It’s appropriate that the first time I heard of a monster next to Lake Merritt it was in a children’s book. Not to be confused with the living version that supposedly lurks beneath the lake’s surface; the monster I am referring to was once green, is an undulating structure of dips and curves, and was once a playtime favorite for local children lakeside. Situated on the beach just below the Lake Merritt bandstand in Lakeside Park, the sculpture has been in place for over sixty years; a treasure created by a local jewelry designer who wanted city kids to feel the same joy felt when climbing an old tree. Wear and tear has worn the monster down to a state unfit for the youth of 2016, but I say we bring it back to its former glory.
The brainchild of a nature-loving city employee and an artist and teacher from Oakland’s California College of Arts, the 40-foot sculpture was put in place in 1954. William Penn Mott, the beloved Oakland Parks Department superintendent also credited with such local wonders as Children’s Fairyland, the Oakland Zoo, and the Rotary Nature Center, saw a piece of jewelry around 1950 that inspired him to think bigger. He contacted the artist, Bob Winston, and asked him if bigger was possible. Intrigued by the challenge, Winston donated all his time and design work, over 125 hours worth, to create a modern play structure that would give children the same joy found in the free-flowing shapes within nature. It was Winston who coined the name “monster” given its size and scale.
Winston was challenged to think “outside the box” on how he would create the free-form shapes he achieved through the lost-wax method used for his metal jewelry. It was the combination of metal mesh over a metal-bar skeleton that allowed the sculpture to maintain its curves once concrete was sprayed on. Built for a mere $3,000 at Macri Iron Works in West Oakland, the sculpture was completed in 1952 and found a temporary home at the California Spring Garden Show while Mott worked to prep the beach area for its arrival. Prize money won at the show offset much of the cost incurred to create it.
Left: Bob Winston next to the sculpture during its creation
Right: examples of his jewelry
The sculpture maintained its status as an urban play structure for decades. It even hosted Sly & The Family Stone for the cover photo of their iconic 1968 album, Dance To The Music. However, as is the case with many pieces of outdoor public art, sixty years of exposure have taken a toll. The original chartreuse color faded over time, and eventually graffiti and broken sections of concrete led the city to fence it off. In a piece written for the Oakland Heritage Alliance in 2012, Oakland librarian Kathleen DiGiovanni noted that the lead levels on the sculpture exceed today’s allowable limits.
So what does the future hold for the monster? The good news, which I just confirmed last night through Kathleen DiGiovanni, is that a lead abatement has been completed on the sculpture. I have also talked to members of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, the fundraising champions of Lakeside Park, and have been told conversations are in process with the Office of Public Works to lead a fundraising effort for both the mid-century monster itself, as well as the beach and surrounding areas below the bandstand. Susan Casentini, the head of the Lake Merritt Mid-Century Monster Fan Club (yes, there is one), has also shared that restoration negotiations are underway. So, it sounds to me like the monster is going to get some local love very soon. I will be crossing my fingers that one day my kids can slide and jump off its mid-century curves just as those did in decades past. Just for kicks, I might join them.
Photo of monster sculpture in process – Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
Photo of Bob Winston next to the monster sculpture in process – sourced via Local Wiki
Two Images of Bob Winston’s jewelry – www.mschon.com
Black and White image of 2 children playing on the monster sculpture – Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
Color image of large group of children playing on the monster sculpture – sourced via the Facebook Page of the Lake Merritt Mid-Century Monster Fan Club, used with permission
Image of Sly & The Family Stone cover art – sourced via Local Wiki
All other images by Adrienne Schell, do not use without permission.