A beloved Lake Merritt play sculpture is a reminder that creativity is a public good.
By Mimi Zeiger
Guiding the transition of San Francisco’s Presidio from military base to national park may be the standout accomplishment of the landscape architect and parks administrator William Penn Mott Jr., who assumed the helm of the U.S. National Park Service in 1985, but it’s a little “monster” from early in Mott’s career that has received renewed attention.
In 1952, when Mott was parks superintendent for the city of Oakland, he commissioned the artist Robert “Bob” Winston to create a unique play structure on the sandy banks of Lake Merritt. Sculptural and organic, the chartreuse green piece was known as the Mid-Century Monster. It was one of the first designs in the United States to depart from conventional swings or slides and celebrate imaginative play, and from its opening, children climbed on and hid inside the Monster’s many haunches and niches.
Over the decades it became a symbol of Oakland’s creativity, especially after Sly and the Family Stone put it on the cover of their 1968 album, Dance to the Music. It was also featured in the catalog of the progressive toy company Creative Playthings. Eventually, the Monster’s cement plaster surface began to crack, while time, weather, and use rusted its steel mesh and armature. In 2015, the play sculpture was finally fenced off.
By the end of this year, the Monster will reopen to the public thanks to grassroots efforts by the Mid-Century Monster Fan Club, with philanthropic support from the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club and the cooperation of Oakland Public Works. The San Francisco-based preservation firm Page & Turnbull recently produced a restoration plan and conservation report, and ongoing restoration efforts will bring the play structure back to life.
The Monster is aesthetically true to Winston’s larger practice—he was a faculty member at California College of Arts and Crafts and best known for his chunky, handcrafted jewelry. Mott, however, saw that at a larger scale Winston’s natural forms held an important promise: the possibility of offering city kids the pleasures of nature. “The hills, the rocks, the trees and old stumps, the vacant open rolling areas we (as children) had access to and are no more…well, something more than concrete play areas has to replace ’em,” said Winston and his collaborator, the Oakland Parks department landscape architect Amedee Sourdry, in the Oakland Tribune in 1952.
The ideas expressed by the Monster—that freedom, creativity, and nature should be preserved for everyone—seem especially important today, as major areas of Oakland are redeveloped. Although reinvestment often focuses on private development, with little vision for the whole community, Alison Schwarz, a project manager for Oakland Public Works, says her city is different. Through a bond measure and the Oakland Public Art Program, the city has commissioned a number of permanent public art projects for Lake Merritt and the surrounding area.
“Oakland has a long and robust history of celebrating and supporting our arts and cultural community,” Schwarz says. “While the Monster predates the city’s 1989 Public Art Ordinance, the Winston play sculpture represents an early example of public art—a truly unique work commissioned of a local artist for the benefit of the general public.”