In the Park: Washington Park

Written by on August 9, 2014 in In the Park - 6 Comments
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Welcome to Washington Park!

Welcome to Washington Park!

There’s nothing better than a sunny summer day at the park and there’s no better place to enjoy the summer’s most beloved activities than at George Washington Park.  When arriving at this 128-acre community park at 3130 East 30th Street, you’ll hear the laughter and joyful shouts of neighborhood children splashing in the spray park or climbing across playground equipment.  In one direction, an intense pick-up basketball game is underway.  In the other, a group of college students compete on the 18-hole disc golf course, while a walking group heads down a nature trail.

The playground at Washington Park includes a spray park

The playground at Washington Park includes a spray park

Washington Park is more than just a refuge for the humans of Indianapolis, but also its wildlife.  The park features a six-acre prairie filled with native grasses, three acres of woodland, and a wetland area that attracts dozens of bird species.  But at one time, families could see wildlife of a much more exotic variety when the park was home to the Washington Park Children’s Zoo.

The basketball courts at Washington Park

The basketball courts at Washington Park

The City of Indianapolis acquired land for a park in this area of the east side in 1923. Between 1923 and 1932, the area was referred to as the future Brightwood Park. It was unofficially called Dearborn Park by nearby neighbors, and there was a push by a civic group  in the area to officially declare it Dearborn Park.  However, in 1932, the parks board voted instead to honor the 200th anniversary of the birthday of the nation’s first president, by naming the park after him. Landscape architect A.W. Brayton developed George Washington Park’s first master plan in 1929 and baseball fields, croquet courts, and brick ovens were built in the 1930s. Local Boy Scout troops used Washington Park as a site for day hikes.

In the 1940s, newspaper columnist Lowell Nussbaum of the Indianapolis Times began a campaign urging the city of Indianapolis to build a zoo.  Community leaders agreed and began searching for a location, settling upon George Washington Park.  It took over 20 years from Nussbaum’s original “Inside Indianapolis” column until the zoo’s opening day on April 18, 1964, but the Washington Park Children’s Zoo was tremendously popular.  In the opening year, it welcomed over 270,000 visitors.

Beautiful walking trails wind throughout Washington Park

Beautiful walking trails wind throughout Washington Park

The zoo featured penguins, camels, giant tortoises, and a baby elephant.  Due to space constraints, once a young elephant became too large, it was moved to a bigger zoo in another city and replaced with a new calf.  The zoo’s most popular exhibit, “Willie the Whale,” was a building shaped like a large blue whale that housed the zoo’s aquarium.

Though "Willie the Whale" is gone, this statue from the Children's Zoo days remains, overseeing the playground.

Though “Willie the Whale” is gone, this statue from the Children’s Zoo days remains, overseeing the playground.

Over the next 20 years, the zoo expanded its collection of animals, both through donations and surrender of personal exotic pets.  After outgrowing its home on 30th Street, the Washington Park Children’s Zoo closed on November 1, 1987.  The Indianapolis Zoo opened at its current location in the White River State Park the following year.

Washington Park is a favorite spot to pay disc golf

Washington Park is a favorite spot to play disc golf

It’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago, you could enjoy another summer pastime at Washington Park: a trip to the zoo.  While you can no longer see monkeys, zebras, or alligators, you can still enjoy some of your favorite summer pastimes at Washington Park.

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About the Author

Gwen Sunkel is a connoisseur of bad first dates and a collector of ticket stubs. When she's not catering to the every whim of her dog and two cats, she enjoys reading, yoga, building communities, dismantling the patriarchy, and falling in love with Indianapolis.

6 Comments on "In the Park: Washington Park"

  1. basil berchekas jr August 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm · Reply

    Used to play touch football in Washington Park with some buddies I grew up with in Brightwood during high school, and glimpsed at the City’s downtown skyline visible from the hillsides in the east half of the park…

  2. Lyle Mannweiler August 10, 2014 at 1:21 pm · Reply

    For the fact-checkers: Lowell Nussbaum did get his start at the Times, but moved to the Indianapolis Star in 1945 where his column “The Things I Hear” was used to promote a zoo. He retired in 1971.

  3. James Keyler August 11, 2014 at 3:18 pm · Reply

    Enjoyed the article greatly. I grew up on Keystone Ave when our house was one of only five built between 30th and 34th Street in that area in the early 1930′s. I remember my Mother would take me (a toddler then) over to Washington Park to wade in the wading pool they had at that time. It was a large circular pool with a water fountain in the center. The water depth in the center was probably no more than 12 inches deep. The park was highly utilized by all the local kids as they had great swings and seesaws and a large picnic shelter. I also remember in the far Northwest corner of the park there was a boxing ring where local kids would bout it out on Friday and Saturday nights. Also, near that area, many model airplane hobbyists would fly their “guide by wire” flying models. What a great park and memories.

  4. basil berchekas jr August 11, 2014 at 10:04 pm · Reply

    If I remember right, some “old folks” mentioned there was an artesian well in the hilly, wooded northeast corner of the park where people could bring jugs and fill up with natural spring water. I believe by the late 1950s or early 1960s it was closed off, though; just heard stories about it; never located where it was, but I believe it did exist, near where Minnie Creek used to run through the park. We used to go “up” to 116th Street west of Fishers, just west of White River and got water from an artesian well thee, which I believe is still “running”. There was a “country” Methodist church across the road from it then, and Fishers was a small rural town with a grain elevator, general store, and an agricultural economic base, “then”. (late 1950s-early 1960s).

    • Sharon Butsch Freeland August 12, 2014 at 5:22 pm · Reply

      The artesian well on East 116th Street is actually in Carmel. It’s between Keystone Avenue and the White River. Discovered in the early 1900s, the Flowing Well has provided people with free, fresh, clean water for more than a century. In recent years, the City of Carmel created a little park around the flowing well, which provides fishing, shelters, and trails for hiking and biking. The church of which you speak is White Chapel, which was built in 1852. There are a number of websites that discuss the flowing well. Here is one of them: http://carmel-indiana.funcityfinder.com/2010/05/10/flowing-well-park-carmel-indiana/ .

      • basil berchekas jr August 12, 2014 at 7:45 pm · Reply

        I appreciate this update, Sharon! I just thought it was at Fishers only because we used to drive up “White River Road” (or whatever it was named) to the Fishers area, then turned left on 116th; also, we drove up Indiana 37 and turned left at Fishers onto 116th. Forgot that Carmel, being the first small town to “urbanize” as Hamilton County developed, had annexed over to this area. Also appreciate the update on the church “across the road”. Thanks again!

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