HISTORY OF LAKE PARK
Lake Park is located on land the known history of which stretches back into antiquity.
A prehistoric Indian Mound reminds today's park visitor of the original inhabitants
of the area. Although we do not know who built this mound, it is believed to have
been peoples of the Mid-Woodland Culture (300BC-400AD), primarily hunter-gatherers
who constructed mounds as burial or ceremonial centers. Originally one of a series
of conical mounds that were later destroyed (some even in the development of the
park), this single mound is the last known remaining within the city of Milwaukee.
In 1910, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society placed a historic plaque on the mound
in order to ensure its preservation.
From prehistoric times, Native Americans had lived in and passed through this area.
However, in l835, tribal lands were surveyed by the U.S. government and sold to
settlers, many of whom lived in eastern cities and desired these lands for their
One notable exception was Gustav Lueddemann, who purchased a large part of what
is now the northern section of the park in l849. He built his home there, keeping
much of the native forest intact, and opened his grounds to the public as a picnic
and recreation area, known as "Lueddemann's on the Lake." This northern
section still retains the oldest native trees and vegetation in the park.
In l854, the U.S. Lighthouse Service acquired 2 acres on which to build North Point
Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters. Erected in l855, by l888 these structures had
to be rebuilt and moved 100 feet to the west to avoid creeping bluff erosion. This
2-acre piece of land, stretching from Wahl Ave. to Lake Michigan, bisected the area
on which the City of Milwaukee desired to build Lake Park and in l893, park builders
received permission from the federal government to complete their plan without disturbing
the lighthouse. Thus, the beacon from the lighthouse guided ships on Lake Michigan
for 139 years until the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned it in l994. Through a joint
partnership of Lake Park Friends and Watertower Landmark Trust, a citizen group,
North Point Lighthouse Friends, Inc., was formed and has worked since that time
to restore and preserve these historic structures. In 2003, the property was formally
transferred to Milwaukee County. Now, finally part of the park, and enjoying placement
on the National Register of Historic Places since l984, the lighthouse has been
renewed. In 2007, the property opened to the public as a maritime museum/conference
Already by l860, forwarding-looking Milwaukee leaders voiced desires to build a
series of parks for the respite of inhabitants of the growing city. Considered "gardens
of the poor," these parks were to offer the joys of natural beauty to citizens
who could not afford the manicured gardens of the wealthy. Acquiring land, however,
took time. The major impetus came in l889, when the City of Milwaukee created its
first Park Commission, under the presidency of Christian Wahl. They immediately
began to purchase acreage for parks throughout Milwaukee and contacted the eminent
landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted
to design three parks, Lake Park, River Park (now Riverside Park), and West Park
(now Washington Park), plus Newberry Blvd. connecting Lake and River Parks. Of the
three, it is Lake Park which today most closely retains the original form and intent
of its designer.
Olmsted's vision reflected the "Romantic" style of the great parks of
Europe - great stretches of open, meadow-like spaces interspersed with large trees
left to develop their open growth, sinuous paths leading to surprising vistas, wilder
areas of shrubbery and undergrowth to add mystery and for the protection of wildlife,
preference for natural rather than formal landscaping and gardens, and the attractions
of bodies of water. In Lake Park, Olmsted could take advantage both of Lake Michigan
and the streams running through the ravines. This emphasis on natural beauty was,
he felt, both psychological and morally restorative to the city dweller living in
cramped spaces. He was very democratic and resisted all attempts at privatization,
insisting that his parks be open to all people without charge. He distinguished
between two forms of recreation: "active" (sports and playgrounds) and
"passive" (walking, attending concerts, enjoying nature) and provided
for both, cautioning that "active" areas not be so large or so many as
to disturb persons coming to the park for "passive" reflection and enjoyment.
Work on the park was intense during the following decades, commissioned by the Milwaukee
Park Commission under the supervision of the Olmsted firm, who made frequent visits
to the city. Walks, carriage drives, ravines with paths, brooks, waterfalls and
rustic bridges (designed by Christian Wahl) were completed by l894. Steel Arch and
Brick Arch Bridges designed by Oscar Sanne were built by l893. In l895, the Milwaukee
Electric Railway and Light Company's tram station, designed by Howland Russell,
brought visitors to the park to enjoy free concerts sponsored by the tram company.
A formal entrance to the park at Newberry Blvd. was planted in l896. The park's
famous "Lion Bridges" spanning the lighthouse ravines were completed in
l896-7. Bridge design was by Oscar Sanne; the lion sculptures were designed by Paul
Kupper and donated to the park by the Electric Railway and Light Company. By l898,
fill in part of one of the ravines resulted in the creation of a large open meadow.
In l899, a "horse barn" was completed. In addition to housing the park's
horses, this building also provided space for tools, blacksmith shop, and park offices;
today it serves as the park's service building. In l903, the Pavilion and Band Shelter,
designed by the firm of Ferry and Clas, was opened to the public. The firm also
designed the Concrete Footbridge north of the Pavilion (l905) and the Grand Staircase
leading up to it (l908).
Opportunities for "active recreation" were considered early in the park's
history. A 6-hole golf course was built on the open meadow in l903; in l930 it was
expanded to 18 holes. A children's playground was built in l906. Tennis courts were
installed by l909. Lawn bowling appeared in the park by 1919; later, new bowling
greens (1961) and clubhouse (l962) were erected. Ice-skating on then-existing ponds
was popular early in the century. In l965, an ice-rink warming house was built in
the area which had once been the Lueddemann's home, later a children's pavilion,
and today offices of Lake Park Friends. In more recent years, other opportunities
to enjoy sports have been provided, including an above-ground ice rink and baseball
and soccer fields. However, true to Olmsted's caution that these not be too large
or too numerous, they remain simple fields which revert to open "meadows"
in off-season periods. A County bicycle path was built in l967 and an exercise/jogging
trail in l978.
Wars have also left their impact on the park. An equestrian statue honoring Civil
War physician, Brigadier General Erastus B. Wolcott, donated by his surviving wife
Laura Ross Wolcott, M.D., was erected in l920. Following WWI, three memorial plaques
were placed in the park dedicated to the soldiers of that war. And the Cold War
that followed WWII saw the placement of a Nike missile tracking station in the park
- which, with waning fears of a Russian invasion, was removed in l970.
Erosion along the bluffs has been a perennial problem for the park, which has been
met in several ways, some controversial. In l905, a beach was created to protect
the cliffs and to make it possible to lay out a "Shore Drive" envisioned
by the Olmsted firm. In l929, this road (now "Lincoln Memorial Drive")
was widened and extended through the north part of the park to accommodate growing
automotive travel. In 1999-2000, the drive was further rebuilt with a center division.
Both along the lakeshore and within the park, parking lots have needed to be constructed.
Another solution to combat erosion has been placing of fill along the lakefront,
resulting in the extension of the park's eastern boundaries and creating what is
now "Lake Park East," an area primarily used as a soccer/rugby field.
For many years, this area had been the location of a gun club.
A major political change occurred in the l930's (l934-7) when the City of Milwaukee
transferred park lands to Milwaukee County with the proviso that they always be
used as public park land. In l995, the County rented out the upper level of the
Pavilion to a private restaurant ("The Bistro") but with the stipulation
in the lease that "the entire first floor meeting room shall remain open and
available to the public."
A long-sought designation for the park was achieved in l993 when, through the work
of historians Virginia Palmer and Lynne Goldstein, Lake Park was placed on the National
Register of Historic Places, honoring both its conception as the work of a great
landscape designer and as a site where once Native Americans lived and built their
Citizens who have long enjoyed the beauties of this wonderful park have taken up
the challenge implicit in this honor. On April 15, l996, "Lake Park Friends"
was officially incorporated as a non-profit group with the stated mission, "to
promote the preservation and enjoyment of Lake Park, to sponsor educational, recreational
and cultural events in the park, and to raise funds for the restoration and enhancement
of the park in the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted." Through our many activities,
including concerts, history and nature walks, and stewardship of the park's natural
areas, we hope to carry on Olmsted's vision of a beautiful and restorative park
open to all.
For further information, see:
Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman, eds., The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted:
Writings on Public Parks, Parkways and Park Systems. Supplemental Series,
Vol. l (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997).
Robert Birmingham and Leslie E. Eisenberg, Indian Mounds of Wisconsin (Madison:
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).
Diane M. Buck, "Olmsted's Lake Park," Milwaukee History: The Magazine
of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Vol.V, no.3 (Autumn, l982), pp. 55-64.
Shirley du Fresne McArthur, North Point Historic Districts - Milwaukee (Milwaukee:
North Point Historical Society, l981), pp. 77-84.
William H. Tishler, ed., Midwestern Landscape Architecture (Urbana and Chicago:
University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Christian Wahl, "Public Park System of the City," History of Milwaukee
County from its First Settlement to the Year l895, ed. Howard Louis Conrad
(Milwaukee: 1895) Vol. XLIII, pp. 300-306.
Frank P. Zeidler, "Aspects of the History and Development of the Lake Park
Area," Address to Lake Park Friends, January 10, 2001. Copies of this address
can be made available by calling the Lake Park Friends Office at (414) 962-1680.
By Dolores Knopfelmacher, member of Lake Park Friends History Committee.