Backstory and Context
History of the Park
Though Washington Park itself dates to 1899, the site had been altered significantly even before Victorian landscaping took place. Neither Smith nor Grasmere Lakes existed, nor did Smith's Ditch (later called City Ditch), which helped create the two bodies of water. Smith's Ditch was completed in May of 1867, filling the depression of a buffalo wallow to create Smith's Lake, originally planned as a reservoir. The Town of South Denver planned to convert the prairie around the lake into a residential development and park in the 1880s, but neither part of the plan was realized, and through most of the 1890s, the lake was used for ice production. A caretaker complex including a Queen Anne style house and two barns were constructed to the east of what would become the Great Meadow. In 1899, after the park property consisted of 160.8 acres, a design for the park was created by Reinhard Schuetze [1; 2].
Between 1902 and 1923, Schuetze's design for Washington Park was developed, with dense plantings, the Great Meadow, formal gardens, a lily pond, curvilinear roadways which cross the meandering City Ditch via eight concrete bridges, tennis courts, and the addition of an irrigation pump house in 1905, Grasmere Lake (originally known as South Lake) in 1906, and a twelve-sided shelter house in 1912 [1; 2]. Smith Lake's north shore opened in 1911 as Denver's first bathing beach, along with a concrete Prairie/Craftsman style bathhouse which provided swimming suits for visitors. Since the bathhouse only had 180 bathing suits in stock on opening day and 200 bathers showed up, rompers and overalls were allowed as alternatives . Initially, men's and women's swimming areas were marked separately by a rope, and only the west wing (the men's dressing room) was ready for opening day—women used a tent until a separate wing was added to the bathhouse the following year. The waiting room contained a fireplace on two sides; in winter, the room was a retreat for skaters to warm up in [1; 2]. Swimming was free, but visitors could purchase swimming suits, use of changing room lockers, soap, and towels from the bathhouse. Unfortunately, Smith Lake's beach, lake, and facilities were only open to whites, though the only minorities officially banned (in 1913) were Japanese Americans. The original design of the building (by city engineer Frederick W. Ameter and architect James B. Hyder) included an indoor swimming pool, but it was never constructed. This bathhouse, originally built by Irish-American contractor Charles J. Dunn, was renovated in the 1990s with the dual purpose of preserving the building and adapting it for use by the non-profit organization Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), founded by Dos Chappell. The bathhouse was renamed for Chappell in 2000 . In 1913 and 1914, Smith Lake also boasted diving towers and piers, none of which have survived . An Italianate, Prairie, and Arts and Crafts style boathouse was added in 1913, designed by Jules J. B. Benedict. Originally, the open upper-level pavilion was used for large gatherings, while the main level was used for boat storage and, in winter, a shelter for ice skaters (hot chocolate included). While the upper level's use has remained unchanged, the main level has been used as a ticket office, storage space, and concession stand [1; 2]. Nowadays, the restored boathouse has returned to its original use, and visitors can rent kayaks, paddleboats, and canoes, while the upper pavilion is available for special events .
In 1919, the Children's Fountain (also known as the Wynken,
Blynken and Nod Statue, sculpted by Mabel Landrum Torrey) was installed in the
park. Improvements in the 1920s included additional tennis courts (1922), the DeBoer
designed Martha Washington or Mount Vernon Gardens (1926), and the octagonal,
co-ed Washington Park Lawn Bowling Club (circa 1925). In 1930, the Eugene Field
House (on the National Register of Historic Places) was moved from 307 West Colfax
Avenue to Washington Park. It has since been home to a branch library and as
headquarters for the park staff [1; 2]. In 1932, Smith Lake was the scene of a
protest, when 150 African Americans came to swim there. Though legally not
banned from the beach, the protesters were asked to leave by Parks Management
and the Denver Police, in order to prevent trouble. A group of whites attacked the
African Americans with clubs and stones, instigating a fight which spread over
ten blocks and half an hour. Of the seventeen people arrested, none were the
white attackers. The incident was blamed on Communist propaganda by both newspapers
and Mayor George Begole. The beach closed to swimmers in 1957 due to pollution
and a polio scare, and was replaced in 1971 with an indoor pool at the new
recreation center . Also in the 1970s, a recycled glass shelter called The
Pavilion Ecology Built was added near the Great Meadow .