The Milwaukee County Parks system became nationally known for its pioneering approaches, including the preservation of waterways surrounded by meandering parkways. Its origins date back to early city parks, which were all eventually merged into the county’s system. Park development was led first by a city park board and later by a county park commission. Additionally, three nationally renowned landscape architects separately designed a total of six of Milwaukee’s earliest parks.
Horace W. S. Cleveland, a Massachusetts native steeped in Transcendentalism, was commissioned to plan Juneau Park, Milwaukee’s first designed park, in 1870. It featured a zigzagging promenade leading to Lake Michigan, with built-into-the-hillside seating. Trained in civil engineering, Cleveland addressed shoreline control and drainage. He worked in Chicago before moving to Minneapolis and designing its renowned park system.
Christian Wahl, who had immigrated to Milwaukee with his family from Bavaria, returned in the mid-1880s after retiring from an entrepreneurial career and elected public-service roles in Chicago. He led advocacy to develop public parks when Milwaukee had mostly private amusement parks and beer gardens and park development far lagged behind other major cities. (In 1890, there were only 60 acres of public parks serving 200,000 city residents.). When Milwaukee’s Park Board was formed in 1889, Wahl was one of five appointed, unpaid commissioners. He served as commission president for ten years. Wahl Avenue and Wahl Park are named for him.
Frederick Law Olmsted, often called the father of American parks, co-designed New York’s Central Park and landscapes for Chicago’s 1893 World Fair. The Connecticut native invented the concepts of park systems and linking parkways, which eventually inspired Milwaukee leaders to incorporate them in city planning. Between 1892 and 1895, Olmsted designed Lake, Riverside and Washington parks, as well as Newberry Boulevard.
Warren H. Manning, son of a nationally renowned Massachusetts nurseryman, managed the plantings in Olmsted’s Milwaukee parks. After launching his own firm in 1896, Manning consulted about Milwaukee’s nascent parks, and designed Kosciuszko Park’s expansion and Mitchell Park, including its long-acclaimed Sunken Garden to complement the park’s original Victorian-style glasshouse. A national leader in environmental approaches to landscape design and urban planning, he helped foster the National Parks Service and co-founded the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Charles B. Whitnall, a florist, banker and City of Milwaukee Treasurer, served on the county’s parks commission from 1907 until 1947. Often called the father of Milwaukee County Parks, he waged a decades-long campaign to develop an ambitious system of naturalistic public land. An idealistic and pragmatic Socialist, he proposed a county-encircling network of parks and parkways that preserved rivers and creeks. Whitnall Park, his namesake, was the crowning achievement of his visionary planning.
George Hansen designed and supervised construction of Grant Park’s golf course beginning in 1919. Commissioners extended his design contract before appointing him superintendent of parks in 1926, a post he held until his death in 1950. Hansen designed courses at Greenfield, Currie, Brown Deer and Whitnall parks between 1923 and 1932 and oversaw consolidation of city and county parks in 1937.
Alfred Boerner, a Cedarburg native educated as a landscape architect, was hired by Whitnall in 1927. He designed scenic parks that reflected Wisconsin’s indigenous landscapes while offering diverse recreation “in an environment of beauty.” He managed park construction, aided by Depression-era local and national work-relief programs. Boerner managed the county parks system for three years before his untimely death in 1955.
Park commissioners — appointed, unpaid officials — oversaw the acquisition and development of systems of parks. Milwaukee’s incomparable lakefront of contiguous parks evolved over nine decades through long-view planning by both city and county parks leaders. The county’s first board of park commissioners, formed in 1907, included architect Alfred C. Clas, meat-packing magnate Patrick Cudahy, florist wholesaler James Currie, Wauwatosa’s first mayor Emerson D. Hoyt, hotel owner Alvin P. Kletzsch, farm-implement company head William Lindsay, and Whitnall.
City and county parks were consolidated in 1937; the merger increased efficiencies and federal-funding options and dissolved the city parks board. In 1981 Milwaukee County’s elected Board of Supervisors abolished the county parks commission. Since then, the county board has overseen the county’s park system.