Wauwatosa's Hart Park has grown in size, stature since floods of late 90s

C.T. Kruger
Ellory Bordini, 4, plays while Peter Mulvey performs during the Tosa Tonight Summer Concert at the Rotary Pavilion at Hart Park on June 26.
Published on: 7/23/2013

The Hart Park of the late 90s is radically different than the Hart Park of today.

Back then, the park was 19 acres large, its stadium had wood bleachers and natural turf, there was no Rotary Performance Pavilion and discussions on creating a skatepark were completely unheard of.

Today, Hart Park can draw 5,000 people to hear live music or watch a Lacrosse match. The park today is nearly three times larger than it was in 1997, measuring 55 acres.

Hart starts beating

Two major floods in 1997 and 1998 led to the destruction of many houses and buildings from 72nd Street to 63rd Street. More than 46 buildings were reported at the time to have been purchased by the Milwaukee Metro Sewerage District and razed in 2001 and 2002. The site where those buildings sat would eventually become the grounds for the Rotary pavilion and the location of many events, such as the Highland Games.

Wauwatosa Parks and Forestry Superintendent Ken Walbrant remembers cleaning park buildings and fields in the wake of the flood's havoc. He recalled waterlines as high as the doors of dump trucks and softball outfields being pushed to the infield.

Following the floods, the city began growing the park. Eight tennis courts and the Muellner building were installed and trees were cut down east of 72nd Street.

Two major developments were added to the park in 2009: The stadium was completely revamped, with the installation of metal bleachers and artificial turf, at a cost of $5 million, and the $1 million Rotary Performance Pavilion was added.

The two in tandem led to what Walbrant said is a "marked improvement" in attendance.

"All those elements have just sort of evolved together and you have several things develop at once," he said.

The area continued to develop after the addition of the playground and splash pad last year.

Musical future

While the park has been expanding its land and building use, the Tosa Tonight concert series has expanded with it. The series is in its 13th year and originally began as a three-concert series in 1997.

Another concert followed and, co-founder Brian Leahy said, was putting too much of a strain on the building and was moved to parks around the area before settling at Hart. He said he started doing concert series because he believed there was a need for family-oriented concerts in Wauwatosa.

Leahy said the construction of the pavilion added greatly to the attendance of the Tosa Tonight series.

"Over the last three or four seasons at the Rotary pavilion, attendance keeps getting better and better," he said. "It's not unusual to have 2,000 people out on a Wednesday night."

The Tosa Tonight series has added different genres throughout the years, with this year seeing a 55-piece chamber orchestra play the stage. Leahy, however, wants to expand the series and the pavilion even more. He said he foresees in five years possibly splitting the Tosa Tonight concerts into multiple series, with companies like Harley Davidson or Briggs and Stratton renting the stage.

He also plans one day to perhaps have permanent vendor spaces, a fenced area for ticketed events and an MVP space, much like the Summerfest stages.

"It's becoming a destination," Walbrant said of the park. "It's one of...the best facilities in southeastern Wisconsin and it's continuing to develop along those lines."