Tenney Park was designed by nationally-known landscape architect Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds and developed in four phases from 1900 to 1911. It is an excellent and intact example of the Prairie School of landscape architecture. The Prairie School of architecture is more widely known, but there was also a Prairie School of landscape architecture developed in Chicago and Wisconsin around the same time as Sullivan’s and Wright’s architectural ideas. Simonds, along with Jens Jensen were its primary theorists, and it was based on the principle of letting nature guide the design. They promoted the use of indigenous plants and materials, and deference to natural topography and water bodies in designing for the pleasure and convenience of people.
The park is 44.2 acres dominated by a meandering lagoon that surrounds a central island. Narrow paths follow the outline of the lagoon and five foot bridges cross over the lagoon at various locations. Loose-branched trees and shrubs give the park a natural, unplanned feeling.
The oldest structure in the park is a modest Prairie style restroom building built in 1909 near the western edge of the park. Five foot bridges in the park were built between 1912 and 1959. The Thornton Avenue Spillway is an excellent local example of a Rustic style bridge. It was built in 1936. A park shelter built in 1958 is slated for replacement, and the arched steel suspension bridge was built in 1970.
The Yahara River Parkway, also a locally designated Landmark, extends from Tenney Park to the southeast and connects with Lake Monona.