Jane Lewis Holman, designer and project manager for Leathers & Associates, meets with Dewey School students to hear their ideas and suggestions for the renovation of Penny Park, Lake Street and Ashland Avenue.Photo by Evanston Photographic Studios

Hands waved eagerly in the Dewey School library on March 27 as groups of fourth- and fifth-graders shared ideas about the park many have come to see as their own. It was Design Day, and playground designers Jane Lewis Holman and Steven Myer of Leathers & Associates listened and took notes as the children told what they like about Penny Park – the castles, the maze, the places to hide and the hill. The children’s responses revealed their intimate knowledge of the park that, two decades ago, was largely built and paid for by the community and named by Dewey School students who had donated their pennies.
“We will not take the hill away,” Mr. Myer promised one group.

“I like that it’s not made of plastic,” one student said.

Mr. Myer and Ms. Holman explained the reasons the park was being renovated. The wooden equipment in the park is showing signs of wear after 20 years.

The park is old, Ms. Holman explained. The wood on the equipment is splintering, and the wood below the ground is in worse shape. The new playground will have equipment that looks like wood but will be made from recycled milk jugs with some wood products mixed in.

“The speakers are broken,” one student said. “Wood chips are jammed in them.”

“Who would do that?” Ms. Holman asked.

“People,” he said.

Mr. Myer said the material used in the new equipment will have a 50-year warranty. The playground will be more accessible to all children – for example, someone in
a wheelchair, Ms. Holman said.

“So what would you like to see?”  Ms. Holman and Mr. Myer asked the four groups at Dewey and two groups at Cherry Preschool.

Among the responses were a zip line, tree house, a climbing wall, a “really tall slide,” a trampoline, a fire pole, a “fake train,” more tire swings, binoculars, bungee jumping and a bathroom.

Ms. Holman and Mr. Myer appeared nearly as excited about the project as the children. The original Penny Park was one of Ms. Holman’s first projects with Leathers & Associates, specializing in custom playground design.

That afternoon, Ms. Holman and Mr. Myer took the children’s ideas to their drawing board. By 6:30 that evening, they  had come up with the conceptual framework for the 11,000 square-foot park they would present at a community meeting at the Hill Education Center.

“Today was an absolutely great day,” Ms. Holman told the more than 40 persons at the evening meeting. 

The new park will retain the original layout and have two separate play areas, one for kids ages 2 to 5 and the second for ages 5 to 12, Ms. Holman said.

Visibility, inclusion and educational components will be the highlights of the renovated park.

“Visibility is a key issue,” Ms. Holman said. “Parents need to be able to see their kids.” Some inclusion aspects, she said, will be “swings side-by-side, a surface that will accommodate wheelchairs and platforms for kids to access the slides, swings and other equipment.”

The park will have slides, a wobbly bridge, a maze throughout the castle, a climbing net, chin-up bars, rings, a four-person teeter-totter, monkey bars, a three-wheeled spinner, a double slide and the “Climbinator” a rock-like climbing wall. Seating will be toward the front of the park, and the 2-5 area will have only one portal, so parents will be able to keep an eye on their children.

“It’s up to the community to decide about the artwork, because that’s where the art comes from,” Ms. Holman said.

Leathers & Associates likes to bring in an element or theme of the community, Ms. Holman said, so they suggested a lighthouse rather than a second castle.

A pavilion that can be used for parties or large picnics will be named in honor of the late Dennis Drummer. He was alderman of the Second Ward at the time, and its strong supporter and guide through City red tape, Peter Braithwaite, the present Second Ward alderman, told the RoundTable.

Design Day was only step one, said Ald. Braithwaite. The timeline, he said, depends on the budget and the community. The City has allocated $150,000 for the renovation of Penny Park. Should the design the community decides upon exceed that amount, then “we’ll have to wait until next year or the community will have to raise the difference,” he said. If funds and design coincide, the community building days to renovate the park could occur this summer, he said.

There will be water fountains, said Public Works Director Suzette Robinson, but the plumbing will not support a water feature. Financial and plumbing considerations also seemed to doom the water slide and the chocolate-milk fountain.

It is not clear, though, whether public or private funds would cover the proposed slide that one student proposed from Dewey School to Penny Park.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...