Imagining Encanto

Golden Gate Park inspired Phoenix's parks

How the American park movements' roots in romantic and rationalistic perspectives transformed a park in the Sonoran Desert.

William Hartranft founded Encanto Park in 1934, seeking to create a park for Phoenix that was like San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or San Diego's Balboa Park. William Hartranft emulated parks inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of Central Park, whose plan shaped urban parks across the United States, including Golden Gate Park. Hartranft's inspiration tells us how Americans living in the 1920s imagined what a park should look like.

Olmsted imagined parks as public places where men could escape the dirt and noise of the city and find natural, uplifting spaces. Olmsted romanticized nature and sought to improve it by designing viewsheds, hills, and lakes. His vision permeated San Francisco's planning for Golden Gate Park. However, he recommended a different location and a design more in keeping with California's unique landscapes. Olmsted argued for a similar park to promote civility and grant a meeting place for all classes in San Francisco. Likewise, New Yorkers wanted Central Park opened to all classes of society. Hartranft duplicated that inclusiveness with family-oriented recreational areas for all ages. Such ideals influenced parks across the United States, including those in Encanto, Golden Gate, and Central Park. 

Early designs for Encanto Park promoted a naturalistic style that drew upon both the design and organic materials used on the East coast. Not surprisingly, this preference for lawns and shade trees proliferated in Phoenix as it grew in the desert. Photographs and drawings demonstrate how Phoenix's early residents replaced the natural Sonoran Desert with lawns and trees, though often with palm and other desert-hardy trees, such as willows. 

If claims about the public good motivated Hatranft's rhetoric, his motives surely included the desire to build an amenity that would enhance his own economic interests. Hartranft and business partner Dwight Heard began to develop property in the nearby Palmcroft plat in 1927. They sought to build a neighborhood that would appeal to well-heeled middle-class residents and planned amenities accordingly. These eventually included Encanto Park, complete with a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, and a swimming pool. 

The Park's orientation toward elite residents (and new development) was evident in its location. In fact, residents originally called Encanto Park Dorris-Norton Park, with a nod to the nearby residents and developers who sold the land to Phoenix for the Park. James C. Norton and James W. Dorris had large estates on the land. The impressive Norton House abutted Encanto Park, as did Dorris's estate, Casa de Rojas (which later became Encanto Community Church). In the context of Phoenix's development, locating Encanto Park at the lightly populated northern edge of the city, where city elites lived and/or were moving, indicates that Hartranft and his peers imagined an amenity that would serve the well-heeled residents of the Encanto Palmcroft district.

And more broadly, Phoenix remained a primarily agricultural settlement, except for its multi-ethnic neighborhoods immediately south of the central business district. Moreover, prior to the city's purchase, the land for Encanto Park had been vacant property primarily for agriculture, especially grazing animals. In letters to nearby property owners after the sale, the Phoenix City Manager informed them that "you are herewith notified that in allowing stock to graze on this land you are trespassing upon Private Property, and unless you immediately cease this trespass the City of Phoenix proposes to take the necessary legal steps to evict you." 

Over time the relationship between the Park and its surrounding community changed, growing increasingly contentious as the years wore on. After World War II, the connections between the Park and the nearby neighborhood remained close, and families continued to flock to the Encanto-Palmcroft neighborhood. In 1946, Kiddieland opened on an island in the Park's lagoon. The new addition drew neighborhood children and tourists to its eleven amusement park rides, including a now-famous carousel. However, the community gradually became more middle class, adopting the inexpensive ranch-style houses often characteristic of the post-war American west. This was partly related to cost; creating custom homes became cost prohibitive, and the ranch style emerged as an affordable and respectable style of architecture. Still, the Encanto-Palmcroft neighborhood remained relatively exclusive. Its post-war housing boom was characterized by more elaborate and sometimes custom-built, rambling ranch-style homes. 

By the 1960s, however, tensions emerged between the users of Encanto Park and its neighbors, setting off a twenty-five-year struggle over the soul of the Park. Though newspapers reported almost daily on the positive activities happening in the Park, those news reports were sprinkled with concerns by the latter half of the decade. Through the summer of 1968, the Arizona Republic reported on the lagoon's pollution and overgrown weeds, confirmed by the operators of Kiddieland. At the same time, the Arizona Republic noted that a "cold war erupted this week into open battle" between 'hippies' and the police who were defending "adult society." The newspaper opined on the importance of "law and order" and worried that Phoenix "won't remain a choice place if Encanto Park is made into a Western version of Central Park in New York."

By the mid-1980s, park leaders in Phoenix sought to restore Encanto Park's aging infrastructure and update its amenities, including Kiddieland. A public debate ensued on a variety of park features: the future of Kiddieland (it was closed) and the fate of its carousel (a citizens' group preserved it), whether to buy "natural" boulders for the lagoon or manufacture them from concrete and how to best preserve public safety. The bandshell was lost to fire in 1987, though planners had intended to demolish it anyway. Civic leaders claimed that removing the bandshell was a safety issue as its construction was substandard. Still, one wonders whether evening concerts had produced too much tension between residents and park users over the years. By 1991, the Park had been rehabilitated, now serving a neighborhood that had become less exclusive from Phoenix and its surrounding communities.  

Even so, the Park itself remained an expression of the same park ideas that shaped the growth of urban parks throughout the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It reflected the romantic ideals of 19th-century landscape designers with its open spaces, artificial lagoons, and use of grass and trees to frame views and experience. In some respects, it may have become even more important as an oasis from the vicissitudes of urban life as Phoenix expanded around it. At the same time, the continued emphasis on amenities--whether in the form of golf, swimming, tennis, or the amusements of Kiddieland--suited the more rationalistic urban planners of the 20th century. They wanted to create functional spaces that drew visitors not just for contemplation but for recreation, especially children and families. Like other American parks, Encanto Park combined romantic and rationalistic perspectives. It had broad landscapes to complement romantics and unique attractions to suit more rational planners.

edited 12/17/2019: mt
edited 10/07/2022: jls
 

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Encanto Park: 2605 N 15th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85007