Howard Gregg was born in 1908 in Maywood, Illinois, and received a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois. Even during his grammar school days, Gregg knew that he wanted to be associated with the beauties of nature. He decided to study landscape architecture because it enabled him to guide land development and preserve the environment. He was a college freshman when he married Bunny Schneider, a girl he met at Maywood High School, but for two years the couple told no one of their marriage. While she was a student at Milwaukee State Teachers College and living with an aunt there, he continued his studies at Champaign-Urbana, making frequent visits to Milwaukee. During this period he got his first part-time job in Milwaukee on a WPA project at Brown Deer Park in 1932, where he later said he was "vice president in charge of the petunia beds and newly planted trees."
After graduation in 1934, he was hired by the National Park Service at Yellowstone as an associate landscape architect. He was the envy of his class at the University of Illinois because he was able to secure a position with the NPS during those Depression years. His time at Yellowstone included one winter when the snow was especially deep, and he helped build pens to catch elk to feed the Crow Indians around Red Lodge, Montana. Subsequently he was assigned by the NPS to positions in Denver, San Francisco and then back toYellowstone before becoming a landscape architect with Illinois State Parks, working at their headquarters in Springfield, Illinois.
In 1941, he returned to Milwaukee to join the County Parks Department as a landscape architect. Initially he was assistant to the county architect, Alfred Boener. When Boener was appointed the first general manager of parks in the early 1950s, Gregg succeeded him as landscape architect. In 1956, after Boener's death, Gregg was appointed general manager of the Milwaukee County Parks Department remaining in that position until his retirement in 1972.
Gregg became a voice against what he termed "the urban beast" which filled in swamps and destroyed beauty for the sake of highways and industry. "People must learn that the values inherent in beauty are distinct and different from purely economic ones," he said. His central philosophy of the mission of park development was:
The preservation of naturalistic environment. We fit in the necessary appurtenances to accommodate recreational activities without destroying the natural surroundings. Such a concept calls for a pleasant, free flowing form (of design) with lagoons, walks, and roads following the natural contours of the land and plantings in an informal arrangement
Often smoking a corncob pipe, the 6-foot-4-inch Gregg was a common sight in the county parks, strolling through the woods and green areas to check out the wildflowers and ensure everything else was right. One of his peers, who was also a department head in Milwaukee at the time Gregg emerged as general manager, observed:
The job of general manager of parks is an executive job, and the man who fills it must be, first, an executive. If he happens to be a landscape architect or an engineer, so much the better. Frequently, it is easier to obtain good technical help than a good executive. Howard Gregg was a good landscape architect by training and experience and developed into a very fine executive.
Gregg, himself, stated that a park manager must not only be a naturalist and administrator, but also a philosopher, humanitarian, sociologist, and politician. He believed that, "A park philosophy is necessary to a successful park system. If you've got a sound philosophy to follow, the politics we must get into everyday can be handled." He viewed himself as a parks man, rather than as a business administrator who might be more concerned about saving a dollar than preserving a tree. He was impatient to get things done and sometimes became frustrated over the political machinations required to accomplish things. He believed, "Ours is an art. Having to deal with politics is trying for people who respond to esthetics. We are on this earth for only a short time, so we have to get things done."
When he was asked what he would say to young people going into the field of parks and recreation, he responded, "Make yourself available to people, preserve the environment, and set up target goals to accomplish your tasks." Associates described Gregg's key attributes as "having the ability to reach people at all levels; naturally humble, solid, quiet, a good family man" and "an outstanding planner, recognized around the country, and even in Europe."
Among his most prominent accomplishments at Milwaukee were the Botanical Gardens and the Arboretum, for which Milwaukee is famous; designed and oversaw the construction of the Horticultural Domes at Michell Park; developed the McKinley Marina; and, most significantly, along with George Speidel, designed the Milwaukee Zoo. His wife recalled the times while the zoo was under construction, when they took some of their seven children to swim in the pools that were designed for the large animals. The three domes in Mitchell Park are a particularly distinctive feature of the Milwaukee landscape. They are exhibition houses. One contains plants grown in tropical regions, another displays desert plants, while the third contains permanent background plantings which are used for special exhibits during the year. The large domes are 140 feet in diameter and 75 feet high.
During his professional career, he served on the board of the American Institute of Park Executives, was instrumental in the merging of AIPE into the National Recreation and Park.Association, and served on the board of trustees of NRPA. Upon his retirement in 1972, he moved to Washington, D.C. to become an assistant to Dwight Reddie, the NRPA chief executive and served in that capacity for two years.
Knoche, Eldon. (1996, March 8). Critic of "urban beast": Gregg knew parks from grounds up. Longtime county park system manager oversaw development of Domes. Milwaukeejounial Sentinel.
Wittenberger, Avery. (1966, February 9). Gregg really outdoorsman: Park manager must be naturalist, sociologist, and politician. Milwaukee ]oumal Sentinel.
Ms. Barbara Michaels contributed to the development of this profile.