It was 1986 and Mike Hedley couldn’t believe what his wife, Jean, was suggesting.
She wanted to build a playground at Christopher Rhodes School, which is just up the street from their home. This was no ordinary playground. It was to be the most elaborative of all Warwick school playgrounds. Not only was it to cover a giant swath of the schoolyard and have swings, slides and monkey bars like other playgrounds but towers, walls and, in the center of its fort-like structure, sandboxes, benches and picnic tables. It’s no wonder it was called Kids Kingdom.
Mike had an idea of what she was thinking as the two of them visited a playground in Cumberland that was of equal grandeur.
Mike realized this was no small undertaking. He estimated it would take upwards of $120,000 to build and it would take a long time to raise with PTO bake sales that raise $50. But Jean was undaunted. In her quiet way she talked to the PTO and Principal Frank Tomasso. They visited the Cumberland playground, where school officials there provided contact information for the architect and described how the community rallied to build it.
Fellow parents, teachers, neighbors and even people with no connection to Rhodes School got excited. The PTO formed committees. One was responsible for raising funds and came up with creative ideas like parent/teacher basketball games and silent auctions. Another group was responsible for recruiting work crews. Another committee prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for the volunteers during the four-day construction phase. Yet another group sought donated materials and groups like the Pioneers of America, retirees from the New England Telephone Co., helped amass railroad ties, telephone poles and the screws and bolts to hold everything together. There was even a student committee that came up with ideas to be incorporated into the playground.
Having raised $40,000 and collecting all the necessary materials, work began on a Wednesday staking out the playground. Work began in earnest on Thursday and went nonstop during the daylight hours until Sunday, May 17, 1987, when the playground was completed. About 300 volunteers, some armed with picks, shovels, saws, hammers and an arsenal of tools and equipment, built the kingdom under the direction of a company that designed the playground down to the last metal bracket.
Mike remembers assembling multiple rectangles from 2x4s with no idea how they would be used. But there was a plan and it all came together.
Marc Berman, who is now an IT manager at Carousel Technologies, was a student at Rhodes School at the time. He remembers the weekend they built Kids Kingdom and he remembers the burial of a time capsule as the project neared completion. Fred Linden, one of many parents in that army of volunteer builders, also remembers the time capsule – a three-foot long section of PVC pipe, sealed at both ends. He was the one to bury it about three feet below a slide in the southeast corner of the kingdom.
On Thursday morning Berman, Linden and the Hedleys were together again, but this time in the lower conference room at Warwick City Hall to open the capsule before an audience including Mayor Joseph Solomon, Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix and Hugh Fisher, the developer who is in the process of demolishing the former school and building 30 homes on the site.
Contents of the capsule, actually a smaller metal capsule within the PVC pipe, had been damaged by moisture and were a disappointment. There was a faded color photograph, bits of paper with names, a yellowed newspaper clipping and a tape recording that appeared to be in reasonably good condition but will need cleaning when a recorder can be found to play it. The 90-minute audio included comments by students and remarks by faculty and the PTO with thank yous for all who made the kingdom possible.
The story of locating the capsule is, indeed, worth telling.
The kingdom was a sensation when opened. It attracted kids and parents from throughout the city and spurred similar construction projects at other elementary schools, although none quite as elaborate as that at Rhodes. But the kingdom didn’t age well. Built largely of wood and not the plastic composites that became the standard for playground equipment in the years to come, splinters became an issue. Eventually, after about 15 years of play, it was taken down, but the capsule was still out there.
Earlier this year, Berman visited the school, posting pictures on his Facebook page along with shots taken in its heyday. He received comments along with an inquiry about the time capsule, which he had forgotten. As he gathered more information, including a video of the playground construction taken by Pat Bonneau, he made a page for the school.
The school closed in 2011. It reopened as a temporary home for the Rhode Island School for the Deaf as a new school for the deaf was built in Providence. And then the school sat vacant. The late City Council President Bruce Place headed a committee that worked to find either a tenant or buyer for the school. The Artists’ Exchange based in Cranston submitted a proposal to relocate to the school, but even with a dollar-year lease the cost of renovating the building made it impractical.
Purposefully, recalls Jean, the location of the capsule was known to only two people for fear if it became public someone would try to dig it up. The two were the architect and Fred, who buried it.
Marc connected with Fred and then was able to get a copy of the original drawings from the architectural firm. Fred remembered burying the capsule at the end of a slide, yet there were no measurements on the drawings to indicate the distance from the school.
But the drawings also showed the basketball court and that was still there. Using the measurements of the court as a guide, Marc calculated the burial site for the capsule. He wasn’t going to attempt digging. The ground was heavily rooted. More substantial equipment than a shovel would be needed. He marked the spot with a stake.
During the Gaspee Days celebration, Marc connected with the Warwick Historical Society and mentioned the capsule. They put him in touch with Lucas Murray in planning and things started moving. On Aug. 16 Fisher, who was making preparations to demolish the school, had a backhoe dig at the stake and there, where Fred had buried it 32 years ago, was the capsule.