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Sanctuary Woods is located on the County Grounds, which has seen new development lately. (PHOTO: Eddee Daniel)

Cultural Landscape Foundation spotlights Sanctuary Woods' fragility

Last year, the Mitchell Park Domes made the Cultural Landscape Foundation's annual "Landslide: Open Season on Open Space" list of threatened and at-risk landscapes.

This year, the list includes the Sanctuary Woods out on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa, which appears alongside a dozen other places like Chicago's Jackson Park, San Jose, California's Coyote Valley and New York's Battery Park City, among others.

The list aims to shine a light on what TCLF calls, "nationally significant sites, large and small, throughout the United States, including sites protected under the Antiquities Act and those threatened by confiscation, development, energy and resource extraction, and other incompatible uses."

Of Sanctuary Woods, the TCLF says, "This 66-acre area, which is threatened with development, was the site of Milwaukee's first hospital for the care and treatment of the mentally ill.

"Originally known as the Milwaukee County Asylum for the Insane, the principal structure was designed by Henry C. Koch and opened in 1880. A precursor to today's concept of healing gardens by more than a century, the picturesque setting was adorned with a number of landscape features designed to help patients relax and recuperate, such as an artificial lake and waterfall, sunken gardens, and a 'women's grove' for the repose of the women patients. Many of these features, some of which can still be seen today, were built by the patients themselves as a therapeutic activity under the supervision of Dr. Moses White, an early superintendent of the asylum."

In recent years there have been fears that the land would be used for development, but Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley publicly pledged that no development would occur there.

"I cannot bear seeing this special place chipped away at or incrementally encroached upon," the Journal Sentinel reported her telling an "overflow crowd" at Tosa City Hall in January.

There has been development near the woods in recent years, including – between Watertown Plank Road and Swan Boulevard – at the former "Eschweiler buildings" site, a hotel, a university building, giant retention culverts and other structures. A number of historical sites, including a pair of cemeteries, are located near the woods, as is a Monarch butterfly habitat.

The Landslide list debuted in 2003 and has since alerted Americans to more than 300 at-risk landscapes, including parks, gardens, horticultural features and other landscapes. Once a site makes the Landslide list, TCLF says it continues to monitor it.

"Open space is too often treated as a void, absent any cultural significance and waiting to be filled," said TCLF's President & CEO Charles A. Birnbaum in a statement. "This can lead to incompatible uses ranging from resource extraction to development, and outright confiscation of parkland held in public trust, which threatens park equity and equal access for all."

The group Save the Sanctuary Woods has a Facebook page, which you can see here.

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