On the cutting edge of the recreation movement, he understood that play and learning are tied together."
However, as time took its toll on play equipment, safety codes became more stringent and accessibility became an essential design element in all playgrounds, operators of the Smith site recognized that they needed to make changes. Making those changes while preserving the park's unique historical quality, unfortunately, was a task they could not afford. As a result, the Giant Wooden Slide and outdoor play area were closed in May 2003.
Providentially, it was the old slide's closure that grabbed the attention of one longtime Philadelphia resident, Ida Newman, who fondly recalled childhood days spent in the playhouse watching silent movies during winter or enjoying the thrill of the slide with her brothers during hot Pennsylvania summers.
"I went as a child, and I remember the slide-we all did," said Newman, kick-start donor of $325,000 toward the slide's restoration. "It was too important a thing to be lost. I have letters of children, now grown, who said it was the most wonderful experience they ever had, and some of them are now putting money in, in the hopes of bringing it back."
Like the heartfelt generosity of the Smiths before her who created the park in memory of their son, so the giant slide, restored to the public thanks to Newman's generosity, was renamed in honor of her deceased daughter, Ann Newman.
An entire renovation process—beginning with The Giant Wooden Slide—is transforming the park, phase-by-phase, into a safe, accessible, free and still uniquely "Smith" experience. To date, the park's five-year master plan has added, on schedule, state-of-the-art play equipment including play pods with climbing boulders, a giant see-saw and various climbers and spinners. Safety improvements and accessibility features also were added, such as a poured-in-place play surface with recycled-rubber underlayment and accessible pathways to all play features.
Although not yet fully completed, the park's recent improvements have been met with great applause and even an award. According to Zoss, such ongoing success begins with a commitment to a child-centered vision, quality and unique design, and invaluable constituency input.
"More than ever, children in an urban environment need a safe, free place to run and play," Zoss said. "To do the best job we could, we took careful steps."
Careful steps, according to Zoss, included bringing in a playground consultant early in the planning process, working with a project manager and developing a conceptual master plan.
"We needed to maintain a unique quality in renovation," she said. "We were not going to be like other playgrounds."
Enter good design.
"Playgrounds do not have to be massive pieces of metal and plastic installed on a flat surface devoid of vegetation," said Elizabeth Caesar, playground consultant to the Smith project and president of Playcare Inc. in Wawa, Pa. "They can be built into the landscape. Trees and grass and changes in elevation are just as important to a playground as equipment and safety surfacing."
Mature trees and hillsides, trademark features of the Smith acreage, are a design case-in-point.
The designers faced quite a challenge, including unsafe equipment, serious erosion problems, lack of accessibility and the mandate to maintain the historical integrity of the original features. Perhaps most evident of their creative problem-solving skills was their design approach to the 100-year-old slide.
"The slide needed to be preserved as a historic structure," Caesar said. "That meant making as few changes as possible while making the structure safe as a piece of play equipment."
With its narrow and dark stairs, several entanglement hazards and hillside location, wheelchair accessibility was impossible.
The solution was a structure that is almost as entertaining as the slide itself.
"It won a preservation award, and it's beautiful," Zoss said. "Its renovation to build with strict play safety standards was quite a task. Betsy [Caesar] came up with a tree walk, a winding walkway built off ground to the top of the slide. It's a play element itself with shade and seating areas. You have to make a site as unique as possible."
Making a memorable site has meant, for Smith Playground and Playhouse, being unique in many ways. Even a single standout feature that is part of a good overall design can be enough to create an identity and community fondness for a park space.
"Our guiding principle has been to retain the 'Smith feel,'" Zoss explained. "The most important thing is not to start brand new but to maintain uniqueness and have people feeling as strongly about this experience as they always have before."
With that said, raising the necessary funds to make such distinct visions a reality is more difficult.
"I think it went as well as anticipated," Zoss admitted. "But finding money is not easy. Selling 'play' is a challenge. You can sell education, feeding people and shelter, but selling play is a lot trickier. Yet everyone will admit it is important."