This old playground has become a legend among a generation of Bangor kids

Feb. 23—For a generation of Bangor-area kids who grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s, Bangor's creative playground at Hayford Park was more than just a place to burn off some energy when school wasn't in session. For many of those kids and their parents and neighbors, it was something they built together — literally.

During an intense five days in the fall of 1988, more than 3,000 volunteers came together to assemble a one-of-a-kind creative playground at the park, paid for by local donors and designed by nationally renowned architect and Bangor resident Bob Leathers.

Though the resulting playground only stood for just shy of 12 years before being demolished in August 2000, it has attained legendary status among the kids who played there, and their parents.

A plaque at Hayford Park in Bangor tells the story of the space that was once the site of Bangor's creative playground. That playground was built in the fall of 1988 by more than 3,000 volunteers and was designed by nationally renowned architect and Bangor native Bob Leathers. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

"It really was a grand place to go. There was a magic to it that I think was really special," said Bangor resident Paula Paradis, who was on the organizing committee. "Because for Bob Leathers, it was his hometown. And I think, for him, it was really important that this particular [playground] be something he was proud of."

Leathers was born in 1944 in Bangor, where he developed an interest in architecture at an early age, building rafts and treehouses with neighborhood boys, according to a 2015 profile. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1965, he moved to the West Coast, but was back east by 1970, where he settled in Ithaca, New York. That year, he built his first playground. By the end of the 70s, he'd designed 50 playgrounds across the country, and founded his company, Leathers and Associates.

In the 1980s, Leathers' profile rose dramatically, thanks in part to articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and appearances on the two most popular children's television shows of the era: "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street." It seemed like every town wanted its own "creative" playground.

Leathers primarily used wood, a building material that was much more affordable for the average community. He consulted children in each town about what they wanted to see in their playground. Almost nothing was off limits — if kids wanted a pirate ship, they built a pirate ship, or a castle, spaceship or circus tent. There could be drawbridges, tunnels, tire swings, climbing ropes, PVC pipe "walkie talkies." If it could be done, it would be done.

It was a far cry from the playgrounds of an earlier era, with their rickety swingsets and merry-go-rounds that could easily fling kids off, tearing up knees and elbows. A creative playground was meant to stoke the imagination.

Bob Leathers' son, Marc, now the president of Leathers and Associates, said in a 2017 interview with the publication InFlorida that from day one, his father wanted to break the mold when it came to designing places for children to play.

"My dad didn't want to do the usual cookie-cutter playground," Marc Leathers said. "He thought that the children who would be playing there on a daily basis should have some input in what their playground actually looked like and what features it contained."

By the time the Bangor project came around, Leathers had already designed playgrounds for several other towns in Maine, including Dexter, Ellsworth, Falmouth, Hampden, Islesford and Rockland. But Bangor's playground was to dwarf all those, as well as most of the other playgrounds the company had designed around the country. At 30,000 square feet, it was going to be huge — more than twice the size of most of Leathers' playgrounds.

"It was really Barbara's initial idea," said Paula Paradis, referring to one of her co-organizers, Barbara Ades, who like her was a mother to young children at that time. "It started small, but it pretty quickly gained momentum. We wanted to think big. Bob wanted it to be something special, and so did we."

An initial $30,000 donation from Stephen and Tabitha King helped jumpstart the fundraising efforts. Organizations like the Lion's Club, the Elk's Club and the Emblem Club later stepped in to help as well. In that era, Paradis said, civic organizations such as those played a big role in marshaling volunteer efforts throughout the community. In total, the group raised around $90,000.

Then, it was time to build the thing, and organizing shifted from fundraising to planning the build. Calls to action were issued through the late summer and fall for a five-day build, set for Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, 1988. Paradis said that Leathers had gotten the delegation of building duties down to a science, so the only thing they really needed was the muscle.

"It was incredibly exciting. None of us had a clue what we were doing, but we had some terrific people who rolled up their sleeves and joined in," Paradis said. "And once we got started, people just started showing up off the street to help."