The recent expansion of the small Merrill Springs city park on the southern shore of Lake Mendota has focused attention on some neglected landscape features constructed by the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Administration (WERA) in 1934. The park, located at the end of Spring Ct. off Lake Mendota Dr. was originally established by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPDA), who constructed the large circular spring enclosure with local sandstone in the 1890s. In 1934 the WERA, a state relief program during the Great Depression that was later subsumed by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), was charged with improving the park. WERA workers used locally-quarried stone to reconstruct the spring enclosure, improve the spillway to the lake, and build massive picnic tables and benches, a fireplace, and privies, all in the Rustic style typical of Depression-era relief projects (Other Depression-era relief projects in Madison include the stone walls around Breese Stevens Field, and the shelters, fireplaces, and walls at Hoyt Park). The fireplace and privies at Merrill Springs Park are gone, but the spring enclosure and three picnic tables are extant and still in service.
The park has gotten unusual attention and traffic lately. The Madison Parks Division has recently made some landscaping improvements and replaced a chain-link with a split-timber fence, and neighbors have been considering a proposal by the city to rehabilitate and rent out a small cottage, built in the 1920s, that stands on the newly acquired parcel. With all the recent traffic it’s become clear that there are extant stone walkways, probably constructed by the WERA, on the hillside leading up to Lake Mendota Dr., that have been buried by decades of soil accumulation. There is interest in the neighborhood in uncovering and possibly restoring these WERA features to put them back in service. MTHP is working with Spring Harbor neighbors to consider how these buried landscape features can be recovered and possibly restored.
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