From its inception as Lynchburg’s first playground, Guggenheimer-Milliken was a popular year-round play spot. In addition to the indoor and summertime activities the playground offered, outdoor play was supervised through the winter, as well. In 1936, Lynchburg experienced an abnormal amount of snowfall. The Recreation Department contributed the lingering snow on the ground to the “large increase” in playground attendance from the previous year, noting that “sleigh riding tracks” were maintained under the supervision of the playground director. Other winter activities, including building snow forts and having snowball fights, were popular playground pastimes, as well.
As the Recreation Department expanded, it began to host annual holiday events at each playground, including Guggenheimer-Milliken. The community center there drew crowds of people on Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, April Fools, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In 1928, Guggenheimer-Milliken even hosted the first city-wide Maypole dance on May Day.
During the playground’s earliest years, a public school kindergarten was located in one room of the house, and in 1922, a library was opened on the premises. The library was operated as a branch of the Jones Memorial Library, and it reached a peak circulation of over 17,000 books in 1944. Circulation declined steadily after that, and the library was eventually closed in 1970.
On July 4, 1927, the Guggenheimer-Milliken public swimming pool opened and featured a bath house and a sand beach. Its dimensions were 45 X 135, and the department noted in a monthly report that the pool had a “diving tower, guard boxes, scum gutters, chlorinating plant, and electric lights.” Swimming classes were offered twice a week, and in the first year of operation the pool averaged more swimmers per day than the larger pool at Miller Park. Interest in the pool waned in the following years, however, and several times over the next decade the seasonal opening of the pool was delayed due to the need for “extensive repairs”. In 1935, the pool was so badly vandalized it did not open until July 17, and it closed on July 30 that year due to “small patronage and barring of children to the pool due to the infantile paralysis outbreak.”
By the early 1940s, a lack of visitation reduced the hours and days of the pool’s operation, but even with such a reduction the pool continued to operate at a loss. The pool closed in August 1944 following another infantile paralysis epidemic in Lynchburg, and it remained permanently closed after the decision was made not to open it in 1945 due “mainly to shortage of pool personnel” and the inability to secure “necessary materials” for repairs and operation of the pool.
In 1935, the old Guggenheimer house burned, and the new community center built in its place contained larger indoor spaces to accommodate the activities there. Attendance at the Guggenheimer-Milliken playground peaked in 1942 when nearly 136,000 people visited the playground and athletic fields over the course of the year. The community center, pool, and library that year brought an additional 47,000 people to the property, bringing total visitation to 183,000 people.
While population shifts, World War II, and the changing post-war society caused attendance at Guggenheimer-Milliken to decline, the quest for modern progress eventually became the playground’s undoing. In 1953, the new Lynchburg Expressway was built through the playground’s land, reducing the amount of field space available and forcing the community center building to have to move 50 feet. By the mid-1950s, attendance had slumped to under 20,000, and in the 1960s the playground averaged only around 15,000 visitors each year.
In a final attempt to bring renewed interest to the playground, the Recreation Department transferred the former director of the department’s activities at the Dunbar High School recreation facilities to the Guggenheimer-Milliken Center, since no new indoor facility had been located to replace the one at the school following the school’s closure. The Department hoped those who had been using the Dunbar gym space would go to Guggenheimer-Milliken for their community center programs.
Attendance continued to decline, however, and the community center was closed in 1972. Over the 58 years the Guggenheimer-Milliken playground was open, it had over 2,875,000 total visitors take advantage of its outdoor recreational opportunities, its community house, its pool, and its library. Now, on the land where children once ran and played and adults met and socialized, thousands of cars drive through daily, past the Grace Street exit on the Expressway, hurrying from downtown to other areas of the city.
From its humble beginnings as a single playground on Grace Street, Lynchburg’s now-Parks and Recreation department oversees 18 parks situated on 850 acres of land. In honor of her dream and her vision for creating places where children could safely play with other members of their community, the city of Lynchburg dedicated a memorial to Bertha Guggenheimer in 1934 at the Guggenheimer-Milliken playground, the city’s first public recreation center.
Written by Karissa Marken
Lynchburg Museum Staff