Tommy the Turtle has a New Home

Tommy the Turtle enjoying his new view on Kennydale Beach.

If you grew up in Renton anytime between 1960 and 1990 you probably remember spending time at the downtown Renton Sears. You might even smell the popcorn from the upstairs candy counter just thinking about it. 

ad for the Renton Shopping Center featuring the beautiful courtyard.

Renton Center

Well I’m one of those kids who remembers. I remember going down with my aunt to purchase my first cabbage patch kid. I remember a huge enclosed courtyard with JCPenny’s being the flagship store directly across from Sears. The stores in between were mostly local. There was a Walden bookstore with books of all kinds stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. My favorite, kids corner. It had a door for us kids separate and smaller than the actual doors. My mom’s favorite, FashionsWest, supplying a host of trendy women fashions. And, of course, the oh so popular Command Center, our local arcade in which I was never allowed to go. 

This whole complex had such a cool vibe. It was well thought out, and seemed to offer something for everyone.

The courtyard was a dream. Walkways up both sides that entered into each place of business. And in the center, throughout flowers and benches was an architectural dream.

Let’s rundown a few of the highlights shall we.

FOUNTAIN by Artist is George Tsutakawa, designed in 1970. Now located at the Maplewood Golf Course.

Fountain in it’s current home at the Maplewood Golf Course. Photo from the City of Renton Art Collection.

HEXAPOD by Creative Playthings, designed sometime in the 1959’s. Now located in Skyway outside the old Skyway Grocery.

Hexapod, modernism play structures of the 1950’s. Photo by Popular Mechanics.

PORPOISE by Jim Miller-Melberg (of Form Inc.) created the porpoise. The courtyard had two. One nose up, one nose down. One remains in the collection, on display at the Henry Moses Aquatic Center. The other made its way to Lake Tapps County Park.

Photo from jimartwork.com

TURTLE TENT by Milton Hebald, also of Creative Playthings (1953)/Play Sculptures. Now on display at Kennydale Beach Park.

Cover Art for 1953 Play Sculptures catalog.

Let’s talk about this turtle.

I’m not saying it was the most cherished piece if public art Renton has. I’m not even saying it is a piece that defines us in any way. What I am saying is this. This is to me the definition of what public art should be. 

Tommy the turtle, or ”turtle tent”, which is the original name, first came back into my memory in 2014. A good 25 year since I last crawled on his shell. There were public meetings about the new Sunset Park. The city was getting ready to build next to KCLSs new highlands library. These two major construction projects would help the reboot of this untouched 1970’s neighborhood.

That was then, this is now

I wasn’t present at these public meetings, but I remember this is when discussions about Tommy had begun to circulate. 

For those of you reading who might not know, after the Renton Center courtyard was demolished, Tommy landed at the highlands library. Here Kids could continue to play on him for a good 20 more years. 

When KCLS took over our library systems the plan was to remodel both libraries; starting with the highlands. During this time, Tommy ended up in storage. 

A Spokesperson for the Turtle

Over the next six years I followed the Tommy story. I became somewhat of a turtle spokesperson. I continued to ask the city about its safety, and encouraged them to help locate a new home for him. Throughout those years I would get tagged in posts from people wondering what happened to the turtle. Occasionally a photo would pop up on social media stating, ” you know you’re from Renton if you grew up playing on the turtle.”

In a monumental presentation for us on the arts commission to City Council in October of 2017. I presented a whole section around Tommy, the benefits of social shared space. How art becomes central points to our history. 

Everyone on the Arts Commission began to get involved in finding him a home. Marsha Rollinger did some deep digging to find all the information. You would be surprised how Little was documented about the historic courtyard.

The City gets involved

It wasn’t until Betsy Severtsen and Alan Wyatt from the Parks Department got involved that any movement happened. It was there suggestion that Tommy be placed,in his forever home, on Kennydale Beach Park. The beach where famously Clint Eastwood had lifeguarded back when he was a teen. 

The Kennydale neighborhood embraced this addition. They even shared some of their own memories of the turtle. 

One resident sent me a picture of her son playing on the turtle that she remembered playing on at his age.

Who was the Artist

Let’s talk about the designer, Milton Hebald. In 1953, produced by the Play Sculptures division of Creative Playthings from the mid 50s to the mid 60s. The idea behind the catalogs work was said that if you could engage children in play and imagination that they would take that with them into adulthood. 

Creative Playthings, in collaboration with the MoMA in New York City, opened an independent division of the company in 1953 called Play Sculptures. Working with artists to take on the playground. This was done in an effort to refresh ideas about playground planning. These modernistic designed sculptures turned up throughout America in playgrounds, schools, and courtyards. 

Images of turtle tent and baby turtles from the Play Sculptures catalog.

Tent Turtles Across the Land

You might remember that Tommy had two smaller turtles with him while at Sears. Yes, it’s true, they were sold as a set. They did not make the move. In fact, they were demolished along with the complex. May they rest in pieces. However, others elsewhere still stand, amusing yet another generation.

Today there is an entire FB page dedicated to his turtles, which are all over the US. They even have a map of the locations, and Renton’s turtle is on the map! https://www.facebook.com/bowieturtle/

Clearly there is a lot of history here. One that many of us share. Not only here in Renton, but throughout the USA. 

Yes, I believe this is one of the most valuable pieces of art in our collection. Not the most expensive mind you, but it’s history makes it so rich. 

Art really does give us a sense of belonging. Tommy the turtle, and all ”Turtle Tents” across America have planted in our collective mind. We have shared memories of our precious childhood melted together by this insignificant structure. 

It may look to some like old concrete, but to those of us who remember it stands for so much more. 

I feel honored to have been a part of preserving this piece of Rentons history. I do hope you go visit him down at Kennydale Beach Park. And may children continue to enjoy him for generations to come.

Here I am with fellow Arts Commissioners, Neil Sheesley (left) & Duffy Delgado (right).

One Reply to “Tommy the Turtle has a New Home”

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