The People’s Park

  • Rob Ragonese strolls through the Saturday farmer’s market with his son, River.

  • A child jumps for joy on the splash pad.

  • Friends of Deering Oaks president Anne Pringle underneath one of the park’s old white oak trees.

Open to all, Deering Oaks is Portland’s natural treasure.

You may have shopped at the Saturday farmers’ market, pushed your child on a swing at the playground, skated on the pond on a winter afternoon, or cooled off in the ravine’s wading pool on a hot summer day. What Central Park is to New Yorkers and the Common is to Bostonians, Deering Oaks is to Portland—a beloved community landmark, accessible place to play, and a bucolic refuge in all seasons.

Once part of the Nathaniel Deering farm, most of the park’s 54 acres were given to the City of Portland in 1879, in exchange for a ten-year tax abatement. More land was acquired later; on the eastern edge where tanneries once stood is now the Rose Circle, one of the park’s few formal elements. “People think it’s a Frederick Law Olmsted park, but it’s not,” says Anne Pringle as we head out on a walking tour. The president of the Friends of Deering Oaks and a former mayor of Portland (1993 and 1994), Pringle is referring to the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park and dozens of city landscapes and univeristy campuses across the country. Deering Oaks was in fact designed by the Portland city engineer, William Goodwin, who drew on Olmsted’s overarching design principle that municipal parks should highlight the natural features of the landscape, and that they should be open and welcoming to all.

Pringle and I begin our tour at the Castle in the Park, a whimsical stone building with a turret originally built in 1894 as a warming hut for ice skaters. Having been stripped of much of its charm when it was converted into restrooms in the mid-1950s, the castle was restored in 2005, with the Friends contributing 40 percent of the cost. Because the park is municipal property, “repairs are a city obligation,” says Pringle. “Our job is to advocate for what needs to be done.” After the Friends pushed for the castle to be occupied by a foodservice tenant, Tiqa Cafe and Bakery opened there last summer.

From the castle we walk underneath towering old white oak trees toward the playground, as Pringle points out that the lower lying areas of the park—where the playground, tennis courts, and other sports fields are now—were once part of Back Cove. Long one of the most popular features of the park, the first playground was installed in 1902 and significantly updated in 2009. In late July, the Friends unveiled the latest upgrade, called the Rocky Hill play area. Funded in part by a $25,000 grant from the Old Bug Light Charitable Foundation, the new section features a labyrinth and a new interactive water feature; using a hand pump, kids can direct the water to flow down a number of sluiceways.

Walking toward the center of the park, we pass through the sun-dappled forest of oak trees that gives Deering Oaks its name. The grass underneath them isn’t mowed, to protect the trees’ fragile root systems, Pringle explains, adding that silty soil—leftover from the days when this section of the park was marshland— adds to the challenge of keeping the trees healthy. Any that come down due to winter storms are replaced the following spring, the responsibility of city arborist Jeff Tarling.

The centrally located pond may be Deering Oaks’s most prominent element, but what I find to be the park’s most interesting feature— the ravine—can’t be seen until you are close to it. Part of the original park, the ravine had a spring-fed stream running through it that emptied into the pond. When nearby development affected the water flow in the 1930s, the Portland Water District piped in city water to create a wading pool for children, complete with spraying fountains along the edges. But in the early 1950s, the pool was declared a public health hazard and filled in; some say the move was the result of a child being hurt, says Pringle, while others attributed it to the polio epidemic. Nearly 50 years later, a new wading pool and splash pad were opened in the ravine as a tribute to Kay Wagenknecht-Harte, a landscape architect and urban designer for the City of Portland who died of breast cancer in 1997. Designed by the Portland landscape architecture firm Mohr and Seredin, with two-thirds of the funds raised by the Friends, the shallow, granite-edged pool mimics nature as it winds through the ravine, emptying at one end into a rocky spillway, and culminating at the other with a sculpture by Maine artist Carole Hanson called The Circle of Life, a ring of carved stones surrounding a reflecting pool. On warm summer days, kids shriek as jets of water shoot up from the sunny splash pad, while adults stay cool on the grassy banks. “Somebody said, ‘It’s the place where the community comes together around the delight of its children,’” says Pringle, adding that because fresh water is added every day, it is always clear and clean.

The other significant water feature in the park is of course the pond, with its classic fountain and the Victorian-style duck cottage on its own little island. Original to the park, the duck house was in such disrepair in the late 1980s that the city sold it for a dollar to the late Roger Knight of Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, who restored it, and in 2007, sold the house back to the city for the same price. When the pond freezes in the winter, the skating scene is like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, especially when the surrounding park is covered by snow, as it was when Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington skated on the pond for the 1996 film, The Preacher’s Wife. (In the movie, however, much of the snow was man-made, as the weather was unseasonably warm.)

As we circle the pond, Pringle points out that the stone retaining walls surrounding it are in need of repair. The Friends keep a constant tab on park upkeep, and the group—which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—is grateful for the volunteer efforts that augment their work and that of city employees. For example, Take Action Portland weeded the ravine “like a SWAT team,” she says, and the residents of Serenity House, an addiction treatment center for men, pick up trash in the park once a week. The Friends sponsor annual events, such as the winter lighting display designed by local artist Pandora LaCasse and, since 2015, a lantern walk, preceded by lantern-making workshops for children. They also have an ongoing list of future projects, including restoration of the bowling green, the construction of restrooms to replace the porta-potties near the wading pool, and the installation of more efficient and historically accurate lights along the path. “We’d also like to see the bandstand restored,” says Pringle. The first structure in the park, the circa-1883 bandstand was replaced in 1984 and is often used for events, including kids’ concerts sponsored by the Friends this summer. The oldest event in the park is the Portland Farmers’ Market, held on Saturdays since the mid-1980s (and in Portland since 1768). “The market truly reflects Olmsted’s principles of the park as common ground, where people from all walks of life come to purchase fresh local produce, but also to socialize with both friends and other market patrons,” says Pringle. And after you’ve shopped the market, a few steps will take you to Tiqa Cafe for lunch on the patio, or to wander along a pretty wading pool. On a September Saturday, you just might find me at all three.

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