Developed in the 1890s and early 1900s, Washington Park is a scenic recreational area occupying about 160 acres southeast of downtown Denver. Designed around a portion of City Ditch by landscape architects Reinhard Schuetze and Saco DeBoer, the park features two lakes and a large meadow and has a more rural, relaxed feel than Denver’s other major urban parks. Its historic structures include a 1911 bathhouse, a 1913 boathouse designed by Jules Jacques Benois Benedict, and the Eugene Field Cottage, which was moved to the park in 1930.
City Ditch and Smith Lake
What is now Washington Park took shape around an early Denver irrigation project. In 1865 the city hired John Smith to complete an irrigation ditch from the South Platte River to the area that is now Capitol Hill. Smith completed the twenty-four-mile project, called the Big Ditch or Smith’s Ditch, in 1867. This was the first major irrigation canal in Denver; the hundreds of lateral canals that branched off it enabled settlement and farming farther away from the city’s rivers.
In addition to building the ditch, Smith also created a lake at a spot where the ditch passed a natural depression on his land. He used the lake, which came to be known as Smith Lake, as a reservoir and a source of ice in winter. In 1875 the City of Denver paid $60,000 to buy Smith’s Ditch, which became known as City Ditch, and also started to lease Smith Lake, which it later purchased in the early 1900s.
Designs by Schuetze and DeBoer
People in the area saw Smith Lake as a natural spot for a park, but the idea took years to be realized. When South Denver was formed in 1886, it tried and failed to create a park at the lake. It acquired twenty acres from the Whitehead brothers’ farm south of the lake but made no more progress. Later in the 1890s, after Denver annexed South Denver, the city committed itself to the development of a park around Smith Lake. In 1894 an early city plan called for a park at the lake, and in 1897 there was an attempt to condemn land near the lake to get it for a park.
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’s death 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. Farther 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.
Key Features and Further Developments
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 Ameter 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.
Denver 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 in 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 “Molly” 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.
A few modern structures were added to Washington Park in the late twentieth century. In 1970 the Washington Park Recreation Center was built at the north end of the Great Meadow; it was renovated in 1992. In 1974 Denver Fire Department Station 21 was added to the park’s far northeastern corner, near the Lily Pond.
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, with walkers and runners flocking to the park’s three-mile perimeter loop.