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Thursday, June 10, 2004 08:27 pm

Polishing a jewel

The grassroots effort to renovate the two-acre area playground at Washington Park is in full swing.

With nearly half the $450,000 needed for the project raised in just six months, planners predict new equipment for spinning, sliding, and climbing will be installed as soon as next spring.

"It's amazing the support we've gotten from the community," says Carolyn Dungan, chairperson of the Washington Park Playground Committee.

"People that know Washington Park really love Washington Park," says Cathy Schwartz, president of Springfield Parks Foundation, a fundraising arm for the city's park district.

Springfield-based landscape architect Kent Massie, tapped last year to design the playground, led a groundbreaking ceremony at the site Wednesday, June 2.

Massie, 53, has designed parks throughout central Illinois, and is currently commissioned for a series of school playgrounds in East St. Louis.

In Springfield, Massie's firm, which he runs with his wife, Sue, is designing the landscape for Union Station downtown, and is lead consultant on the soon-to-open Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

But Massie's most prized endeavor, which he's worked on for the last decade, has been the restoration of renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen's Lincoln Memorial Garden at Lake Springfield.

That project came with a set of questions that led Massie to consult with Jensen experts from across the country.

For instance: How does one preserve a nature area, which is ever-changing? Or, how best to carry out Jensen's original vision, when, if left alone, the garden's maple and oak trees would eventually choke out the hawthorns and dogwoods?

"It's a managed natural landscape," says Massie. "We decided we can't let nature do its thing."

Massie says the garden restoration, by its nature, will go on indefinitely. That's what makes the project so appealing to him.

The new Washington Park playground likewise has its charms, as his own daughter played there as a child and he has views of the park from his home on Chatham Road.

While the new playground will boast state-of-the-art equipment, including a $50,000 climbing wall, Massie seems more impressed by the evolution of the century-old park itself.

Under a pale blue sky, planting stakes in the ground while children raced around him, Massie marveled that today's playground area was originally designed as a sheep pasture.

"It's the historic elements that I always find intriguing."

Those interested in donating to the Washington Park playground fund can call Carolyn Dungan at 546-8774.

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