Terrace Park

A History of Park Tradition

In 2014, Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation collaborated with the Terrace Park Neighborhood Association and the Japanese Gardens Society on a master planning process to guide future development of the upper portion of Terrace Park. The goal of this project was to identify existing issues as well as potential opportunities within the park. Over a six-month process involving multiple public input sessions, a master plan was developed and will serve as a road map for future construction of the park.

The Upper Terrace Park Master Plan has been approved by the Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Board. Construction of the master plan improvements will be completed in multiple phases. The first phase will begin in 2016 and will construct a centennial marker recognizing the 100-year history of this park. Future phases of the master plan improvements are in the five-year capital plan.

In 2015, The National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior listed Sioux Falls’ Terrace Park and Japanese Gardens on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places was created by the federal government to recognize properties that contribute to the prehistoric and historic development of our cities, states, and nation. Through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, each state participates in the identification and recognition of these important sites.

The area known as Terrace Park is located on a bluff overlooking an ancient part of the Big Sioux River's system of oxbows and overflow flood plains. This bluff is part of a series of bluffs that form the East side of the Big Sioux River valley. They run on a Northeast/Southwest axis, and they include the bluff overlooking Sherman Park as well as other high hills next to the East side of the river. Much of the original site of Sioux Falls sits on a high ridge surrounded on three sides by the river. Summit Avenue is named after the top of the bluffs, which was reached in the early days of the city by traveling west on Eighth Street from the downtown area near the river. Covell Lake at Terrace Park is actually a cutoff remnant of an oxbow of the river, and at the time of the settlement of Sioux Falls it was basically a cattail slough. It was named after Millard Covell, an early pioneer of Sioux Falls who owned much of the land in the area. In 1882, Millard Covell platted most of the land located South of the future park for residential purposes. During the early settlement of Sioux Falls, much attention was focused on the platting and selling of lots in the downtown area for commercial and residential purposes.

One of the early pioneers of this era was Dr. Josiah L. Phillips. He was a member of the Dakota Land Company that came to Sioux Falls in 1857 from St. Paul, Minnesota. This company of land speculators came to establish a town at the falls of the Big Sioux River. He spent the first winter at Sioux Falls in 1857-1858, and what a cold winter it must have been, with little shelter or food. He left the village for a time, but eventually returned to become an important member of the new village. He was a veteran of the Civil War, and in 1869 he returned to Sioux Falls to live. He platted the first nine blocks of the village in 1871, and was active in civic affairs. As the village continued to grow, he and his wife, Hattie Phillips, eventually acquired the bluff overlooking the Sioux River valley and the slough at the base of the bluff. In later life, his wife, Mrs. Hattie Phillips, built a large mansion made out of cut Sioux quartzite rock on top of the bluff, complete with a lookout and quartzite rock walkways. The mansion's architectural style appeared to be similar to an Italian mansion found in Italy. Unfortunately, Mr. Phillips had died in 1882 at the age of 47, leaving Mrs. Phillips with a large family to care for and substantial real estate holdings to manage. When she first arrived in Sioux Falls in 1870, she was one of only seven women in Sioux Falls. She became very active in civic affairs, and established the first Sunday school for the village, called the Pioneer Union Sunday School, and the first temperance organization. After her family had grown, she moved to Florida to live with a daughter, and died there in 1935. But, the Phillips Mansion remained as part of the family's holdings in Sioux Falls prior to her death.   

Edwin A. Sherman, who has been called the father of the park system, was another early pioneer and booster for the city. He came to Sioux Falls in 1873, and was an active businessman in the city. He had a nephew named Waldo Sherman who apparently married into the Phillips family, and moved back east with some of the Phillips family after J. L. Phillips had died. In July of 1915, E. A. Sherman received a letter from Waldo Sherman, who was then living in Huntington, Lloyd's Neck, Long Island, New York. In the letter, Waldo Sherman inquired what the Phillips property might be worth. The old house had partially burned in 1910 after being struck by lighting, but the acreage was located in a growing residential area of the city. His uncle, E. A. Sherman, who was always on the lookout for new park property, responded to the letter by saying that the property would make a fine park, and suggested that the property be donated to the City, or at least sold for a reduced rate. From July 1915 to May 1916, Waldo Sherman and his uncle corresponded regarding the land and the house. E. A. Sherman was always vague as to what the City would pay, or if the City was interested. Waldo Sherman suggested a purchase price of $20,000, saying that "Mrs. Phillips needs all the money she can get, because she was always a good spender, and in the last few years has gone to the limit." Finally, in July 1916, the city acquired 52 acres of  land and the house for $15,000, and a new park tradition was born. Edwin A. Sherman had brokered the deal with his nephew, and was a major figure in helping the new city to acquire the land for a park. This was perhaps Mr. Sherman's last great act to obtain more parks for the city, for he died in 1916 shortly after the land was acquired. He was a great backer of parks for the city, and he donated the land for today's Sherman Park.

But before Terrace Park could become a park, there had to be the structure in place for a park system. The City had for several years been working off and on toward the establishment of a park system. During the early days of the city it was pointed out that no parks existed in the city, while other new cities of the west all had parks. Again, Mr. E. A. Sherman led the drive for a system of parks, appearing at public functions on behalf of parks, making speeches, and offering articles for the newspapers. All of this effort eventually led to the naming of the first Board of Park Supervisors on June 6, 1915.

The new board's first action was to ask the City to turn over the land now known as Tower Park to the park board. This land had been acquired by the City in 1914, and it was a popular place for people to go to who wanted a good view of the city. It was located on the hill on North Main Avenue, and was called Tower Park because of the large water tower located on it. This was not the first park for the city, for in 1900 ex-mayor B.H. Lein had given land for a park in memory of his brother, Jonas Lein, who had died in the Spanish-American War. The new board had a busy year getting organized and assigning different parts of the city to different board members. Each member was expected to help his "park district" acquire and develop a park. Finally, in January of 1916, the board took its final step in getting organized by appointing Frederick E. Spellerberg as the city's first Park Superintendent.

With the coming of 1917, the new Park Superintendent made it clear that developing the Phillips land into a park would be his first priority. He requested $10,000 from the City for the budget for the park, and began work on the park. That first year the park was partially graded, several old farm buildings related to the Phillips estate were torn down, and the house was partially repaired. A new flower garden was planted, clay tennis courts were built, and a small warming house for the ice skaters on Covell Lake was built. A large pasture was fenced in, and buffalo, elk, coyotes, and even monkeys were kept there as a small zoo. However, the area proved to be much too small, and by 1925 all of the animals had been removed to other locations. One of the challenges of maintaining a park in those days was working with horses and wagons. The following report, which contains references that we may not understand in our world of trucks and modern equipment, was dutifully filed with the Board of Park Supervisors: "Report of an accident at Covell Lake Park property on August 29th, 1917. While backing a light spring wagon hitched to a park department horse toward a wall with a straight eight foot drop, the park department teamster, W. H. Gibbs, lost control of the horse and the wagon was backed off of the wall and the horse was pulled over after it. The wagon landed bottom side up and caught the teamster's little boy, who was on the wagon at the time, across the body. The boy was taken to the hospital, but since has been taken home and is apparently none the worse for the wear. The teamster has been laid up with a sprained foot and pains up the entire leg, resulting from lighting hard on the foot when jumping off the wall." Such were the hazards of working with horses!

The Board of Park Supervisors and the Park Superintendent apparently thought that the park should include the West side of Covell Lake, for in 1917 the City purchased a 400-foot-wide strip of land on the West side of the lake. It was not a happy acquisition, as the City had to bring a legal condemnation proceeding against the owner of the land, Porter Peck. In later years the City would have a chance to acquire all of the land West of Covell Lake to West Avenue, but would decline the offer. The acquired land would become the present day baseball fields.

A prominent feature of the park was the old Phillips house, which was a two-story mansion built out of Sioux quartzite rock. The Italian-style structure must have been a beautiful building when it was first built, but a fire in 1910 had damaged the house. The City repaired the damage, and the Board of Park Supervisors discussed what the house should be used for. Many people remembered that not so long ago, this land was the home of the Sioux Indians. For many years they had roamed the fertile valley of the Big Sioux River in pursuit of game, and had probably camped in the vicinity. During the first few years of the settlement of the village, there had been violent protests by the Indians over the presence of the pioneers who came to start a new town. It was thought by the board that this history should be remembered, so it was decided in 1918 that the first floor of the mansion would be used for the display of Indian Relics and other historical collections. It is interesting to note that as early as 1918, the city had people interested in items of a historical nature, and that the Phillips House was already an item of historical interest. It seems ironic that this generation could see the historical importance of the house, but as we shall see, later generations could not.

By 1919, much of the basic park was in place, but now a new opportunity presented itself. The Board of Supervisors learned that the State of South Dakota wanted to sell certain land holdings they had located immediately North of the park where the current aquatic center is now located. The state was contacted regarding the land, and a suggestion was made that perhaps it would be a good idea if the state would help out the park system by donating the land to the City. In reply, the state not only refused to donate the land, but also said it would not sell the land to the City exclusively. The land would be sold by auction to the highest bidder, so superintendent Spellerberg boarded the Great Northern train to Pierre with instructions from the board to purchase the land. This must have been an interesting trip for Spellerberg, for he was successful in purchasing the land.

By 1922, Spellerberg was ready for the next phase of development of the park land. He approached the Board of Park Supervisors with his idea to create a natural outdoor amphitheater. The board at first did not totally support the plan, and only allowed $500 for the project. Spellerberg argued that the old bluff was too steep for people to use for a park, and he created a series of terraces in the park by grading the bluff all the way down to the lake. In 1923, stone walkways and steps were built in the park, leading down the terraces to the lake. This park project was a big improvement to the park, and resulted in the park being named Terrace Park in 1924.

Frederick Spellerberg was a professionally trained landscape designer, and was in many ways ahead of his time. His ideas for park development are still being carried out today. His "First Public Report of the Board of Park Supervisors" covering the years 1915-1920 contains many references to his visions of civic park projects. He wrote in his report, "the character and extent of such civic improvements are an outward, accurate and readable index of the character of that community." Many of the jewels of the park system, such as the Big Sioux River Greenway and McKennan Park, were already being mentioned by Spellerberg in 1920. The employment of Spellerberg as the Park Superintendent came to an end with his death in 1925, at the age of only 37. Terrace Park had lost its greatest champion.

By 1929, the park system was enjoying the boom in the economy that had occurred in the 1920s. People were hired full-time to maintain the parks, and they were given the title of Park Caretaker. The Park Caretakers became very powerful in their respective parks, doing pretty much what they pleased in running their parks. There was little or no direction from the Board of Park Supervisors. This was to eventually lead to friction between the Board and the Caretakers, and some people lost their jobs because of it. Terrace Park was not immune from these problems, as men struggled with the problem of trying to do more with fewer resources, and with hard feelings and misunderstandings occurring between the Board and the Park Caretakers. This was a period of time where the Board of Park Supervisors began to assert more modern, corporate control over the park system. However, the economic boom that had helped to set up a system of employees to maintain the parks ended with the 1929 stock market crash. The park system entered the depression years of the 1930s, although some growth did occur.

In May of 1931, City Commissioner Joe Nelson spoke to the Board regarding an idea he had for Terrace Park. He was not a member of the Board, but was an active, civic-minded City Commissioner. His proposal to the Board was to build an "open-air theater" at Terrace Park, near the natural amphitheater that was constructed by Superintendent Spellerberg in 1922. This was not to be a band shell, but a platform stage with a backdrop for live outdoor theater. He received permission from the board, and in 1931-1932 built the present outdoor theater stage, with an Italian or Mediterranean theme. This stage is still used today by the Sioux Falls Municipal Band for a band concert every Sunday night during the summer months. In 1991, the stage and the backdrop were remodeled by the City.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Caretaker at Terrace Park was Mr. Joe Maddox. He had studied landscape design, and he began to construct a Japanese garden along the east shore of Covell Lake below the main park area at Terrace Park. Many types of stones were used during the construction, and the gardens included arbors and delicate reed hanging lanterns. The garden became a popular and well-known location in the city. During World War II, it's name was changed to the Chinese Gardens because they were an ally during the war. Unfortunately for the garden, the name change could not prevent the severe vandalism that occurred by people who were caught up in the war fever. The gardens fell into disrepair, and many stone ornaments were thrown into Covell Lake. The gardens would continue to decline until 1988 when the City began to restore them.

The Parks and Recreation Department continued to grow, and one of the more popular activities was swimming. 

Throughout the 1930s, the city struggled with the financial concerns of the depression. There was some improvement at Terrace Park when the American Legion built new baseball fields at Terrace Park for their junior baseball program in 1932, and the board did find money to order new toboggans for the slide at Terrace Park. The community house continued to function, and in 1934 the hostess, Mrs. Sherwood, reported that 6,300 people had used the house for various functions. Mr. and Mrs. Sherwood lived at the house, and they paid $15 a month for rent for their living quarters. By 1934, the depression had reduced the park budget in half to $30,000 for the whole year, and in 1934 it was cut in half again to $15,000 as the City struggled with hard times. Many park employees were laid off work, and there was little money to pay the bills. The Park Superintendent at the time, Mr. Tremere, also lost his job due to the depression. The drought and the depression of the 1930s crippled the city, and the saying "Brother have you got a dime?" became well-known.

With the election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1933, the economic recovery of the nation began. This recovery was felt all the way to Terrace Park. In 1934, the country went back to work. A new program called the Civil Works Administration (CWA) put men to work at Terrace Park building Sioux quartzite stone retaining walls. Another program called the Workers Progress Administration (WPA) put more people to work grading the park road and installing a stone masonry gutter along the road. Another program called the National Youth Administration (NYA) built new ball fields at the park. These programs began the slow recovery from the depression, and they built many of the features found today at Terrace Park. It was still a tough time with low wages and layoffs, with little new development at the park. President Roosevelt was up for reelection in 1940, and on September 26, 1940, his opponent, Wendell L. Willkie, came to Sioux Falls to give a speech at Terrace Park. The band shell was made ready, and the Park Board was requested by the Willkie supporters to have a buffalo from the Zoo brought over to the park for the event. The city went all out to welcome Willkie, and the day was a success. In 1940, the City also discontinued the use of the old Phillips house as a community house, and the WPA took over the house as a headquarters for coordinating youth work activities. This ended a fine era for the old house, and started a slow decline in the City's perception of the usefulness of the house.

When World War II started on September 1, 1939, Terrace Park had been partially renovated by the various federal reconstruction programs. As England endured the early war years, President Roosevelt turned the United States into a "arsenal of democracy" by sending England everything from food to old Navy destroyers. It was with a sigh of relief from England that the United States entered the war on December 7, 1941. Suddenly the country needed trained soldiers and airmen, and the City was quickly notified that an Army Air Corps field and training school would be located in Sioux Falls. The City delivered title to the City airport and 1,500 acres for the project. The purpose of the airfield was to train airmen in the operation of aircraft radios, and it became known as the Sioux Falls Radio Technical Training School. The airfield became known as the air base, and many of the school's buildings were located just North and West of Terrace Park. The main gate, known as the Prairie Avenue main gate, was only about seven blocks away from the park. The hospital area for the air base was located just West of Covell Lake, and the barracks and classrooms were all within easy walking distance of the park. Large piles of coal were even located on the West side of Covell Lake for use in heating the barracks. The air base even included a fully staffed fire department for the protection of the base. The air base was ready by July of 1942, and members of the Army Air Corps began to arrive in Sioux Falls by train from all over the country. Eventually their numbers would grow to over 20,000 GIs at the base. The closeness of Terrace Park and Covell Lake provided recreational opportunities to the boys of the Air Corps. Special requests were made by the base commander to provide rowboats for Covell Lake, and the swimming beach was opened for the servicemen.


With the end of the war, Terrace Park seemed to enter a quiet phase in its life. Occasional improvements were made to the park, such as in 1952 when the original tennis courts were hard-surfaced. Another addition to the overall charm of the park was the introduction in 1956 of paddleboats to Covell Lake. A contract with a Mr. Cruz Saavedra for the operation of paddleboats was signed, which began a tradition of the little boats at Covell Lake that would last until the 1990s.

Covell Lake had long been used as an ice skating area, and the South end of the lake was the location of a annual ice carnival. It was called the Frosty Frolics, and was organized by the Sioux Falls Lions Club in 1936 and was held during the 1940s and 1950s. The carnival included about a dozen separate acts, and included two shows on Sunday. Each act had a title like "Cowboy Country" or "Mother Goose," and included props and scenery. This was an all-volunteer program including men, women, and children of the city. Many individuals helped to organize the event, especially people like Clarence and Hazel Satnan of Sioux Falls. He was the king of the event in 1949, and she was the Queen in 1950. They had both skated in the very first carnival in 1936. The ice carnival was a very popular event that lasted until 1957. After that date the City began to sponsor the event into the 1960s, but not at Covell Lake. The Frosty Frolics ended for a time in the 1960s, but in the 1980s the city again began to sponsor a weekend of frosty frolics that continues the tradition of wintertime fun. In 1968, the City built a new ice skating rink and a new warming house on the West side of Covell Lake, and that ended the long tradition of ice skating on Covell Lake. Declining attendance at the skating rink caused the City to close the Terrace Park skating rink in 1996, and the warming house was removed in 2003. 


During the 1950s and 1960s, the old Phillips mansion at Terrace Park continued to serve the community as a park restroom and recreation center. The upper floors had been closed off, but the rest of the house continued to be used. Even the old garage was used by the city during the winter months to house the lions from the Zoo, and the old garage became known as the lions den.

The 1960s and 1970s were quiet years, with little new development occurring at Terrace Park. The Park and Recreation Department became busy with other projects like the Elmwood Golf Course, the Great Plains Zoo, and Tuthill Park. In October of 1961, Little League baseball began at Terrace Park when two baseball diamonds were laid out on the West side of Covell Lake. In 1965, two more fields were laid out on the West side of Covell Lake. This started the tradition of organized baseball at Terrace Park that continues today. The baseball fields were eventually named Emmet Robertson Fields, after a long-time promoter of youth baseball. Terrace Park was also the location of a football field that was used in the 1950s by the Catholic high school called Cathedral High School. The field was located just North of the present aquatic center, and was called St. Joseph's Field. 

With the coming of the 1980s, things began to happen again at the park. For years, Covell Lake had declined in both water quality and visual appeal. Silt had run into the lake from storm sewers, causing the lake to go shallow in several areas. Frequent algae blooms had caused the lake to look green by August, and people began to request that the City dredge the lake. The lake had been dredged in 1930, but years of decline in water quality had taken its toll. In 1979, the Park Department began plans for the dredging of the lake. Dredging began in 1980 and lasted until 1981. The silt from the lake was pumped underground through existing storm sewers to the west side of West Avenue. It was then used to build up the low area that for years had been called the beer diamonds where softball had been played. After the project was completed, three new softball fields were built on the area where the silt was deposited. On the North end of Covell Lake, a siltation pond was constructed on the North side of Madison Avenue. It was designed to allow time for the silt to settle out of the storm water before the water flowed into the main lake. The dredging machine was called a "Mudcat" dredge, and it removed many cubic yards of silt from the lake. During the process, it encountered many submerged objects in the lake, the most interesting being a live .50 caliber machine gun bullet. There is probably a whole belt of the ammunition lying in the bottom of Covell Lake, for the bullet showed signs of being torn from the belt. This bullet was probably from the days of the Army Air Corps base near Covell Lake. The deepest part of Covell Lake was dredged to a depth of 15' at the North end of the Lake.

For years the Japanese Gardens at Terrace Park had been allowed to deteriorate until they were in very bad condition. A group of people wanted the gardens restored, and they formed a not-for-profit organization called the Shoto-Teien, which means whispering pines in Japanese. In 1986, they approached the Park Department with their ideas for renovation of the gardens, and received approval for their plans. A well-known Japanese garden landscape architect, Professor Koichci Kawana, was hired to advise the committee on design features. A local architectural firm, Architecture Incorporated, was also hired to design the improvements at the gardens. The committee started a fund drive, and it helped to generate substantial funds for the project. The City also contributed funds toward the multi-year project, which eventually received funding from the Japanese government and from Toshiba America. In 1988, improvements to the garden began to take shape. Many stone lanterns were built with prison labor, and a new waterfall and pond was created. Well over 200 trees and perennials were planted, and a new gazebo was built in the park in 1989. Large stones were obtained from the surrounding countryside for placement in the gardens. The Japanese Gardens at Terrace Park began a new birth, as each year new garden features or plantings have been added. The work of the Japanese Garden committee went on for a number of years, and continues today (2003) with the help of Mary Ellen Connolly, expert plants woman.

 In 1989, the Park Department prepared a new master plan for the park, which among other things included the removal of the old bandstand to the West side of Covell Lake. However, the neighborhood around the park objected strongly to the move during the public hearings that were held at the park. It had been a tradition for many years to have the Municipal Band play concerts at the park on the bandstand, and the neighbors saw no reason to change that tradition.  A neighborhood committee was formed to work on the plan, and it was eventually modified by the City to agree with the neighbors. The bandstand was not moved, and in 1992 the old outdoor stage was remodeled. A new walkway with stairs leading down to the bandstand was also built in 1994. The master plan also included new walkways through the park, and a new picnic shelter. Both items were constructed by the City, along with new playground equipment.

By 1990, the old pool built by the Army during the war was in very poor condition, and leaked many gallons of water each day. The filtration house was outdated, along with the bathhouse. The entire pool complex was so bad that each summer fewer people came to the pool for swimming. The city recognized the problem, and in 1991 it sold revenue bonds for the project, along with funds for several other park projects. The total of the bond issue was $8,000,000, and it also funded the new swimming pool at Laurel Oak Park. The old Terrace Park pool was finally demolished in 1993, and a new $2,500,000 family aquatic center was built on the same site. It opened on July 16, 1994, and it has become a new tradition at Terrace Park for thousands of children.

Terrace Park has become a park of lasting traditions. Down through the ages the people of Sioux Falls have enjoyed its shade and beauty, and generations of people have walked on its pathways and lawns. The stories that the park tells today are whispered in the wind through the trees, and the voices of Hattie Phillips and Fred Spellerberg echo across the waters of Covell Lake.