Like a sign from above, the rain let up and the kids swarmed all over Durham Central Park’s Mount Merrill on Saturday morning.
“What’s the best part?” Brian Buzby asked his 7-year-old daughter, Ainsley.
“All of it,” Ainsley replied.
Mount Merrill is a “play mound” – to differentiate if from a “playground” – an artificial hill of boulders and granite slabs for youngsters to climb up, slide down and explore whichever dimension they feel like.
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Officially opened Saturday, it’s the latest addition to the kids’ section of Durham Central Park. It’s also a memorial to the late Merrill Davis, who was general manager of the nearby Stone Bros. & Byrd garden-supply store until his death in October 2012.
“It humbles me that they wanted to do this in Merrill’s memory,” said George Davis, Merrill Davis’ father. “We’re just happy, happy, happy, happy.”
Mount Merrill is about 60 feet in diameter and rises 7 feet above grade level, said project designer Katherine Gill, affording an elevated view of the Durham Farmers Market and the park section across Foster Street.
“It doesn’t seem like a high distance, but you actually do feel like you’re way up,” Gill said.
“The way the boulders are set, the granite is set, is to allow movement to flow and exploration to happen on all sides. It’s using a mound to provide multiple opportunities for play and explorations,” she said.
“We want it to be playful, we want it to be about climbing and bopping around,” she said, watching children – and not a few grownups – try out the mound.
“And it’s really exciting for me to see that’s exactly what’s happening,” Gill said.
Besides climbing the rocks, access to the top is available via a wheelchair-friendly pathway that curls around the mound, and access back down is available via a pair of slides – which, after the morning’s drizzle, required some wiping off to make them fully functional.
There are also places designed for sitting so parents can be within their kids’ playing zone, said Morgan Haynes, a member of the DCP design committee.
“So it’s more integrative than the typical playground where the parents sit on the periphery and watch the kids play,” Haynes said.
A climbing mound had been part of DCP’s long-range plan for a play area, called “Wanderland,” said park director Ann Alexander. The idea to name it for Merrill Davis arose soon after his death in an automobile accident.
“People wanted to know what to do in honor of him,” Alexander said. “He was a big supporter of the park. He was the first person to get married in the park. ... Merrill was just a good bud to a lot of the Durham Central Park folks.”
Building Mount Merrill cost $200,000, said Lee Ann Tilley, president of the DCP board. Funding came in more than 550 donations, ranging from $1 to $25,000, she said.
“This is going to be a magnet for the children of Durham,” Tilley said. It’s also encouraging to the DCP organization and its future Wanderland ideas that it was able to raise the money and see Mount Merrill through to Saturday’s opening.
“Let the children play!” she said.
Durham Central Park’s property is city-owned but managed by a nonprofit corporation named Durham Central Park. Tilley, standing atop Mount Merrill, spotted City Councilman Don Moffitt in the onlooking crowd and invited him up to ceremonially accept Mount Merrill for the city.
Moffitt obliged, accompanied by his daughter, Izzy, 10, who made the first trip down one of Mount Merrill’s slides.
“It was fun,” Izzy said, “but ... everybody was watching, so for me it was a little bit embarrassing as well.”