Many will agree that our City parks are one of the wonderful amenities that Springfield has to offer. From neighborhood and destination parks to sports complexes and public swimming pools, the Springfield-Greene County Park Board has a large job managing and maintaining these public areas that residents and visitors enjoy.
One of the most magnificent and historic of these areas is Phelps Grove Park, which became the centerpiece to the Phelps Grove neighborhood and a community destination more than a century ago.
Phelps Grove Park was established in 1914, one of the first new parks created by the Park Board, established a year earlier. The park gets its namesake from a Springfield founding family, John S. and Mary Whitney Phelps, whose 1,000-acre homestead included the park and much of the Phelps Grove and University Heights neighborhoods.
When it was new, the park included the pavilion and bridges we know today, as well as a swimming lake, made by damming Fassnight Creek near what is now the Springfield Art Museum west lawn, and Springfield’s first zoo. You can still see the outlines of former zoo structures in the area between the pavilion and the tennis court. During the Great Depression, workers from the WPA lined the creek bank with stone, and you can still see the words “Phelps Grove Park” inlaid in the rock if you stand on Brookside Drive.
The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a federal work program created in 1935 under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to help stimulate the economy. It employed millions of people to do public works projects like roads, bridges, school buildings and park features.
Many folks in Springfield have a story about playing in Phelps Grove Park, or memories of attending family reunions, graduation or wedding pictures and other social gatherings in the park.
Great memories don’t usually include parking lots, but that is an important part of parks infrastructure. And over time, a need developed for enhanced parking and safety on the east and west sides of Phelps Grove. In order to keep pace with this vibrant park and make the experience more enjoyable, the Phelps Neighborhood Association (PNA) submitted a proposal to the City of Springfield’s Neighborhood Works program, which provides funding to qualifying public improvement projects requested by neighborhoods. The program is supported by City’s 1/4-cent Capital Improvements Sales Tax.
The proposal called for significant safety improvements to the east side parking area: differentiating the parking area from Virginia Avenue with traffic islands, planted with trees, as well as resurfacing, painting and a new crosswalk. On the west side, the proposal called for Clay Avenue to be widened and resurfaced, improving parallel parking.
The $80,000 project was approved in 2017, and Springfield Public Works completed the resurfacing work this fall. The traffic islands are expected to be installed over the winter.
The PNA is proud of the work it has done to better the quality of life, not only in the Phelps Grove Neighborhood, but by working with other neighborhood associations, to better our City overall. Parking lots are seldom exciting improvements, but the PNA sees the pragmatic necessity of these infrastructure improvements to allow for a more enjoyable day at the park.
Surround yourself with the mature trees, historic stone work, and the memories of our original City zoo. Come and experience one of the most beautiful and historic parks our City has to offer: Phelps Grove.
Jenny Fillmer Edwards contributed to this article