Return to the River
Gallup Park opened up a "private river." Now a new playground is making it even more accessible.
by Jan Schlain
From the August, 2017 issue
In 1958, crews were digging the basement for a new U-M dorm, and Ann Arbor parks superintendent Eli Gallup saw opportunity. His son, retired educator Al Gallup, recalls how his father "saw trucks going out Fuller Road with dirt from Mary Markley Hall. He stopped one of them and asked where they were taking it. He told them, 'Well, why don't you just dump it right here?'"
"Here" was the south side of Geddes Pond, the impoundment created by Dixboro Dam. At the time, "the railroad track was the edge of the river," Gallup recalls. "And so, without an environmental impact study, they dumped Markley Hall's dirt along the railroad track and got him a road, a little more than that; he planted trees, too."
It was the start of what is now Gallup Park. Eli Gallup's namesake, in turn, now anchors a string of parks that returned the Huron River to Ann Arborites.
For most of the city's history, "it had been a private river," explains retired U-M landscape architecture prof Ken Polakowski. "People looked at it, and every once in a while people got a glimpse of it as they rode along. But it had very low visibility."
Dams on the Huron had powered the city's first industries. In the twentieth century, the dams were rebuilt to generate electricity. But in 1958 the power they generated was too puny for Detroit Edison to bother with.
So "Edison gave up the dams," says Gallup. "The company sold all the river rights--from Barton Dam all the way down to Dixboro Dam--to the city for about $225,000 ... the price of a house today.
"That's why Ann Arbor is the way it is," Gallup adds. "When you think about it, the whole river is owned by the city, with a few exceptions ... the whole city owns that river, and that really changed the landscape."
Then the rains came. In June 1968, the city was hit by the heaviest storm in a generation.
"Every dam in the area was washed out," Gallup recalls. "So all of a sudden, where you see a big river [now], there was just a little stream ... with dying weeds, gasping fish ... It was awful."
That was the condition in which Polakowski first saw what would become Gallup Park. Recently hired away from Penn State, he "was expected to also do some private consultant work to keep abreast of the field," he recalls. So when then-parks head George Owers asked if he'd design a master plan for rebuilding the park and its washed-out pond, he agreed.
At the time, Polakowski recalls by phone interview from his retirement home in Charlevoix, the area "wasn't very nice. There was dumping going on. Don't forget, the pond wasn't in. It was a very scraggly-looking place.
That didn't discourage him. "A lot of parks are built on not the best kind of land," he explains. "You have to create the lands." And he saw that "this could be a fantastic place. The job I had was to envision what it could be and to sell it."
"I have memories of dad designing Gallup Park," says Polakowski's daughter, Cheryl Zuellig. "He and his partner, Terry Brown, were working in our basement. Their office was in the basement of our house. They had drafting tables set up there."
To Zuellig, the fourth of the Polakowskis' five children, it became "daddy's park."
"He spent a lot of time on the site. That's always been very important to him--to understand what it feels like and understand what the spaces are like and think about who wants to use those spaces and how they can get there."
The park he envisioned "wasn't just for the neighborhood," Polakowski recalls. "It was a citywide park and even beyond the city," with "a path along the river, connecting the University of Michigan, the city, Concordia College," and ultimately on to WCC and EMU.
"This was not looked upon favorably," he adds. The handful of homeowners with riverfront property didn't like the idea of a regional park with parking lots and toilets and walking paths drawing people to "their" river.
"People living around it were very possessive of it," Polakowski recalls. "They didn't want to share it." But city administrator Guy Larcom supported Polakowski's plan, helping to steer it through the parks commission and city council.
The project area extended from "where the railroad bridge crosses the Huron River by the University of Michigan Arboretum to the Ann Arbor Sewer Plant beyond Dixboro Road and the Geddes Dam," Polakowski explains in a follow-up email. "I designed the shape and bottom profile of Geddes Pond ... a major design challenge was to increase the land to water ratio" to provide more space for parking, recreation, and walking along the river. He's especially proud of the hills that were built on the dried-out bottom. Once O'Neal Construction rebuilt the dam, the hills became islands, with bridges between them that let walkers circle the restored pond.
Polakowski's concept was "return to the river," and he filled the sixty-nine acre site with features designed to draw people back to the water. The park, Al Gallup says, has "everything. You've got the picnic area. You've got the biking and hiking. And a lot of people have a lot of fun all along the river. And of course there's the river itself, with the canoe livery and the kayaks. It's an all-purpose park."
One thing it isn't, though, is fully accessible to people with disabilities. That's where Zuellig is writing her own chapter in the history of Gallup Park. Now in her fifties, she's a landscape architect and vice president at SmithGroupJJR--and "principal in charge" of the company's work on a $1.1 million interactive, universally accessible playground located not far from the place where Eli Gallup deposited Markley Hall's dirt.
"Universal access is a term that's really going beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act," explains Amy Kuras, who's overseeing the project for the city. "Anyone can use it, but there is also [accommodation for] a range of disabilities besides someone who just needs a wheelchair."
The Ann Arbor Rotary Club raised $550,000 for the "Centennial Playground" to celebrate its hundredth year of service in the community in 2016. Collyer Smith, immediate past president of the 330-member group, calls it a "wonderful and challenging" project. "What I love about this playground is it allows the opportunity for kids with disabilities to play alongside kids that may not have disabilities," he says, "thereby lowering the stigma of having a disability."
Kuras says the playground will have two overriding themes. One is nature--"it is a beautiful park and it's on the Huron River." The other is fairies. "We're borrowing the fairy theme that you see around town with all the fairy doors," she explains. "We're trying to create an environment where you would be the fairy--everything is going to be oversized and playful and whimsical."
As part of the project, they're "renovating everything around the playground so that you can get to it easily," Kuras adds. "There's going to be a kayak landing, a picnic area, and pathways. It will be not just a playground that you arrive at, but the whole environment is going to be really interesting."
Kuras has her own Polakowski connection. "I feel like I owe a lot to Ken," she says. In graduate school, she started in the environmental policy program--until she took his landscape architecture class and "decided to become a landscape architect. He was an amazing professor, and I said, 'This is what I want to do.'"
The playground, which celebrates its grand opening on September 17, will be Rotary's legacy. In turn, it builds on the earlier legacies of Eli Gallup and Ken Polakowski. They created a park for all Ann Arbor--and for Al Gallup and Cheryl Zuellig, they created a family legacy as well.
At ninety-one, Gallup still gets to Gallup Park under his own power. "I've got in over 600 miles on my bike so far this year," he says. And just as Zuellig called it "daddy's park," her own children call it "grandpa's park."
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
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