Washington Park, a WPA Fantasyland in Michigan City

Many years ago when I first began researching the built environment of the New Deal, people wondered what on earth got me interested in this topic. Apart from a general interest in the 1930s, possibly fueled by the afternoon movies from that era shown regularly on Chicago television, two places piqued my interest when I was a child. We lived in far northern Indiana about midway between Michigan City and South Bend, places in which interesting New Deal projects proliferated. I’ll discuss the latter in a future essay.

In Michigan City we frequently visited Washington Park on Lake Michigan, where a New Deal-built breakwater enlarged the beautiful beach. Inland a bit, a four-story tower atop a nearly 200-foot dune never failed to attract my attention. The park had been founded in the 1890s on the shore of Lake Michigan, separated from the town proper by Trail Creek and a belt of industry. (Indeed, my childhood memories include passing the Smith Brothers Cough Drop factory, a turn-of-the century building with a huge painted sign, just before crossing the bridge into the park.) 


WPA-built observation tower.

By the early 1930s, the park consisted of a fairly typical green space around the entrance area with a bandstand and peristyle, several commercial amusements, a motley collection of exotic animals, and, of course, the lakefront with its beach. All else was dunes or scrub, apart from a few lakeside cottage communities extending northeast beyond the park that had begun to boom in the 1920s. With the coming of the Great Depression, development of the park had virtually ceased just at a time when new public recreational facilities were most needed. Enter the New Deal!

Among the first projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in Washington Park was the monkey island; primates, chiefly discarded “pets,” had been abundant in the assembled animal collection, along with injured wild animals. Begun in late 1933 and completed the following year by CWA workers, the monkey island was, for its time, a most imaginative structure (built of recycled materials) and represented the most contemporary ideas of zoo presentation. It stands intact today, but does not appear to be used, as the zoo has undergone major rehabilitation. 

Prevailing ideas for animal habitats have greatly changed since the 1930s. Some of the attractive brick shelters built for hoofed animals survive, but there were more when I had the great pleasure of researching and writing the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places 35 years ago.

  WPA-built animal shelter in the zoo

Another major building begun and completed under FERA in 1934 is the former park administration building near the entrance to Washington Park, which replaced a ramshackle frame house and outbuildings that initially served that function. Still standing, and sans its attached greenhouse which was gone by the 1980s, the building today is used merely for storage, despite undergoing a beautiful  restoration a few years ago. The architect on this and most of the other buildings in the park and zoo was Fred H. Ahlgrim, a local architect and, interestingly, a prominent Republican.  Some of the park’s creative landscaping using recycled materials (chiefly waste stone and broken concrete) was begun at this time, including the delightful rock garden with its “rustic” waterwheel and connected pools, all walled with granite rocks and mortar. In earlier years the serpentine waterway was lined with masses of flowers.

FERA/WPA rock garden.

CWA workers began tennis courts in 1933, which involved first moving a small dune piled on the desired location. The job was completed under FERA. South of the tennis courts a picnic shelter house was started in 1934, the floor created from chunks of a demolished hexagonal tile.

FERA/WPA picnic shelter.

Creative use of castoff material.

We have a lot to learn about recycling and reuse from the New Deal work projects. The benches throughout the park are not going anywhere; they are fashioned from broken chunks of pavement and concrete.

One of about a dozen benches throughout the park.

Around this time, started under FERA in 1934, my favorite project began. Atop a two-hundred-foot dune a steel structure went up; donated by the South Shore and South Bend Railroad, it was to be the framework of the park’s most outstanding feature, the eighty-foot-high observation tower. Work on this building and landscaping of the dune on which it sits was completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The tower was officially dedicated in the spring of 1937.

One of several wall-lined trails to the tower.

With the establishment of the WPA in 1935, work on Washington Park and its zoo was virtually continuous through 1940. A number of blueprints of park plans were drawn up and brought to fruition by the late 1930s. (I have copies; they are very cool!) A look at  the 1938 plan maps reveals that almost everything built by the WPA remains. Due to expansion of the adjacent waterworks, the zoo’s main entrance was later moved and greatly remodeled. Many new structures were added in the 1960s and 70s which did not change the essential character of the zoo. Subsequent remodelings have altered it more, but much remains. The colorful hillside rock garden wall reminded me of a home movie taken of me in front of it when I was a child a very long time ago.


Hillside rock garden created by WPA.


Indeed, much of the later work done by the WPA in Washington Park focused on landscape elements and tree planting, the vision of which took some decades to come to its full realization. The legacy lives on.

Glory-June Greiff is a public historian based in Indianapolis. She has been researching the work of New Deal for 35 years.

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