Driving around Kansas City’s Northland on Vivion Road, it’s kind of hard to miss Penguin Park. It has a way of sticking out – there’s a giant penguin standing in the center of it. But why is the penguin there? And where did it come from?
The park, which sits on the corner of North Norton Avenue and Vivion, is in Lakewood Greenway park (though that corner was officially renamed Penguin Park in 1998.) It has your typical playground things like swings and monkey bars. But the large penguin, kangaroo, giraffe and elephant are all part of the park’s unique collection of large-scale fiberglass animals, made by hand almost half a century ago by engineer and craftsman Vernon Jones. The name of the park was changed to Penguin Park in 1998 after the 25-foot tall iconic fiberglass penguin, one of the first to be installed.
Vernon Jones worked for Kansas City Parks and Recreations in the mid-1950's when the Northland was annexed by the city. He was a self-taught craftsmen, engineer and liked to tinker. He was soft-spoken and liked to do his own thing.
“We were basically building our own playground equipment. Today we just buy it off of a shelf,” recalls Mark McHenry, director for the Parks and Recreation Department for Kansas City, Mo.
McHenry used to work for Jones and says they even built their own picnic benches in those days.
The superintendent for Kansas City Parks and Recreation at the time, Frank Vaydik, wanted to build a Santa’s Wonderland for the city. So he let Vernon Jones use his imagination and go to town.
Using pipes, plastic, wood, fiberglass and some recycled materials, he created a large scale Santa Claus and snowman slide. They were part of the Gillham Park Santa’s Wonderland for years. A year later in 1965, it was decided that the Northland would have its own wonderland. So Jones started working on a penguin and giraffe for the new park.
“I mean why a penguin? I’m not sure why he picked a penguin,” says McHenry. "Jones had a real vision and loved kids. I think he was one of the first originators of what I call the 'destination playground.' You know a lot of times playgrounds will just be a swing or a slide – you know a small item within the park. But this is a place where you can spend some time."
The penguin used to be a slide that you could climb up inside of and go down, and the giraffe used to have a swing hanging from its neck. Over the years modifications were made due to safety and structural integrity. But these changes haven’t stopped generations of people from enjoying the park’s creatures.
Taryn Smith and her grandfather Ed Kennedy come here at least once a month. Kennedy says 25 years ago he used to bring Taryn’s mother and uncle to play on the same animals.
“We were looking at pictures the other day and I had a picture of her mom and her uncle sticking her head out of the penguin,” says Kennedy.
Mark McHenry with the parks department says the park has become a cross-generational landmark for the community.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that lives north of the river who doesn’t know about Penguin Park,” he says.
Vernon Jones became the first parks superintendent for the Northland, and continued to work on other fiberglass structures and sculptures for the city, in addition to managing the Northland parks.
“It was kind of his own personal little passion,” says McHenry.
Over the years the penguin started to see some wear and tear. In the '80s Jones even came out of retirement to make repairs to his penguin, as it was experiencing water damage. In the '90s, a 'Save Penguin Park' campaign was launched and successfully raised money to make necessary park renovations and add a pavilion. Today the park sees thousands of visitors a year.
"The fact that there are kids playing on this stuff today 50 years later, that would make him smile.” says McHenry. “He was just trying to do something for the kids, and that’s a big part of the parks I mean, that’s what they’re there for, for people to enjoy the outdoors.”
Jones passed away in 2004.
A previous version of this story misidentified the name of Lakewood Greenway park.
What Is That? is a regular series on Central Standard in which we investigate odd storefronts, architectural oddities and other mysterious landmarks around the Kansas City area. Do you have a suggestion of a spot you’d like us to investigate? Email us at email@example.com.