Although Union Park is one of Akron’s oldest landmarks, few know it by its real name.
Today, the triangle-shaped land is regarded as a front yard.
A cast-iron fence surrounds the park once bounded by Mill, Forge and College streets near the University of Akron. More than a century ago, this was a lush, picturesque destination where children frolicked, lovers strolled, families picnicked and bands performed.
The beautiful park boasted shade trees, a stone fountain, crisscrossing sidewalks, wooden benches, flower gardens and a small bandstand — a serene setting on a sunny afternoon.
Col. Simon Perkins, son of Akron’s founder, wanted the land preserved for all time when he donated it to the community in the mid-19th century. It had served as a “public common,” a pasture where local residents let cattle graze.
Originally called Flatiron Park, the 1.85-acre triangle was deeded to Akron in March 1848 along with 7.7 acres that Perkins christened Grace Park in honor of his wife, Grace.
The gifts were “in consideration of our desire to provide for the health and convenience of the inhabitants of the Town of Akron,” Perkins noted in the deed. At the time, Akron’s population was nearing 3,200.
Perkins said the two tracts were “for the purpose of public squares, or grounds, and for no other purpose whatsoever.”
He also required that “good and sufficient fences around the same shall be erected within nine months,” that “no buildings or structures of any kind shall be erected on the same,” and that if Akron failed to follow these rules or maintain upkeep, “the grantors, their heirs or assigns may re-enter and take possession of the same, and enjoy it in as full and ample a manner as if this conveyance had never been made.”
In other words, Perkins or his heirs would repossess the land if Akron didn’t comply.
Following the Civil War, Akron officials renamed Flatiron Park as Union Park in the late 1860s. Its eastern tip pointed toward nearby South Union Street. According to Akron historian Samuel A. Lane, the park was “flanked on the west and north by handsome private residences, and on the southeasterly side by like structures.”
In 1885, contractors Wilheim & Schroeder broke ground on Akron High School, a four-story building with a 160-foot clock tower on Forge Street. When the city’s only high school opened in 1886, its top floors offered a splendid view of the park across the street.
As Lane put it somewhat awkwardly, the park was “most highly appreciated by both teachers, scholars and people.”
Union Park was especially known for its Sunday concerts. Some of Akron’s most famous musicians, including the Eighth Regiment Band and the Great Western Band, performed there regularly.
In April 1894, excavation began on a stone fountain 35 feet in diameter at the triangle’s center. A large crowd attended a patriotic concert at the fountain’s dedication that June.
“They were present from all parts of the city, both young and old, and remained there until the last number on the programme was rendered,” the Akron Beacon and Republican reported June 20, 1894.
“The jam around and near the fountain was almost suffocating and the entire park was filled to overflowing. A neat stand, decorated with flags and bunting, was erected in the center of the park. The new fountain, which is certainly a handsome one, was dedicated with fitting ceremonies.”
Neighborhood kids flocked to the park and sometimes became a little too boisterous. Akron officials responded to public complaints in 1900 after young boys “used bad language and injured the park” when police left for the day.
“They sailed kites and whooped and yelled in exciting style; they played ball, fought, swore vigorously, and led a life of unrestrained wildness; they would jump into the fountain and splash; what they wouldn’t do has not yet been reported,” the Akron Daily Democrat reported.
In 1903, citizens registered additional complaints about litter and other waste in Union Park “offending the eyes and perhaps the nose.” City officials pledged an immediate cleanup.
The Akron Women’s Council raised money in 1917 to install a drinking fountain at College and Mill streets. The iron-and-bronze fixture, which was built “not only for thirsty humans, but for birds and dogs and cats,” offered welcome refreshment at outdoor concerts.
A somber addition was a bronze, eagle-crested plaque that International Harvester dedicated about 1920 in memory of the 12 men from its Akron plant who died in World War I.
As Akron’s population surged, Union Park slowly lost its identity. Akron High School changed its name to Central High School when South High opened in 1911. The old building was renovated and expanded in the 1920s and 1930s to make room for more students.
In 1943, school board member Gus Kasch proposed closing Forge Street between College and Union streets to extend the park’s southern boundary to Central’s entrance. He said it was “a serious traffic hazard” for students to cross the street.
The city agreed to disconnect Forge, a move that unofficially turned Union Park into the school’s front lawn.
Over the decades, the triangle lost its fountains, sidewalks, gardens, benches, memorial and much of its charm, but the fence remained — as Perkins had instructed.
Central High School Principal Kenneth Moore proposed turning over the deed to the school board in 1958, saying that shady characters were creating a local nuisance.
“Union Park serves as a focal point for deviates, drunkards and other undesirables,” Moore insisted. “School authorities have no jurisdiction over who should frequent the park. The environment is detrimental to the health and welfare of our student body.”
The deed wouldn’t allow a transfer, but the city agreed to add a cinder track and other improvements for physical education and athletic practice.
Akron Public Schools merged Central with Hower Vocational School in 1970, creating Central-Hower High School. Despite the addition of a $6.3 million building in the mid-1970s, the board closed the school in 2006 because of falling enrollment.
But it may gain a new life.
This year, Akron Public Schools and the University of Akron are hoping for passage of state legislation that would allow the college to acquire Central-Hower and share its space with the school district.
A word of legal caution: Despite its appearance, Union Park isn’t a front yard.
By terms of the deed, the city is not allowed to transfer the title, remove the fence around the park or prohibit the general public from using it.
Leave the fence up.
Leave the lawn open.
Or prepare for Col. Simon Perkins’ heirs to reclaim their rightful property.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a new book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.