Developed in the 1890s and early 1900s, Washington Park is a scenic recreational area occupying about 160 acres southeast of downtown Denver. The park started to become a reality at the end of the 1890s. In 1899 it was named Washington Park in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s death. The city’s landscape architect, Reinhard Schuetze, drew up the plan for the park. John B. Lang was hired as its first superintendent, and serious landscaping work started over the next few years. Schuetze’s basic plan for the park called for two lakes with a large central meadow between them. The park’s northern lake, Smith Lake, was already in place. Great Meadow, the largest meadow in the Denver parks system, was built from 1901 to 1907. The southern lake was added in 1906 and was named Grasmere Lake after a village and lake associated with the poet William Wordsworth in the English Lake District. A network of curving roads encircled the two lakes and the meadow, with a tree-lined perimeter separating the park from surrounding neighborhoods.
After Schuetze died in 1910, most additional plantings and landscape features in Washington Park were planned by his successor, Saco DeBoer. The main exception was Evergreen Hill at the park’s northern edge, which was designed in 1912 by the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm but planted according to DeBoer’s specifications. DeBoer also added the neighboring Lily Pond in the park’s northeast corner. His best-known contributions, however, were two large formal gardens. The Perennial Garden laid out on the park’s west side in the late 1910s is the largest formal flower bed in the Denver parks and parkways system, and it still follows DeBoer’s original layout. Further south, near Grasmere Lake, lies the Mount Vernon Garden, which he designed in 1926 based on the plan of the garden at George Washington’s estate in Virginia.
Washington Park’s two main historic structures are the bathhouse just north of Smith Lake and the boathouse on the lake’s southern shore. The bathhouse, designed by Frederick Ammeter and James B. Hyder, was built in 1911, the same year Smith Lake opened for swimming. The men’s dressing room was in the building’s west wing, and in 1912 the women’s dressing room opened in the newly added east wing. In the winter, the building served as a warming hut for ice skaters on the frozen lake. The Smith Lake swimming area was for whites only until the early 1930s, when a large group of Communists and blacks worked to desegregate it. The beach continued to be a popular attraction until 1957 when it was closed because of a polio scare and the high cost of chlorination.
On the other hand, Denver, Colorado architect Jules Jacques Benois Benedict designed the Washington Park Boathouse, which opened in 1913 across Smith Lake from the bathhouse. The building features an eclectic mix of Italianate, Prairie, and Arts and Crafts styles. Boats were stored on the main level, and the upper level served as an open pavilion with views of the mountains. In the 1910s and 1920s, the park added two memorials to the writer Eugene Field, who worked as a reporter and editor for the Denver Tribune in the early 1880s but is best known for his later humor writing and children’s poetry. In 1918 Mayor Robert Speer commissioned a statue based on Field’s poem “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.” Completed by Mabel Landrum Torrey the next year, the statue was originally located in a pool in the center of the park.
In 1927 Field’s former residence at 307 West Colfax Avenue became Denver’s first preservation project after it was slated for demolition. The National League of American Pen Women rallied to save the house. Margaret Brown helped pay for it to be moved to the east side of Washington Park, where it operated as a branch of the Denver Public Library until 1970 and then as the headquarters of the Park People, a nonprofit dedicated to Denver’s parks and open spaces, until 2011. Torrey’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” statue is now located just north of the house.
After being neglected in the 1960s and 1970s, the park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and began to be revived. In 1987 the park’s boathouse was restored by Anthony Pellecchia Associates and is now used for weddings and other events. In 1996 Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado paid for an extensive renovation of the bathhouse by Robert Root and Associates in exchange for a thirty-year lease to use the bathhouse as its headquarters. In 2000 the organization named the bathhouse in honor of its founder and longtime director, Dos Chappell.
Washington Park’s section of the City Ditch is now one of the only parts of the ditch that has not been enclosed in concrete, allowing people to see the city’s first irrigation canal in its original open condition. As a result of the early 2000s Transportation Expansion Project on Interstate 25, however, the flow of South Platte River water through City Ditch in Washington Park was halted. Today the water that flows through the park comes from a Denver Water recycling plant.
Washington Park continues to be a popular recreation spot for Denver residents. You can visit the park any time of the day with no entry fee.
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