June 2, 2010

FOUND: Richard Dattner Made This Mystery, Slot-Together Playground Equipment

It might take some time, but we here at Daddy Types aim to leave no loops unclosed. At least when it comes to awesome-but-obscure playground equipment.

Three and a half years ago now, the NY Times ran the photo above in a 5-minute audio slideshow history of US playgrounds. But when I began asking around for details on when and where the photo was taken, and who designed this sweet-looking, slot-together plywood construction toy set, absolutely no one knew. Not the Times, not the Parks Department, not every designer of remotely similar slot-together play structures I could find, nobody.

But then a few months ago, after poking around the Times archive for info on Jerry Lieberman's plastastic prototype Pepsi Playground, I started searching for plywood+playground, and found an article from August 1967, just after the grand opening of Adventure Playground, the classic playspace at Central Park West and 67th Street, where we'd been taking the kid since she was born. And there it was. A photo of kids building "fanciful structures with notched painted boards," and the 75 CPW's distinctive brick and stonework visible right behind it.

dattner_ply_nyt081467.jpg

Which means this play system was designed by none other than Richard Dattner, one of the pioneers, with Paul Friedberg, of adventure playgrounds in the 60s and 70s. If these construction boards weren't chopped up and burned in a hobo's trash can by the Fall of '67, then they certainly were bulldozed and padded into oblivion in the 90's by the Parks Department's own Boomer-era Robert Moses wannabe, Henry Stern.

In 1999, Stern and the Central Park Conservancy set out to renovate the "drab," "massive," and "dangerous" adventure playgrounds out of existence. W67th Street survived somewhat intact after parents, designers, and preservationists mobilized. Michael Gotkin was a landscape designer who left the Conservancy after the W67th St. dispute. He told the Times:

''There was a very brief window when artists, architects, sculptors and parents got together and created a playground revolution. It was so recent but is so entirely gone. You don't really design playgrounds now. You order equipment from a catalogue.''
I'm sure we were all safer a few minutes ago, when we didn't know anything about it, but I'd totally order Dattner's slot-together playground equipment from a catalogue right now. Or maybe just the plans, so I could jigsaw it myself.

UPDATE: God Bless America and the Internet both, here's an update from Richard Dattner himself:

Enjoyed your article, and my photo [! -ed.] from 1968.

My 1966 Adventure Playground panel designs were based on the Charles Eames House of Cards.

They were stored in the playground's pyramid, and distributed by a resident Play Leader (to minimize parental micro-management). They lasted several years until they wore out from use.

He also recalled that they were extremely easy to make: just some 4x8 sheets of 5/8" exterior plywood, cut, painted and coated.

So simple a child's dad could do it.


"Playing Is More Than Just Fun And Games," Aug. 14, 1967 [nyt]
previously: The 100-year, 5-minute history of NY/US Playgrounds

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