About Eagle Point Park

Reprinted here without permission

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Beauty on the bluffs holds legacy that lasts
As it celebrates a century, Dubuque's beauty on the bluffs holds a lasting legacy.

"A city should have at least one large park, so extensive in itself and in the vistas it affords as to seem a bit of country, thus presenting to tired city dwellers the greatest possible urban contrast."
     - Charles M. Robinson, "Report on the Improvement of the City of Dubuque, Iowa," written in 1907

Charles M. Robinson couldn't convince anyone to publish his book, "The Improvement of Towns and Cities," so in 1901 he printed it. The book became a cornerstone in "The City Beautiful Movement," and thrust Robinson, a journalist and secretary of the American Park and Outdoor Art Association, into the forefront of the fledgeling field of city planning.

Robinson specialized in the development of parks, and cities from coast-to-coast hired him as a consultant, including Dubuque. He toured the city in 1907 in search of the prime location for a large city park. Unlike many cities, the problem in Dubuque, according to Robinson, was the number of sites to choose from because of the tree-lined bluffs, limestone cliffs and views of the Mississippi River. Robinson expressed dismay that a city endowed with such natural beauty didn't have a park commission to enhance it.

"I have never seen a place where the Almighty has done more and mankind less, than Dubuque," Robinson reportedly told his hosts.

After reviewing several potential sites, Robinson focused on two -- Kelly's Bluff and Eagle Point. He recommended against the citizens' popular choice, Ham's Island, where Mystique (formerly Dubuque Greyhound Park & Casino) now stands. The cost of construction would be too high, Robinson advised.

In his official "Report on the Improvement of the City of Dubuque, Iowa," Robinson wrote: "With respect to other locations, there is, beginning at the north, in Eagle Point, an extraordinarily noble site, the great wall of rock rising sheer from almost the river's edge and affording superb views up and down the stream ... Its own wild beauty and stunning view, when roads and paths have given it accessibility, would make it a park of which any city in the world might well be proud. Let this go for building sites or an institution, and the citizens of Dubuque will never cease to regret the lost opportunity; secure it, and the wisdom of the mayor and aldermen responsible will forever be chronicled in the city's history."

As Dubuque's beauty on the bluffs celebrates its 100th birthday, the TH today takes a closer look at Eagle Point Park's legacy.

The legend of Eagle Point

Judge Oliver Shiras took Robinson's recommendation to heart. President Chester A. Arthur appointed Shiras as U.S. District Judge in 1882. Shiras retired from the bench in 1903, but he continued his career as a civic activist.

In 1908, Shiras chaired a committee dedicated to creating a picnic and recreation area. Property was purchased from A. L. Rhomberg and deeded to the city. A fence was erected along the bluff for safety. Tables and hitching posts were installed, and Eagle Point Park opened in 1909, near what is now the intersection of Shiras and Rhomberg avenues. The Riverview Pavilion was constructed in 1910 under the guidance of Dubuque architect John Spencer, who is better known for designing Dubuque icons the Carnegie-Stout Public Library and the German Bank.

Many insisted the park be named after Shiras, but the judge deferred to the legend of Eagle Point.

According to the Encyclopedia of Dubuque, the naming of the hill has its roots in 1828-29, when an eagle's nest was found in a tree near Dryden, N.Y. The tree was cut down and the eaglets captured.

A local merchant raised one of the eaglets and gave it to a silversmith. The silversmith banded the eagle with an inscription and set it free. An Indian hunting along a bluff overlooking the Mississippi shot the eagle, but he was startled by the silver band, having never seen one before. As news of the eagle spread, the bluff upon which it was shot became known as Eagle Point.

Ironically, the naming of the park coincided with the eagle's demise in Iowa. A nesting pair reported in Jasper County in 1905 would be the last active nest in the state until one was spotted in Allamakee County in 1977.

Since then, eagles have thrived. Eagles are again a common sight in and around Eagle Point Park, especially in winter.

Depression-era overhaul

About 80 percent of Dubuque's factory workers lost their jobs as the Great Depression tightened its grip in the early 1930s. Similar situations developed nationwide, as manufacturing in 1932 fell to half the production of 1929. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to act. As Part II of the New Deal, he created the Works Progress Administration, which funded projects nationwide in an effort to create jobs.

By March 1936, the WPA employed 3.4 million people. When it ended in 1943, the program had funded 651,000 miles of road work, constructed or improved 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings and 8,192 parks.

One of those park improvements took place at Eagle Point, which hadn't changed much since its creation. The Shiras Memorial was built and dedicated on Memorial Day 1921.

"A group of Dubuque businessmen got together and said we need that WPA money for our people to work here," said Steve Ulstad, a local architect who offers park tours. "They went to Washington and got $200,000 (about $2.9 million in today's dollars). They hired Alfred Caldwell and look what they got for it."

In 1934, Caldwell was a struggling landscape architect in Chicago also in need of steady work. Through an acquaintance, a letter was sent to the Dubuque Park Board recommending Caldwell for the position of park superintendent and to oversee the WPA project scheduled for Eagle Point Park.

Caldwell visited Dubuque and explained that he not only wanted to supervise, he also wanted to design the buildings and gardens. Dubuque officials told Caldwell that might be difficult. About 200 workers were going to arrive the following week, and it would be more practical to have an architect and a supervisor on hand to greet them.

Caldwell persisted. He stayed up all night drawing plans, and he presented them to the Park Board the following morning. The city hired Caldwell on the spot.

The result of Caldwell's frenzied drawing is called the Bridge Complex, with the "bridge" spanning the main road and linking Caldwell's first two structures. The building to the east of the road contained a kitchen, an indoor dining facility and an open-air concession stand. It was built on top of a water reservoir, which has been out of service for decades. The west building became the restrooms, which Caldwell wanted separate from the main hall. The Terrace Room, Veranda Rooms, the Indian Rooms and the fish pond also were funded through WPA.

Architect's dream

The prairie-style structures Caldwell built are renowned. While the prairie-style usually is associated with Frank Lloyd Wright, several architects of that era, including Caldwell, played a role in its popularity. Eventually, the prairie style would evolve into the ranch-style home craze of the 1950s and '60s, said Kevin Eipperle, of Durrant Group.

After graduating from Iowa State University, Eipperle took a job as an architect with Durrant in Dubuque. He remembers his first visit to Eagle Point as if it were etched in limestone.

"I was flabbergasted that this was even here," Eipperle said, of Caldwell's work. "I spent hours taking pictures of these buildings."

The prairie style is known for fitting into the natural terrain, partly through reliance on local building materials, like the limestone Caldwell quarried near Eagle Point. The ceilings are usually low, with a hearth and chimney near the center. Eipperle said Wright traveled extensively in Japan. Think Japanese temple, and that influence is evident in Caldwell's work at Eagle Point.

"When you look at these walls, what you see are these horizontal lines of stone," Eipperle explained, while pointing at the Bridge Complex. "If you look at a stone bluff or quarry, you will see those horizontal lines, and this kind of mimics it. It does so a lot more on a Frank Lloyd Wright building, so you can see Caldwell studied Wright and looked at the bluffs."

Caldwell's workers were not masons. They came to the WPA from all walks of life, but under Caldwell's tutelage they quickly became proficient at cutting and laying the stones.

"That's one of the cool things about it," said Ulstad, who met Caldwell when he re-visited the park in 1991. "Caldwell talked about how they would find these stones and constantly tell him, 'You have to find a spot for this one,' or 'use that one.'"

Fireplaces are important in prairie style, and Caldwell's buildings incorporate them, partly because city officials told him the pavilions would be used in winter.

"In prairie style, the hearth is built at the center of the home," Eipperle said. "To be honest, 100 to 200 years ago that was true for any home. The common man's life revolved around it, not only for heat, but he did all of his cooking there, too. The prairie style architects held onto that, plus the chimney gives you an architectural element of verticality. If you move that around, you can create different kinds of shapes and feelings of space."

Another prime example of Caldwell's style is found at the fish pond, where the stairways and retaining walls are constructed of local limestone. To the first-time visitor, the pond seems to emerge naturally from the landscape, which is the effect Caldwell sought. He told the Telegraph Herald in November 1934 that the pond would appear like "an accident of nature."

The Council Rings, those round, limestone picnic areas that dot the park, are also of Caldwell's design and perhaps his favorite creation. The concept was later copied at Murphy Park.

Caldwell won a WPA design award for his work, but his tenure in Dubuque didn't last. Critics pointed to the slow pace of the work because of Caldwell's focus on details, like the intricate stone work on the chimney in the Indian Room. Others voiced displeasure about the number of trees he cut down to create the main entrance. Caldwell maintained that much of the politicking occurred behind his back because he wasn't local. He was fired in 1936, a couple months short of two years on the job.

"They let me go without an hours notice," Caldwell said in 1991. "If they hadn't let me go, I'd have stayed. I was thinking of staying the rest of my life. I loved Dubuque."

After being fired, he returned to Chicago and continued to struggle as a landscape architect. Eventually, he embarked on a career as a college professor.

'Worthwhile boondoggle'

Another visitor to the park who was greatly impressed by Caldwell's work was President Roosevelt. He and his wife, Eleanor, visited Dubuque and Eagle Point during his re-election campaign in 1936.

The campaign was marked by conservative critics who railed against WPA spending as poor use of federal tax dollars for projects that were unnecessary and in some cases unwanted. The acronym was jokingly referred to as We Piddle Around, as inexperienced workers were guaranteed full pay regardless of their performance. Harper Lee even besmirched the WPA in her famous novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," when character Bob Ewell was described as "the only person fired from the WPA for laziness."

Roosevelt didn't let the criticism stand, however. After touring Eagle Point Park and surveying Caldwell's work, he couldn't resist taking a jab at his critics.

"This is my idea of a worthwhile boondoggle," Roosevelt said.

A city and its park

The construction of Lock and Dam No. 11 changed the view from the park in 1937. The water quickly swallowed Kimball's Park, an island in the middle of the river that hosted summer cottages. A beach that opened in 1920 also was lost.

In 1939, the Log Cabin complex in the southeast corner of the park, which overlooks the North End and downtown, was completed as a National Youth Administration project, another Roosevelt jobs program.

The architectural firm of Paul Rossiter and Vernon Hamm built the open-air pavilion and a few other park buildings in the 1950s, as the park's stature grew as "The Place" for Dubuquers to meet for family reunions, weddings, picnics, bird watching, barge watching, tennis, walking, outdoor concerts, horseshoes and for kids to cool off on a hot summer day.

It also evolved into a late-night hangout for revelers, and by the late 1970s ways to curb the "rowdyism" and vandalism became a citywide debate. Banning alcohol and imposing earlier closing times gained some traction, but a proposed $1 entry fee to the park took the controversy to new heights.

"I think Eagle Point is too beautiful to let it come to rack and ruin," said Rhonda Kronfeldt, who represented the Fourth Ward, speaking in support of the entry fee in Feb. 1982.

On a 5-2 vote, the City Council implemented the fee effective May 8, 1983. Letters to the editor ensued decrying the unfair "tax" on the poor and the disabled. Park attendance plummeted and revenue from the fee fell well short of projections. Voices grew louder to rescind the fee, but the city stood its ground. The turning point occurred in 1984 when the city began selling yearly passes. Eagle Point saw 4,000 more vehicles pass through its gates for the year and the rhetoric cooled. The family atmosphere also returned.

In 1985, the city lowered the road under the Bridge Complex to accommodate bus traffic, and the park's rekindled popularity sparked an idea. Why not offer carriage rides?

As a teacher and a horse lover, Wayne Freiburger decided to join his two passions by giving historical tours of the park via horse-drawn carriage.

"It was fun but time-consuming and not very profitable," Freiburger said. "It was classified as a carnival ride so insurance was prohibitive."

Freiburger narrated rides for passengers from Japan, Austria, France and Italy to name a few. Europeans often compared the view to vistas of the Danube River.

"I was able to travel over there and can verify that," Freiburger said. "It really gave me some appreciation for the beauty we have here."

Restoring Eagle Point

A hike/bike trail is under construction that will run from near the Ham House to where a street car once delivered passengers, near the eagle statue. Other upgrades might be forthcoming.

Ulstad is studying Caldwell's buildings and comparing photographs to their present appearance. In conjunction with the city, there are hopes to return greater historical accuracy to the structures.

"I'm studying the ins-and outs, looking for clues," Ulstad said, while walking through the Bridge Complex. "Do you see that? There used to be a staircase right there, but we have no idea what it looked like. We are desperately searching for pictures."

The restoration project is in its planning stages. Ulstad is trying to determine what can be restored, such as light fixtures and railings, and what the city's budget might support.

He also is researching Caldwell's designs that didn't get built. One of those drawings shows what Caldwell labeled a "community kitchen." It would have been situated between where the band shell and the sprinkler pool sit.

"The building was the size of a football field," Ulstad said.

Perhaps Ulstad is partly motivated by his meeting with Caldwell in 1991. As the curmudgeonly architect walked along one of his original limestone sidewalks, he noticed a loose stone.

"He said, 'Guys, you've got to keep up with the maintenance.'"

100th birthday celebration

On Sunday, Aug. 2, from 1 to 8 p.m., there will be free admission to the park, kids activities, historical displays, lemonade and cupcakes.

The Upper Main Street Jazz Band will perform from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The Tri-State Wind Symphony will perform from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Readers remember


Employees of the First National Bank gather in the Eagle Point Park Log Cabin for their first company picnic in July 1947. The park has hosted countless family and workplace gatherings in its 100 years.

As Dubuque's Eagle Point Park celebrates a century, tri-state residents share their memories.

Married in the park

24 years ago (June 29th, 1985), my husband and I were married at the park overlooking the lock and dam. My husband's mom was in the skilled nursing unit of Mercy Hospital with Lou Gehrig's disease and we had her transported to the park via ambulance. She must have been very happy to be under those big beautiful trees watching her son get married.

-- Traci and Joe LoBianco, Dubuque

Highlight of summer

My favorite memories are the summer plays. I remember being Kanga in "Winnie the Pooh," and I remember being the wolf, I think, in "Aesop's Fables." I still have contact with some of the friends I made.

-- Robyn Slattery McAreavy, Weddington, N.C.

Nursing Eagle Point memories

One of my best recollections of Eagle Point Park occurred on a September afternoon in 1956. I was one of 23 freshmen students enrolled at the Finley Hospital School of Nursing. It was the end of initiation week and we celebrated by having a wonderful picnic at the shelter house overlooking the Mighty Mississippi.

-- Fredrick O. Phelps, Colesburg, Iowa

Memories of a lifetime

Let me just put it this way: Eagle Point Park was part of my everyday life when I was growing up. Because of its history and beauty, it should be a National Historic Landmark. I was so lucky to live near that great place.

-- Carol Schieltz, Guttenberg, Iowa

Tough working for WPA

I was a young child and my father, Charles H. Ruff, was a WPA worker who cut and placed stones for the new pavilions and paths. He used to bring home a co-worker, Herman Jaeger, and share his homemade wine with him. Mr. Jaeger had very large, thick, rough hands and he never wore gloves during the winter while they worked. I thought Mr. Jaeger must have been very tough.

-- Elaine Ruff Rapp, Dubuque