‘Mid-Century Monster’ is Reborn

Oakland's 'Mid-Century Modern Monster' on the shores of Lake Merritt was officially recalled to life after a painstaking restoration. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Few monsters receive as much love as the amorphous, gangly structure that sprawls across a beach on Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Recently fated to be destroyed – the fate of most monsters – this creature was rescued by folks who simply fell in love with it.

“It’s wonderful to see kids just run to it. They’re attracted. They’re drawn to it,” Susan Casentini said on Sunday, July 28, as volunteers who’d worked so hard to save the 1952 sculpture by the late  Oakland jeweler and sculptor Bob Winston gathered on the lakeshore to celebrate this most recent triumph for mid-century modern fans.

It was the artist, who designed the play structure and oversaw construction without charge, who first called the sculpture "the monster." "Mid-century" got added to its title recently.

Among the celebrants were close to 15 members of Winston’s family, who came from all over the country to get together and recall the artist’s legacy.

Bob Winston, son of the artist, came from Louisiana, as did two of his daughters. Another came from Florida, and another from Nashville.

Members of the Winston family gathered lakeside to enjoy a fine Sunday and each other's company and to hear from Oakland's mayor and other speakers.

Son Bob Winston was four years old when the sculpture was installed on the lake, which has always been a central gathering spot in Oakland. The sculpture is just a few hundred feet from another major attraction for young people and their parents, Children’s Fairyland.

“I’ve got a picture of me jumping off with a Davy Crockett hat,” Bob Winston said.

Winston said his father was careful to make sure the sculpture would not pose a danger for the kids who’d be climbing it. During World War II, he said, his father had worked at a daycare center, where he had carefully measured how far young feet could reach.

Winston senior used that knowledge when notching the footholds in the sides of the sculpture. He also made sure the footholds did not take younger kids to higher spots where they would be in danger.

Another visitor to the July 28 celebration was Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who gave a nice speech – but did not climb aboard the monster.

Bob Winston's sculpture took a star turn in 1968 on the cover of Sly and the Family Stone's popular album.

The sculpture has always had a star-filled history. The man who got it going was William Penn Mott, an ardent conservationist who was then Oakland’s parks superintendent and later became head of the National Park Service. It was also Mott who had the inspiration for Children’s Fairyland.

Mott persuaded Winston, who generally worked on a much smaller scale, to create the freeform sculpture – a style that was increasingly popular at the time, when amoeba-shaped pools were new.

Another star drawn to the sculpture was Sly Stone, who posed with bandmates for the album cover for ‘Dance to the Music’ atop the creature.

The sculpture has always appealed to everyday people too, Rob Stewart recalled at the Sunday celebration. Stewart, who is executive director of the longtime Oakland group, the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, grew up in Oakland and enjoyed the sculpture often as a boy.

“I’ve climbed on that structure many times growing up, and I had my birthdays at Children’s Fairyland,” he recalled.

Susan Casentini, Rob Stewart, and Kyle Milligan (front) were among the leaders of the effort to preserve the monster.

That’s why, back in 2015, when the city fenced the sculpture off after some years of slow decay, Stewart worried about its future.

Oakland Heritage Alliance did too, and spread the word that the sculpture needed help.

Stewart called the city and the news was bad. “They said they were going to tear it down. It’s beyond repair,” he said.

So the breakfast club, which meets near the lake and cares for the lake, decided to step in. But even after the club told the city they would raise funds, the city still said no, Stewart said.

But the club would not let up. Through its separate, charitable foundation, it raised funds, getting well-known developer Phil Tagami to take interest, and reaching into the community.

A married couple, both artists, Susan Casentini and Kyle Milligan, formed a mid-century monster fan club. Kyle dubbed the sculpture the “mid-century modern monster,” he said, and the name appealed.

“It just seemed like an important thing to save,” Susan Casentini said.

The architectural firm Page & Turnbull added their expertise on restoring historic structures, with architect Peter Birkholz selflessly contributing his time, Casentini said.

Western Specialty Contractors, “a network of skilled member companies and workers,” was hired to reconstruct broken sections, remove the bad lath and plaster, and recoat with “a green tinted elastomeric coating,” according to the company. They also removed the asbestos.

Western got paid for the work, Stewart said, but put in extra effort and time, even sending some of their members as volunteers when needed. Casentini says the project cost about $80,000, $50,000 coming from the community, and the city paying $30,000 for lead abatement

Stewart said the sculpture today looks exactly as it did when new – though, without the lead and asbestos, it is a bit less monstrous now.

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