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Puget Sound History Comes Alive at Whale Tail Playground

By Gregory Harris, assistant editor

This cast aluminum whale tail sculpture and the Coast Guard dory - the Sasha Eli - are the only two remaining features of an old playground that was revitalized to become the new Whale Tail Playground.
Photo by Susan Black and Associates, the architects on this project.

Alki Park's old playground was in dire need of upgrades. A design inspired by its surroundings and pushed forward by the dedication of neighbors to the park has resulted in a successful project and accolades as one of Seattle's best unique playgrounds.

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Whale Tail Playground is located in the northeast corner of Alki Park, just a block from Alki Beach where in 1851, the first landing party set foot in what is now West Seattle. In the early 1900s, the beach became so popular that the city installed an electric street railway line from Seattle to the beach. As the site became more popular, an amusement park similar to New York's Coney Island was constructed on pilings adjacent to the beach. Fire destroyed the amusement park in 1931, Seattle acquired the site in 1945 and filled in the area in 1954.

The playground features Cetus "The Great Whale Constellation" that overlooks a "lagoon" made of safety surfacing and a play structure designing to mimic a lighthouse.

The Alki Park playground had a nautical theme with its Coast Guard dory and a cast aluminum whale tail sculpture. As the playground had fallen into disrepair, a group of dedicated and tenacious neighbors took it upon themselves to improve this corner of Alki Park.

Charles Warsinske, a principal at the Seattle-based landscape architecture firm Susan Black and Associates (SB and A), said the old playground -- known as "Blue Park" because all of the play structures were blue -- said the site had old play structures from the 1950s and had become a location strewn with beer bottles and generally no place for children to play.

A new play structure at the playground reflects the Alki Point Lighthouse and includes a climbing rock outcropping embraced by dual slides.

"The neighbors had become fed up with the (negative) activity at the park, and they said 'we're going to take it back'" Warsinske noted.

Warsinske credits one neighbor in particular, Linda Cuddy, as a driving force behind the refurbishing of the playground. The neighbors submitted sketches detailing the design they wanted to see for the playground, and they raised funds for the playground while the design was taking shape.

"SB and A came in and used their ideas to design something that could be built," he said.

Children have always climbed on the whale tail, and the new design has made this activity safer with the addition of a base composed of poured in place safety surfacing by SpectraTurf.

Puget Sound Inspiration

Warsinske said the plan was to design a playground that would appear as a natural feature to the surroundings.

"Puget Sound is one block away and the theme of the playground is meant to honor the history of Seattle," he said. "We only had a 1/4 acre piece of land to work with, so it was a tall order."

Despite sitting on a small 1/4-acre site, efforts were made to incorporate quiet areas into the playground design. Garden paths are used to buffer the playground from the street and adjacent neighborhood.
Photo by Susan Black and Associates

Two features from the old playground, the Coast Guard dory and a whale tail sculpture, were used in the design of the new playground. The whale tail is an early sculpture by Washington artist Rich Beyer who is most famous for his sculpture "People Waiting for the Interurban" which is located in the Fremont area of Seattle.

"Puget Sound is one block away and the theme of the playground is meant to honor the history of Seattle. We only had a 1/4 acre piece of land to work with, so it was a tall order." --Charles Warsinske

Building on the nautical theme, a "lagoon" with waves of play surfacing includes the whale tail, and the whale watching boat, the Sasha Eli. The play surface is formed in a series of waves in the blues of Puget Sound. The play structure reflects the Alki Point Lighthouse and includes a climbing rock outcropping embraced by dual slides. The play area also has sculptural tide pools, a sandy beach for toddlers, a hillside slide, swings, native plantings, and a grassy knoll and meadow area. Marine mammals, crustaceans, and bivalves are set as bronze sculptures in the paving. Scenes from the depths of Puget Sound are set in tile mosaic. Octopus arms reach up to the railings and a bronze squid sits in a tide pool designed to mimic Cetus, The Great Whale constellation that can be seen several times a year in the southern sky in early evening.

Warsinske said the cast aluminum whale tail sculpture was relocated within the playground to work in connection with the dory. When standing at boat's bow, children get the feeling that they are seeing a whale diving away from them.

The whale tail was fitted with a base constructed of safety surfacing to make climbing on the tail safer for the children. The color of this base was chosen to illustrate the waves generated by the whale as it dives into the lagoon.
Photos by Susan Black and Associates

"The whale tail had been a dangerous feature of the old playground, as kids used to climb on it," he said. "After we picked it up and placed it in the lagoon, it was set at an elevation to make it safe for the children."

The play structure, manufactured by Columbia Cascade, was designed to mimic a lighthouse, and is set above the lagoon.

"We placed it on a knoll next to the lagoon because we wanted people to be able to see the lagoon from the 'lighthouse,'" Warsinske said.

The existing Coast Guard boat serves as a vessel to allow children at the playground to whale watch. The boat was repositioned to allow the children to see the whale's tail as it dives into the water.

Toddler's Play Area

Warsinske said a play area for toddlers also sits on the knoll that allows parents to attend to their younger children while being able to keep watch over their older children who are playing in the lagoon. The toddler play area features a small swing set, slide and a sand pit. The toddler play area and larger "lighthouse" play structure both utilize Fibar safety surfacing. The lagoon is composed of SpectraTurf safety surfacing.

The landscape design also includes a walkway that winds through around the playground, which connects all areas of the playground together.

The toddler play area features a small swing set, slide and a sand pit, and it sits on a knoll that allows parents to attend to their younger children while being able to keep watch over their older children who are playing in the lagoon.

"You can go just about anywhere and see kids and adults playing," Warsinske said.

Playground supporters say, "The design reflects the maritime life of Puget Sound and early whale watching. The cast aluminum whale tail foretells the life beneath the surface of the water. The setting is amplified in an imaginative narrative. The grounds are transformed from a static whale tail and boat to a dynamic and lively "sea" where the captain in the pilothouse of the Sasha Eli, having passed the nearby lighthouse, finally encounters a marvelous whale. On the far shores, rocks and colorful sea life cling to the beach or to pilings, and are temporarily exposed by a receding tide. A squid's arms reach up to a shore walk, while little fishes swim around its tentacles. Reflected in a busy tide pool is the constellation Cerus, or Great Whale, from the night sky."

This mural has been placed near the playground that gives a history of Native Americans around Puget Sound. The mural continues the idea of incorporating educational features into the playground experience.

Playing and Learning

Many of the design aspects of the playground include features that allow visitors to learn about Puget Sound as well as the history of Alki Park.

A Western Red Cedar log was formed into a bench along the path that borders the play area. The mosaic medallions in the walkway are a few of the 120 donor recognition elements incorporated into the playground.

"A mural has been placed near the playground that explains the history of the area and the park," Warsinske said. "The subtlety of the lessons is good. If you want to know more about the area, the lessons are there, and if want to just go out and play, you are not bombarded by these learning experiences."

The nautical theme of the playground extends to the seat walls with the inclusion of a glass mosaic designed by artist Benson Shaw representing sea life under Puget Sound. The mural is mortared into the curved face of the seat wall that borders the tot play area.
Photos by Susan Black and Associates

Warsinske said the new and improved Whale Tail Playground has been a very popular feature for neighbors who live near the park as well as for visitors to the Alki Beach area.

Above and Below: SQUIDOPUS by artist Benson Shaw is a fantasy sea monster rising out of the sea of wood chips in the tot play area. The steel cutouts burst through a school of small fish and bubbles. Throughcut text describes squid and octopus facts.

"This has been the most successful project that I have been involved in, thanks primarily to the efforts of people like Linda and the neighbors around the playground," he said.

The cast bronze octopus - part of Cetus "The Great Whale Constellation" sculpture by West Seattle artist Leslie Jane - is part of Swimming Stars, a 286 sq foot entry plaza at the playground.
Photo by Susan Black and Associates

Cedar benches, boulders and this grassy area provide seating between the lagoon and toddler play area. Stepping-stones were installed on the site to provide a path from the lagoon to the toddlers' area. Fibar safety surfacing was used in the toddler play area.

The efforts of neighbors living near Whale Tail Playground were instrumental in refurbishing what had been a playground with 50-year-old play structures and a site that had attracted an unsavory crowd. The site has now become a popular location for children and the playground was recently named one of the "Best Unique Playgrounds" in Seattle.
Photo by Susan Black and Associates

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December 7, 2019, 4:18 am PDT

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