Farewell to historic Margaret playground in St. Paul

Two months ago, I wrote about the heritage and demise of historical 3M Building #1. Now the neglected Margaret Recreation Center will be razed. Isn’t it too bad that local authorities almost always choose the East Side as the area to lose its institutions?

The least that can be done is to review how important this center has been to our neighborhood. Margaret Rec Center has been part of Dayton’s Bluff for over a century, and is one of the oldest playgrounds in St. Paul. It was started as local response to the national “playground movement.”

The idea was that play spaces for youth recreation were a crucial need in rapidly-expanding urban areas. Neighborhood parks would “permit retaining the characteristic features of natural scenery” in the city.

Playground professionals at the time wanted to get cooperation from key older youth “to direct the thoughts and actions of these leaders,” hoping they would “eventually sway the entire group into some honorable form of recreation.” They believed that fewer young people from “playground districts” ended up in juvenile court.

Margaret Rec Center’s story began in 1907, when the city bought land behind Sibley School. The Margaret Maroons won a municipal baseball championship in 1909, before there was even a building on the site.

The first shelter was built in 1910 and Margaret Playground was gradually improved. New additions included play equipment, tennis courts, furniture for the clubroom and a small kindergarten program.

The Margaret Boosters were organized in November, 1920. One early volunteer said: “We used to go down to the playground and find three or four kids ganged up on the director. It was getting so bad you couldn't keep a director more than a few months. We decided to do something about it.” It seems that tough kids hanging out a recreation centers is nothing new.

The boosters went around “signing up new members and holding dances, bingo games, playground festivals,” and “mooching money from local merchants to buy equipment.”

By 1924, Margaret continued to break attendance records. Daily activities were horseshoes, tennis, kittenball (softball), track and efficiency tests and tennis. 18 men participated in horseshoe pitching contest. and 35 girls enrolled in basketry, which met three times a week.

At the Center’s tenth annual Summer Festival in 1930, hundreds of people came to see decorated doll buggies and music played by an area orchestra. In one year, 1,000 people were involved in frequent club and classroom work and another 1,000 had occasional contact at the center. There was fencing, dramatics, puppetry, drawing and dancing classes, and dozens of social clubs with up to 100 members.

During World War Two, the Drum and Bugle Corps' 35 musicians practiced at the facility. When the Margaret Men’s Boosters were told that the playground budget had been cut by $6,000, the group raised money for lumber and built a hockey arena themselves.

A new center was built into the hill in 1982 in an eco-friendly manner with solar energy. Unfortunately, the design was later found to be problematic. To benefit young families, the tennis court was removed and a small tot playground was added in the spring of 2006, but general maintenance was constantly deferred, and deterioration continued.

Even so, in 2007 The Margaret Recreation Center hosted the largest National Night out event in the city, with door prizes, picnic food and desserts, as well as field games. As late as 2009, the city seemed to be looking for money to renovate or replace the facility. Instead, they opted to “re-partner” (a fancy name for ending all city programming) with Hmong YES (Youth Education Services) – a good program, but one with limited resources. The facilities declined even further.

That brings us to the present. When the building comes tumbling down – like so many other historic structures on the East Side – what happens to the land is still a concern. A least the open space should remain available to children and their families.

I hope today’s policy-makers will agree with the playground official who, a century ago, said: “a civilized community must provide playgrounds for the children, recreation grounds and playgrounds for the large working-class body of citizens.”