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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Overcast
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The greening of Madison: Celebrating 120 years of the city's parks
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The Annie Stewart Memorial Fountain on Erin Street is a work of the Park and Pleasure Drive Association.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association was founded 120 years ago July 10. The group's successor, today's Madison Parks Foundation, will mark the anniversary with a variety of special events.

"The foresight of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association is the most amazing gift, and truly without precedent anywhere else in the country," says Grant Frautschi, president of the Madison Parks Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2003. "Their work really set the stage for what Madison looks and feels like today."

Madison has 264 parks and 176 playgrounds. Before the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPD), there was only Orton Park, a reclaimed cemetery.

At first, in 1894, MPPD concentrated on "pleasure drives" meant for horses and carriages. MPPD developed 17 miles of such drives: along Lake Mendota through Eagle Heights; past Hoyt Park; and from Sherman Avenue through the grounds of what today is the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

Enjoying the original drives was a problem. The association estimated that only a third of all Madisonians could afford to even rent a horse. Drives were improved for bicyclists, but the concerns of motorists were a non-issue; in 1895, a year after MPPD formally reorganized, only 3,700 automobiles were manufactured in the entire United States. The association slowly turned its attention toward creating parks.

MPPD gave us Vilas, Tenney and Brittingham Parks, Glenway Golf Course, Burr Jones Field and many other green spaces. It planted thousands of trees across the city, raised in its own nursery. It extended roads and built bridges. It cared for and improved Forest Hill Cemetery and launched what would become Vilas Zoo. It hired and paid for the first city forester and appointed the first parks superintendent. It had its own teams of draft horses, its own parks employees and a six-ton steamroller.

Most of MPPD's annual reports, detailing all activities, run more than 100 pages. At its peak, one in 27 Madisonians was an MPPD member. One in 10 donated. MPPD noted that the poorest residents "are, according to their means, the most liberal contributors." The city helped, too, kicking in about a third of park expenditures.

The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association did a lot of things we might never guess and invented terms to describe them. For example, the reason East Washington Avenue has strips of grass in its center, and West Washington does not, is that MPPD "boulevardized" one but not the other. MPPD estimated that in doing so it added 10 acres of parkland to the city, all of it lushly planted, an undeniable delight in those slower, more walkable times.

West Washington wasn't ignored, however. For a time, the organization cared for nearly all the front lawns on that street, as an "object lesson" in beautification to the city. MPPD was at times a busybody.

Having grown from the City Beautiful movement, itself inspired by the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, MPPD had some firm views on beauty: It despised litter, of course, and also beached boats, private boathouses, signs that intruded onto streets and, curiously, awnings, especially on the Capitol Square.

And then there was one supreme problem. "No question ever came before the directors of the association that caused them more trouble," noted MPPD president John Olin in 1904. But, after careful consideration, automobiles were at last allowed on the pleasure drives -- for two afternoons a month. Even then, they were limited to eight miles an hour, except on curves, where they had to slow to four and "sound a bell at intervals of not more than 10 seconds."

The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association also disliked "bogs." It considered even cattails "rank." From La Crosse it brought in a dredging firm more used to taming the Mississippi River.

Our landscape was remade. Not all today would approve. Wetlands were destroyed, waters were deepened, and new land was created from lake-bottom soil. Almost all of Brittingham and Tenney Parks is artificial. (The reason Tenney has so many lagoons is that the Chicago World's Fair did.) More than 40 of Vilas Park's 74 acres is fill, dredged from Lake Wingra wetlands. The lake's meandering outlet to Lake Monona -- Wingra Creek -- was made into a straight canal. So too was the Yahara River between Lakes Mendota and Monona.

Still, on balance, there's no questioning the happiness MPPD has brought to generations.

"The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association is one of the most important and most successful private organizations in the city's history, with a lasting legacy that has benefited everyone who has lived or visited here," says Stu Levitan, historian, Isthmus contributor and author of Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, "We really can't thank them enough."


Party for the parks

"Free Concert in the Breese" will be held July 8 at Breese Stevens Field, 6-9 pm, featuring the Jimmys, Madpolecats and Sortin' the Mail.

An ice cream social at Olin Park, July 10, 6 pm, commemorates the date the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association was founded 120 years ago.

A Legacy Golf Outing to benefit the parks will start at 11 am on July 11 at Yahara Hills Golf Course. More info at madisonparksfoundation.org.

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