08: Kiddie Park


Hightower For most of the time I’ve lived in San Antonio I’ve had a five-mile commute between where I live to where I work. I usually take Broadway. It’s a funny street - within a few miles it passes both an upscale gourmet grocery store and seedy, run-down, motel.


Next to that motel with its broken neon “no vacancy” sign sits a small children’s amusement park. This adjacency always struck me as unfortunate. The park itself was in somewhat better shape than its neighbor but it still seemed like something out of a different era. The rides all looked ancient and I couldn’t imagine a kid ever wanting to go there.


Then I had kids of my own, and learned I was completely wrong.


Sammy The Kiddie Park has a Ferris wheel – a small one – and a bus that’s wild. There was a horse ride and a boat ride and there was food there are toys that are your prizes after food and… yes there are airplanes that swing around and there is a merry-go-round, there’s cars and horse-drawn carriages. One has a broom behind it…


Hightower That’s Sammy - she’s five and just started kindergarten. The weekend before the school year began I asked if she wanted to do something special and without hesitation she said she wanted to go to the Kiddie Park. And so we did.


That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the eighth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.


I’m Brantley Hightower.


I first took Sammy to the Kiddie Park when she was two-and-a-half years old. When I walked into it for the first time it was like I had traveled through a time machine. The park first opened in 1925 and seems to have only had minimal updates in the 90 years since then. It’s one of those odd places that you come across from time to time that shouldn’t still exist, but somehow it still does.


The Kiddie Park openly embraces its age. It advertises itself as America’s oldest children’s amusement park and its logo proudly states the year of its establishment. But even without that information you could probably figure it out. The car ride, for example, is populated with little Model-Ts. The airplane ride consists entirely of World War I era biplanes, some of which have little toy machine guns attached to them. It’s really cute to watch your toddler pretend to shoot out of the sky the little boy flying in front of them.


For both the cars and the airplanes the rider sits in small, colorful versions of those particular vehicles. The cars go around a little concrete track while the airplanes are suspended from chains from a spinning canopy.


All the rides at the Kiddie Park spin around in some form or fashion. There is the school bus that drives around a circular track. The operator has to physically push it to get it started. There are little horse-drawn carriages that spin around in a circle and little flying saucers that spin around in the air.


There is of course the carousel where wooden horses spin around in a horizontal circle and a Ferris wheel that spins around a vertical circle. An extra $6 will buy you a ticket good for a pony ride where you can sit on the back of a little horse that – you guessed it – rides around in a circle.


And then there’s Sammy’s favorite – the boats:


Sammy My favorite ride is the boats because you get to go in water and you get to ring a bell and there’s a steering wheel and get to go on water.


For there record, the boats spin around in a circular concrete tank filled with water.


Sammy The water is green sometimes and sometimes it’s blue.


The Kiddie Park is advertised as the perfect way for children and adults to enjoy a nostalgic day of old-fashioned fun. But here’s the thing – children don't feel nostalgia. They don’t know what it is.


One of the characteristics of being a kid is that you’re always living in the present. Kids don’t feel longing for the distant past – for one they can’t remember that far back. They also haven’t learned what the 1920s were and so the concept of visiting a retro amusement park is meaningless to them. All they know is that the Kiddie Park is full of fun things to do. For them, the experience is pure.


Sammy loves going to the Kiddie Park and asks if we can go there almost every time we drive by it. As a parent it’s a great deal. For thirteen dollars she gets unlimited rides and in an hour or two, she’s exhausted and that night she’ll usually go to bed early. Still, we usually only go on a special occasion just to make sure the experience remains special.


After we buy our wristband we usually make our way systematically from one ride to the next. We’ll spend a few dollars in the arcade and maybe buy a lemonade if it’s especially hot.


We usually do the carousel last.


The Kiddie Park’s 1918 Herschell Spillman carousel is the crown jewel of the park. The ride itself is in perfect working order even if aesthetically it looks like a hundred-year-old merry-go-round. Because of its age and the fact that it was originally designed to be mobile, most of its working parts are visible. You can see the cranks that move the individual wooden horses – most of which are missing their tails – up and down on brass hangar rods that are tarnished with age. Most of the moving parts are greasy and some parts are rusty, but the carousel continues to spin and it continues to provide joy to thousands of San Antonio children.


But when I take Sammy to the Kiddie Park, and when we ride the carousel together, I’m not thinking about them. I’m not thinking about the history of the park or how old the rides are or the incongruity of the whole experience.


When I watch Sammy as a five-year-old as she goes round and around on the carousel, I also see her as a two-and-a-half-year-old riding it for the first time. That causes me to feel both happy and sad.


Now don’t get me wrong – I’m completely in love with the five-year-old Sammy. But part of me does miss the younger version of her. She had really curly hair back then, and even though her vocabulary was limited, she made up for that with the incredible expressiveness of her little face.  


But that toddler is gone – replaced with a precocious kindergartener that is excited by addition and syllables and all the other things she’s learning at her new school. We have legitimate conversations now and I am becoming increasingly aware of how much bigger her world is than the one we’ve created for her at home.


No, I don’t feel nostalgia for the Kiddie Park. I feel nostalgia for Sammy.


When Sammy rides the carousel I can see both the current and the younger version of her. But I can also imagine an older version as well. There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when Sammy will no longer want to go to the Kiddie Park. She’ll move on to other things – things that will include me and her mom less and less.


Your mind has time to wander as your child spins around in circles at the Kiddie Park. Being a parent is about joy, yes, but it is also about loss. There is plenty that is gained as your children grow up but there are also things that are lost every day your child grows a day older. Part of you knows this is the way things should be, but part of you wants your child to always be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of riding a car, a plane or a boat around in a circle.


The Kiddie Park is a curious part of San Antonio’s architectural fabric. For Sammy and I, it is a stage where a part of our story is acted out. And someday it will become a memorial for those memories - someday, but not today.


Thanks today to Sammy Hightower and to all those who have helped make the Kiddie Park all that it is, all that it has been and all that it will be. The music today was by Chris Zabriskie. As always, special thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood who came up with our podcast’s logo and to Clara, Sammy’s mother, with coming up with its name.


The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.