The quirky, bohemian vibe of the Ben & Jerry’s brand, and the pastoral location of the company’s main factory on a 48-acre Waterbury, Vermont property in the shadows of the Worcester Mountain Range, are the stuff of dreams for a playground designer.
Nearly two decades ago, Jonathan Henke, a former site supervisor for Goric, led some 50 Ben & Jerry’s employees in a two-day community building project to assemble a wooden post and beam playground designed by his father and company founder and president Rick Henke that sits, to this day, beside oversized tanks of milk, cream, and sugar—the base ingredients for ice cream.
At the time, the Henkes probably felt a bit like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield when they opened their first ice cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont: thrilled at the prospect of building something new, but uncertain as to how it would be perceived by the community.
Today, there is little question that the play structure, much like the reputation of the legendary ice cream duo behind iconic flavors like Chubby Hubby and Cherry Garcia, has happily endured the passage of time. Recently refurbished with interactive panels, wood sanded and sealed, the timber-beam structure looks as new as the day it was built.
At a site that draws 350,000 annual guests from around the world and includes attractions like Ben & Jerry’s original Airstream mobile home, an ice cream shop with exclusive trial samples, a graveyard of “Dearly Depinted” flavors, and the Triggerhouse (a 12′ by 12′ retrofit building introducing visitors to the innovation behind the Pint Slice), the playground has plenty of competition for attention.
Yet the classic wooden design and features like an observation deck, a suspension bridge, a tunnel, a double slide, and a tire climber, continue to be a great escape for restless children and their parents, especially on warm summer days.
“After twenty years, we were looking at the structure and considering starting from scratch. Some of the color had faded from sun exposure. I said, ‘No way, we built that, we’re not getting rid of that. That’s a ray of sunshine at the factory and a really great feature for the community and guests,” says Amy Weller, a tour, marketing, and logistics coordinator who has been with Ben & Jerry’s since 1992.
Still, steady growth in visitation and the desire to create universal access to accommodate users of all abilities made playground expansion a priority. Weller wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed, so she contacted Rick Henke to come take a look. He arrived on site with an innovative idea: a concept for a modern stainless-steel playground that would sit beside the original playground and include “equipment exemplifying the ice cream industry, with equipment in the shape of swirls, cones, and spirals.” The original playground could be preserved at a relatively low cost—about $10,000—thus saving money for a companion playground with a fresh look.
Weller and her team embraced the idea, and Henke drew up plans for the project, a $70,000 plan that spools together a series of ground anchored pieces such as Spirallo, a sculptural, corkscrew climber; Spaghettini, an architectural swinging toy; Goric’s Nest and Clown spinners; and Goric’s Half Balls.
Local contractor Industrial Four installed the playground in May, with equipment and construction drawings delivered on site. Estimates were accurately priced by square foot. “Doing business with Goric and just having access to their knowledge, down to the last screw that needs to be put in, made everything easy,” Weller says. “At the end of the day, it’s about children’s exploration and learning and imagination, all the stuff Goric is about.”
The completed design has been well received by staff and visitors alike. Colorfully accented stainless-steel pieces are designed on a gradient of difficulty, with low access points so children of all ages can use them. Ben & Jerry’s aims to expand still further on the playground in 2020, replacing wood fiber chips with a cushioned Euroflex EPDM rubber tile system and adding Goric’s Integration Carousel, a spinning structure accessible to wheelchair users at grade. These universal design features will open the playground to more users.
“It’s been amazing, Rick is amazing, his team is amazing. I remember when he was showing me the new elements, this was twenty years ago. I’d say, ‘I’m not sure what this [piece] does.’ He’d hop on it and show you how it worked,” Weller says. “He’s a lovely man. Everything is very well made, and a lot of thought goes into the design.”