Montgomery's Oak Park
November 25, 2007
Montgomerians have enjoyed Oak Park with its interesting and diverse history for more than a century. In 1886, the Capital City Street Railway Company purchased the 105 acres to serve as a city park. Soon after, in 1889, the Highland Park Improvement Company bought the property to use in their neighborhood development plans. By 1899, Montgomery officials were persuaded by Mayor John Clisby to purchase a 45-acre section of the land. The acreage, then called Oak Grove, cost $25,000.
Oak Park soon became the center of social and recreational activities. With the construction of the main pavilion, Oak Park hosted many dances, parties and even political gatherings.
The pavilion, a large ornate wooden structure, was nestled on a rise in the trees. It overlooked winding paths and picnic and play areas. The walking paths, quiet reflective sites, and play areas, made Oak Park a very popular subject for postcards of the day.
In the 1930s, the prestigious Olmstead Brothers architectural firm produced a preliminary plan for suggested improvements to Oak Park. This new design incorporated the existing structures with additions such as a large wading pool, a swimming pool with a grandstand, clay tennis courts, croquet lawns, a playground and a small zoo complex. The proposed zoo featured a bear pit, deer runs and a monkey island with room for even more expansion.
The earlier ornate wooden pavilion was demolished, and in 1937, a new Tudor-style building was constructed of granite blocks. This new recreation building was situated at the main entrance to the park, then located at the intersection of Forest Avenue and Park Place. The south entry to the main building opened to a formal garden accented by a reflecting pool.
As Oak Park expanded, a zoo began to develop in the northern end of the park. Several species of monkeys lived on Monkey Island, an area created of stacked rocks and surrounded by a moat, where various kinds of ducks and geese swam. There were areas for other animals as well -- alligators, bears, rabbits, mountain goats and raccoons. A vast grassy expanse nearby confined the Park's deer population.
The large public swimming pool with a modern filtering system was a very popular spot for Montgomery's youth. One long side of the pool sported a covered grandstand, and a bathhouse with showers was located at the end of the pool. The more shallow wading pool for children had a field house for dressing and was located behind the main building.
The six clay tennis courts were available day or night for playing. The playground and amusement area was equipped with mechanical rides such as a merry-go-round, airplanes and a train with several hundred feet of track.
In September 1958, U.S. Judge Frank Johnson ruled that the City of Montgomery's segregated recreational facility policy was unconstitutional. With that ruling, city officials decided to close all of Montgomery's public parks.
After almost 60 years as a local landmark, Oak Park closed in January of 1959. The swimming and wading pools were drained; the zoo animals were either given away or sold. The gates of Oak Park were closed and locked.
In February of 1965, the Montgomery City Commission voted unanimously to reopen Oak Park, and the other closed parks, to the public. Mayor Earl James planned to engage a landscape architect to transform Oak Park into a botanical garden.
Its location at the foot of the newly proposed interstate would eventually afford it as a tourist attraction for travelers. The city began to seek out acreage elsewhere for a new zoo and recreational area. The swimming and wading pools remained closed and were eventually filled in.
With the park's reopening, the Montgomery City Commission allotted $180,000 from the general fund for the construction of a planetarium. Upon completion, the planetarium was dedicated and named for Mayor W.A. Gayle.
Today, as a century ago, Oak Park remains at the heart of Montgomery. Its location in the city center affords it traffic from adjacent neighborhoods, commercial areas and the interstate network.
Several of the early buildings and much original landscaping remain today. The main building now houses the administrative offices of the Montgomery Parks and Recreation Department. The pool bathhouse now provides restroom facilities. Monkey Island survives today as an integral part of a nature walk and meditation garden. Oak Park remains a popular site for school groups, birthday parties and community activities.
Contributed by historical properties curator Carole King and marketing director Courtney Armstrong of Landmarks Foundation/Old Alabama Town