Wherever He Goes, Architect Robert Leathers Leaves Another New Playground Behind

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 6:30 A.M., as a light drizzle falls on Brewer, Maine, the man they call "the Johnny Appleseed of playgrounds" is preparing to work his magic. While bustling volunteers set up tables and tents in an empty pasture alongside Route 1 A, architect Robert Leathers, 47, stalks the site in his customary construction attire: battered Nikes, faded jeans and a well-worn, fully loaded tool belt slung low on his hips. His red T-shirt trumpets the message, WE BUILT IT TOGETHER.

Wherever Leathers travels across the land, innovative new playgrounds just seem to sprout from the bare ground in only five 14-hour days and at minimal cost. Over the past 20 years, he has developed a system that allows his firm, Robert Leathers and Associates of Ithaca, N. Y" to design, organize and construct between 80 and 90 playgrounds every year, charging only $4,000 to $15,000 each in architect's fees. His group has already built 500 of them in the U.S., and the waiting list extends to 1991. "I could do half as much and charge three times more," he says, "but as long as we don't go broke, we'll keep our fees low because the money is precious to these communities."

In Brewer, Leathers is overseeing about 500 volunteer workers, whom he has separated into skilled (those who can handle something like a power saw) and unskilled work groups. "They've got people like my mom working, and she is really unskilled," says Corey Coffin, 10, who is working as a message runner. Corey's mother, Bonnie, 34, who is using her vacation from a department store job to help out, laughingly agrees: "I started off sanding lumber. But I'm getting more skilled every day."

Despite some inevitable fumbling, volunteer labor is the key to controlling costs. Through bake sales, car washes and solicitations, the town of Brewer raised about $55,000 for its splendid new playground. The price might have been five times higher if the work had been undertaken by commercial contractors.

There are three phases to any Leathers playground. The first is design day—which takes place a year before construction—when Leathers finds out what features the local kids want in their playground. Brewer's playground will contain a castle, a pirate ship, a robot, a dinosaur and a race car. Next comes organization day, three months before construction, when Leathers meets with committee heads and outlines fund-raising, tools, materials and publicity to set everything in place for the third and final phase.

Given his seemingly boundless energy, it comes as a surprise to discover that Leathers, who grew up in Bangor, less than a mile from Brewer, spent a year of his boyhood battling polio. He was bedridden for all of the seventh grade, says his mother, Marie, 71, and "he was in such pain that the reverberation from us walking across the wood floors would hurt him."

During the convalescence that led to a complete recovery, Bob, an only child, turned to drawing. By age 17 he knew he wanted to be an architect in the mold of his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1965, he headed for Oregon to work for an architectural firm. Raised a Roman Catholic, he converted to the Baha'i faith, lived in a commune and was a passionate anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War activist. "I was gassed at Berkeley," he says with a distinct note of pride.

He is less proud of his early record as a family man. Married while in college, Leathers and his first wife had two children and adopted a third. Still, he admits bluntly, "I was a lousy father. The children just sort of tagged along in our lives." After that first marriage ended in divorce, Leathers married Cheryl Nickel, now 46, a landscape architect. They have a daughter, Jenna, 7, and Leathers sees his other three children regularly.

As far as relating to young people is concerned, Leathers has more than made amends. When he and his first family settled in Ithaca in the early '70s, he designed his first playground as a voluntary project for a school that his kids attended. Now, even though playgrounds make up only 40 percent of his firm's business, they are an integral part of Leathers's psyche. "I'll always build them," he says, "because when you do, you know you're doing something good."

It's 6 P.M. Sunday in Brewer, and after five days the hammering has stopped. A hushed community gathers at the onetime pasture, a little awed by what they have wrought. "Okay, kids, it's yours!" shouts Robert Leathers as he cuts a ribbon and hundreds of balloons soar. And then he is gone, off to another town to build another playground.

—Ned Geeslin, Bonnie Bell in Brewer

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