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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Small is Good at Caesar’s Park

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Compared to Milwaukee County parks like Whitnall, Lincoln and Grant, which together encompass more than 1,300 of the park system’s approximately 15,000 acres, Caesar’s Park is downright tiny. The history of the 3.7 acres of land it occupies, however, is tremendous.

Caesar’s Park is located on Milwaukee’s East Side, at the intersection of E. Boylston Street and N. Warren Avenue, adjacent to the southeast bank of the Milwaukee River and, most notably, the former North Avenue dam. Through its many forms, owners and titles, the dam has roots as far back as the 1830s. The Milwaukee River carved deep valleys with steep banks as it snaked between the area’s glacial ridges. By falling nearly 20 feet just below North Avenue, the river provided the perfect conditions for a dam. The harnessed water provided energy for mills, foundries, tanneries and factories downstream, the very industry Milwaukee was built upon.

The Milwaukee River was not only a valuable commercial asset, but a recreational one as well. Because the water temperature was warmer than that of Lake Michigan, the growing population of Milwaukee took to the upper river, just above the dam. In 1856, J.W. “Papa” Rohn opened Rohn’s Swimming School on the west bank. Over the next three decades, the river corridor north of the dam became home to more swimming schools, bustling resorts, boathouses and a steam-powered launch that shuttled passengers between the resorts and the North Avenue Dam.

In 1889, the land adjacent to the dam was acquired by the city of Milwaukee Water Department and aptly (but not so creatively) named Milwaukee River Dam Park. Custody of the park was entrusted to the City’s Parks Department in 1929 and renamed Caesar’s Park, believed to be in honor of Caesar Paikowski at the request of his neighbors. That year the city constructed a wading pool and a comfort station, an American term for a building with lavatory facilities for public use.

In an effort to weather the financial difficulties brought on by the Depression, Milwaukee city parks were transferred to the Milwaukee County Parks System on Dec. 31, 1936. The Caesar’s Park wading pool was removed approximately 30 years ago because it was no longer up to city or state codes and it wasn’t economically feasible to repair it. The comfort station had also fallen into disrepair and was razed around the same time.

Caesar’s Park found new life in the 1990s when citizens rallied to restore the Milwaukee River. In 1997, the city of Milwaukee removed the central section of the North Avenue dam, allowing the water to flow faster. Architecture firm Holabird & Root designed a 400-foot-long pedestrian bridge that creatively repurposed the dam as a base structure. The bridge, with oxidized steel handrails and sleek angled lamp posts, links condo country to the Brady Street neighborhood. Today, Caesar’s Park is enjoyed by mountain bikers, dog walkers, fishermen, even athletes running the switchback staircase— mirroring its past as one of Milwaukee’s favorite recreational destinations.

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Photo by Kate Engbring