ANNAPOLIS -- Almost 2,000 people, some of whom had never used a hammer before, gathered at a small, run-down city park last week for a four-day marathon to build what one mother called the "Rolls-Royce of playgrounds."
The wooden fantasy land at the Newman Street Park, designed by architect Robert Leathers, who specializes in designing playgrounds for volunteer construction crews, cost $40,000. Except for $2,000 in seed money from the city, volunteers built and paid for the project through donations and projects such as "Buy a Board" sales in which children sold Popsicle sticks to represent the lumber needed for the playground.
Although Leathers' playgrounds have become extremely popular in the Washington area recently, the Newman park project was the first one in Annapolis.
"When I first heard we were building a playground, I thought we were talking about a few slides, a few swing sets," said Jef Klein of Annapolis. "I had no idea we were talking about the Rolls-Royce of playgrounds."
But the idea was clear all along for Lee Franklin, co-owner of Be-Beep toy store in Annapolis. About two years ago, she saw a similar playground in Alexandria. Franklin suggested a Leathers playground to officials at her son's school on Kent Island, but they already were committed to using another architect and professional contractor.
Franklin talked with her friend Kathy Miller of Annapolis, who had helped build a Leathers playground in Reston. Miller suggested that they organize volunteers to build a similar play area in Annapolis.
While Franklin contacted Leathers' firm in Ithaca, N.Y., Miller took the idea to city officials, who offered the seed money and agreed to haul away old equipment at the park.
"It was in pretty bad shape and not meeting safety standards," said Richard Callahan, director of the city's recreation and parks department.
An architect from Leathers' firm met with 350 children from four Annapolis schools and asked what they wanted at the playground. While the children watched, the architect drew up plans for a castle, a lighthouse, mock ships, slides, swings, ladders, bridges and an outdoor classroom -- all connected by a wheelchair-accessible wooden maze.
Miller and Franklin said they had hoped from the start of the project that the playground would foster community spirit. Many of the early volunteers were parents of students at nearby Annapolis Elementary School, which uses the playground for its recesses. As the project grew, though, others became involved.
About 70 midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy showed up to help at the construction site during the weekend. So did many whose families have outgrown playgrounds. John and Tish Deus of Annapolis worked for two days at the site, even though their children are in college.
"Maybe our grandkids will use it," John Deus said, laughing.
At his side was 13-year-old Ryan O'Connor, who confessed to trying out the slides. Nonetheless, he said he had worked fairly steadily at the site and picked up a few points from Deus. "He taught me to nail straight," said Ryan, who was pleased with the work team's efforts. "It's cool. Kids are going to have a lot of fun here."
Under supervision of Leathers' coordinators, construction site volunteers were divided into skilled and unskilled labor, and their work ranged from operating backhoes to sweeping the construction site. Many found they could do more than they thought, especially after a few lessons from experienced workers.
"I think the women are having a ball," Franklin said. "They've never used these power tools, but the skilled carpenters are saying, 'Sure, you can do this,' and showing them how."
She likened the project to an old-fashioned barn-raising, and gave special credit to the volunteers who provided food and entertained children while their parents worked on the site. "We couldn't do this without filled bellies and happy children," she said.