At dusk, a strange silhouette seems to emerge from Legg Lake. Its spiny back looms 20 feet long and its neck stretches toward the darkening horizon. From a distance a mother's call grows more urgent with the descending darkness, but her children do not respond. Their young bodies cling to the sea creature's back; they shriek from the animal's tail. But there's no need for alarm -- the kids are having too much fun to mind their mother who insists its time to go home. The creature wears a friendly smile and its head is covered in a colorful cap. Its surface is smooth, made of cement and glazed with paint. It is one of numerous sculptures of sea creatures that have called the Whittier Narrows Parks their home for well over half a century. They are part of a collection of site-specific cement park installations by Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez.
These fantastic sea creatures have played an important historic role in integrating the once newly-created Whittier Narrows Parks into the contested landscape. They attracted visitors and potential residents to the newly developed housing communities during the dawn of Southern California's post war suburbanization. The creation of these parks transformed the area from an untamed floodplain that nestled numerous immigrant communities, to a network of cemented channels; curated parks with newly demarcated cities along its perimeter.
As the entire region was being re-imagined and reconstructed, Benjamin Dominguez's sea creature sculptures invited visitors into a unique kind of oasis, one that for decades has provided thousands of people with respite from the urban environment, while infusing the landscape with magic. Their maker, Benjamin Dominguez, a trained artist from Mexico City, knew how to mold the materials that have shaped much of the modern environment's hard surfaces into visions of fantasy.
The Whittier Narrows Parks consist of a network of parks and recreational spaces that provides an oasis for San Gabriel Valley locals as well as visitors from throughout Greater Los Angeles. For many urban and suburban dwellers, it is the closest access they have to nature. Like many parks, Whittier Narrows and Legg Lake are constructed and highly curated spaces, whose original purpose is to control natural waterways and prepare the region for suburban growth.
There is no "Main Entrance" to the Whittier Narrows. The space is a public regional facility where visitors can enter from a variety of directions, depending on their point of origin -- El Monte, Rosemead, La Puente -- and their intended activity, such as sports, fishing, riding the equestrian trails, or a simple picnic.
The Whittier Narrows derives its name from the narrow gap where the Puente Hills and Montebello Hills come together, about seven miles east of the city of Los Angeles. It is in this Narrows that the Rio Hondo, San Gabriel River and Alhambra Wash converge. While the Federal Flood Control Act of 1936 provided the means to create a flood control area in the region, the flood of 1938 created the impetus to dam the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers. Despite an anti-dam movement based in the city of El Monte, [k1] then-Representative Richard Nixon was able to broker a compromise to keep the Narrows a place the public could still access.
In 1950, the Army Corps began construction of the Whittier Narrows with the caveat that the region would remain a recreational area. The lakes were intended as public fishing lakes, and were created as a joint project of the Department of Fish and Game, Wildlife Conservation Board, and the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. This unique partnership resulted in an overlapping of jurisdictions between local, county, state and federal agencies.
As part of the construction, Los Angeles County Supervisor Frank G. Bonelli looked for examples of play equipment that implemented new thinking in playground design, with the hopes that something unique would draw together the diverse communities surrounding the Narrows. [k3] . He became very interested in a new "fantasy-land" park in Las Vegas that was generating a considerable amount of media coverage. In the newspapers, he saw intriguing photographs of sculptures of a mother dragon surrounded by mushrooms, and two unique fish slides that were accessed through their open mouths and whose slide followed the curve of the fish's body.
The sculptures, Bonelli learned, were the creations of Benjamin Dominguez. He was a seasoned artist with earlier works in Las Vegas and El Paso, Texas, as well as a fruitful career in Mexico City. Supervisor Bonelli saw in Dominguez and his playful cement creatures the perfect opportunity to make the Whittier Narrows Recreational Area a destination, and soon commissioned him to transform Legg Lake.
Benjamin Dominguez was born in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1894. He attended Academia de Artes Plasticas of the University of Mexico, where he completed his studies in 1925 and began his career in the concrete arts. His particular specialty was that of the 250 year old European craft of "faux-bois," also known as trabajo rustico, or "concrete wood." His most recognized work in Mexico was at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City (1942) where he designed the lion and tiger enclosures. Perhaps this is where he first began to imagine the forms of animals as part of the actual design instead of simply creating a design to contain animals.
Over the next 30 years Dominquez worked at his craft and raised his 13 children with his wife, Anna. From city to city and commission to commission, which eventually brought him to the United States, Dominguez developed his whimsical aesthetic and play sculpture concept. After World War II, Dominguez moved his family to Ciudad Juarez where he first began to imagine the play sculptures he would soon create.
By 1956 Dominguez and his family were living in El Paso, where he created his first play sculpture, though it was not for children in a typical park. Based on his previous work in Chapultepec Zoo, he was commissioned to create the Bear Pits in Washington Park Zoo, erecting a concrete tree for the bears to climb. This work opened the door to future commissions that featured the play sculptures that Dominguez had conceptualized while living in Juarez.
For his first playground in El Paso, Dominguez deliberately selected sea creatures as the best medium for children's play. Rene Dominguez, son of Benjamin Dominguez, recalls many drawings and discussions while the family lived in Juarez about the smooth surfaces and gentle curves that the sea creatures would provide for slides and safe tactile play. Eventually the unique design of his play sculptures, combined with plenty of networking and applying to countless commissions (he painstakingly wrote letters, using a Spanish-English dictionary to translate his words) made Dominguez's playgrounds creatures quite popular, and eventually earned him public attention, including notice from Supervisor Bonelli.
Rene Dominguez recalls that his father was given creative license in designing the play space in Las Vegas' "Fantasy Park". According to Donna Andress, who chaired the committee charged with funding the park, Domginuez brought pictures of each piece he planned to construct to get approval, with strong preferences on the appropriate spaces for each of the pieces he would create. He insisted that the careful placement of the pieces would create an environment that had artistic appeal to visitors, and that would foster imaginative play on the part of the children.
The enthusiasm for the Las Vegas Park led to three known commissions in Southern California: Whittier Narrows, Garden Grove, and San Gabriel. Now in his late 60s Dominguez, again moved his family and settled in La Puente. His younger sons were his apprentices that helped him with much of the hard manual labor of molding the rebar and wire to their father's specifications. Dominguez executed the drawings, models, and all of the fine finishing details for each piece. Many of the details that gave the sculptures their character were made with tools that Dominguez either brought from Mexico or made himself.
The fact that Dominguez's' fanciful creations were often described as "fantasy parks" seems to be part of the shift in how parks and play-spaces are conceptualized. A 1960 article in the journal Parks and Recreation noted that, "[t]he break in attitude towards the redesign of play areas has come from our European neighbors...[t]hey conceive that the play area should be an aesthetic and dramatic experience, as well as a physical one." The article continued to state that the "new" park was a museum, an opportunity to see and experience the arts and crafts of the community, a native folklore center. It noted that the "rubber stamp" playgrounds of the past had given way to a new approach to recreation and park design in America. Now, rather than fitting the play equipment "to create square spaces called playgrounds...[pieces] are selected and placed as required by the contour or position of the land." Greater attention was given to the design of outdoor spaces, creating attractions as much as playgrounds, and showcasing artistic expression.
Benjamin's design seems to be indicative of his belief that play should follow the natural shape of the sea creature. The mother dragon exemplifies the more geometric and angular construction of Dominguez's early work, and the pieces at Legg Lake share this characteristic style. [k5] The whale's function is straightforward, with its big happy mouth inviting you to climb inside and slide from its blow hole, down its tail. It's surprising and delightful how slippery a cement surface can be. The octopus' play purpose is not so evident, as its rounded coils of tentacles are a bit too tall and slippery to climb. Perhaps its function is not exactly to be a plaything, but simply to be your friend. Children and adults eventually curl into one of its arms, together saluting the sun as it dips into the horizon, setting the rippling lake ablaze.
The Legg Lake Play Sculptures are the only remaining examples of Dominguez's earlier, more geometric design work. They have beautified the poetic landscape that is a haven from the surrounding urban areas, and have provided recreation to millions of visitors, and created an atmosphere of decorative and functional fantasy. The pieces, which have maintained a perfect safety record over five decades, are valued by Los Angeles County, and beloved by the communities that enjoy them. While the traditional playground equipment in the Lakes Area has been replaced over the years, Dominguez's sculptures have remained, and the Legg Lake Play Sculptures were added to the California Register of Historical Resources in 2009.
And despite the newer playgrounds, the magnetic charm of Dominguez's creatures has not worn off with time, though their flaking paint and crumbling surfaces have. Conservation efforts by Friends of La Laguna, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of Benjamin Dominguez's works, have paid off, especially at Vincent Lugo Park in the city of San Gabriel where the play sculptures have been fully restored. At Legg Lake, the restoration process has been more drawn out without much public attention. Nonetheless, for many of its visitors, the sculptures have become the most vivid of memories in the park. Generations of families return again and again to greet the goofy creatures, laying their hands on the lovingly worn surfaces, as if greeting an old family friend. Every time, the same sweet sea creature will welcome all back home.
To learn more, here is a video from the KCET archives with information about Benjamin Dominguez and the journey to conserve the sculptures at Vincent Lugo Park in San Gabriel, CA:
KCET is Southern California Television