He stands near the play structure, poised and dignfied, if a little weathered from the 60 years or so he has spent patiently allowing children to climb over and under his solid back.
So well-loved is the concrete turtle that stands on the playground in Marion Park (E Street, between Fourth and Fifth Streets SE) that many people don’t even know the park’s right name.
Well, that’s rather fair. There are two Turtle Parks on the Hill.
Where’s the other? In the triangle park just north of Eastern Market, a large and dignified turtle stands at the center of a sandy circle. Throughout were once scattered three smaller turtle-like sculptures of the same make, so vaguely resembling turtles that they appear to be in various states of development.
Altogether, the Eastern Market turtle gives the impression of an imposing mother watching her brood from her nest –although she must have grown sleepy in the new millenium. Her little lumpy turtle sculpture babies lately took to wandering and one or two seem to have wandered right off the park, perhaps assisted by a passerby.
But where did this –these– solid keystones of childhood come from?
In the 1950s a trend swept the USA from Europe: post-modern playgrounds. Centered on sculptures that were to be beautiful and well as a place for kids to climb, the playgrounds were supposed to both facilitate creativity and to help children appreciate art from a very early age.
As part of this wave, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) partnered with Parents Magazine in 1953 to promote the Creative Play Company’s ‘Play Sculptures’ division in a design contest. The winning designs appealed to children’s imaginations and encouraged play. So successful were they that the company continued to encourage designs.
The trend was popular in the District well into the 1960s; in 1966, the Cocoran School of Art held a competition to design a playground structure that came with a $1,500 prize (about $15,000 today) as well as the installation of the winning design. That creation, “Wishbone House”, was installed in Rose Park and Lansborough Park in 1967.
But Marion Park was renovated three years before that and so was not the beneficiary of this locally-prompted burst of creativity.
Instead, the turtle at the center of the playground was one of the most popular offerings from Creative Play, running about $350 with delivery. Called “turtle tents,” they were sculpted by Milton Hebald as early as 1954. Hebald also created the Romeo and Juliet in New York City’s Central Park, near the Delacorte Theater, but the Turtle Tent is arguably his most culturally pervasive creation.
Included in the Creative Play catalogue, the turtles were purchased by recreation managers throughout the US, including in Bowie, MD and in Philadelphia, PA. The ones in the District were purchased by the National Park Service (NPS). According to NPS Ranger and fount of local knowledge Vince Vaise, the one in the Hill’s Turtle Park was selected for renovations that were completed in 1964.
According to NPS, the first designs developed for Marion Park did not include a playground. But when the construction of the Southeast Freeway eliminated play space at nearby Garfield Park, designers quickly moved to incorporate play.
The resulting design for Marion Park’s playground was part of a trend toward not only the post-modern playground but also leaned into the “adventure playgrounds” that emerged in Europe after World War II. Rubble and other found objects were utilized to give the perception of risk in a controlled environment. This was supposed to compell children to rely on their imagination and teamwork for play.
Designers for Marion Park installed concrete culverts, a plank bridge, and a sandbox, in keeping with the concept of “adventure playgrounds,” but added the post-modern turtle tent. According to the NPS Cultural inventory report, features for the playground came directly from the Play Structures catalogue. As built, Marion Park featured Milton Hebald’s “Turtle Tent” and a variation of Virginia Dorazio’s “Fantastic Village” and another abstract concrete feature called a “hexapod,” designed by sculptor Robert Winston.
The 1964 plan for Marion Park also calls for three “Baby Turtles” in addition to the “Turtle Tent.” They can be seen in news photos taken during the bivouacking of troops in the park during the 1968 riots. While the baby turtles survived into the new millenium near Eastern Market, they did not make it to the 1990s at Marion Park.
Paige Johnson is a nanoscientist and historian of gardens who founded the website playscapes. Her website is tracking the location of these turtles throughout the US, noting that many have been removed in favor of new playground designs. Many of those removed have inspired social media pages dedicated to their memory.
Johnson wrote that the preservation of the turtles is also preservation of childhood history –and histories; of places where moms and grandmothers also played.
“Raising their profile can only increase their chance of making it through the next 30 or so years,” she wrote on her website, “until when they’re a hundred years old we decide that, oops, maybe we shouldn’t have so readily discarded them.”
When Marion Park was remodeled between 1995 and 1999 to remove the imaginative creative play elements and replace them with a large play structure, the Friends of Marion Park made a special plea to keep the turtle. “[It is] a naturally hard-shelled animal [that] has notably carried young children on imaginary rides for almost 30 years and is willing and able to continue doing so,” the Friends wrote in a note to NPS. “This turtle has become a symbol of Marion Park; in fact, many people call this park ‘Turtle Park.’” It was retained again when the current metal structure was installed around 2007.
Around 2008, the triangle park north of Eastern Market was given a facelift, with more turtle babies added. These four are more lifelike. Residents present at the time say they were created by local designer John Giesecke and Associates (Giesecke Studio did not respond to requests for comment).
Bonus Know it All Fact to Tell Your Friends in Northwest: In DC, these turtles stay because they remain well-loved. At Friendship Heights Recreation Center, playground renovations are currently underway. Just as in Marion Park, families made a similar –and successful– plea to save the hard-shelled friend at the center of their own “turtle park”.
We have two Turtle Parks on the Hill. But you see, the turtle tents can be found in many parks throughout the District, lending their names to those playgrounds and serving as a sign that the land they are on was once under the property of NPS (a large transfer of property from NPS to DC took place in 1972-3).