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Mitchell Park Celebrates 50 Years -- the Nostalgia Runs Deep

Robert Royston, FASLA, in 1957, the year his design for Mitchell Park debuted.
Public Skatepark Development Guide

Pardon my nostalgia, but I just learned Mitchell Park in Palo Alto, Calif. had a 50th anniversary celebration and was honored by the presence of its designer, Robert Royston, FASLA, now 88 and living in Mill Valley, Calif. I say "nostalgia" because this park was my home away from home in my early teens, playing tennis there innumerable hours. In 1962 my dad relocated the family from our mountain home in Evergreen, Colo. to work for Lockheed in Sunnyvale, an area soon redubbed Silicon Valley. It was a cultural shock for us "hick" mountain kids to come to this growing suburban area just down the peninsula from San Francisco. My parents didn't belong to the fancy local tennis club, so the tennis courts at Mitchell Park became my club. I practically wore out those courts and it didn't cost me a penny. When there wasn't another player around to trade shots with, my practice partner was the walls of the handball courts.

Mitchell Park holds many memories for me and so I'm gratified now to know its back story and thank its designer. Robert Royston graduated with a landscape architecture degree from the University of California Berkeley in 1940. As a student he worked in the office of Thomas Church, but military service during World War II intervened. He returned to the Bay Area in 1945 and formed Eckbo, Royston, & Williams with partners Garrett Eckbo and Ed Williams. When the firm won the Mitchell Park contract, Royston was the principal for the design, as he had already created three recreational areas in the Bay Area.

One of the unique features of the park was its sunken skating rink, also used for little gatherings. Today, skateboarders make use of the rink.

Mitchell Park construction began in 1955. The park was something special when it premiered April 12, 1957. It featured concrete above-ground "gopher holes" and a miniature freeway on which kids drove on in pedal cars. There was a tiny-tot wading pool deeper at the edges and shallower in the middle; an apartment building play structure; swings in the shape of horses; concrete bear sculptures; a giant chess board; horseshoe area; tables, benches, paths; and Chinese lantern light fixtures.

I didn't meet the park until 1962 when I walked to school every day and took the shortcut through the park. I distinctly remember singing the most recent pop tune on the charts-"Downtown" by Petulia Clark as I walked through the park. Soon I would be singing Beatles tunes on that walk through the park.

Mitchell Park was novel to me because Evergreen, Colo. had no parks. Our playground there was a pile of dirt atop which we'd play King of the Mountain.

Frankly, I didn't care about all that kid stuff at Mitchell, now being all of 12 years old. For me it was all about the tennis courts, a sports amenity I had never seen. The park was also the sight of my junior-high graduation. (I wore a bright red blazer, the only kid so attired).

Well, the pedal cars are long gone, as is the climbing horse (deemed unsafe).

The wading pool is now a water play feature with fountains, part of a just completed seven-year renovation effort, though I'm told the park still has a touch of the 1950s' design. I haven't seen good ol' Mitchell Park in about 30 years. But with the ASLA Show in San Francisco this year, I'll make sure to venture south and stroll once again through Mitchell Park. A Beatle tune will still work just fine, I suspect.

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December 14, 2019, 7:53 am PDT

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