Treatment of Modernist Urban Park Plazas

Mellon Square, designed by John Simonds, underwent rehabilitation last year. The treatment was in progress on the southern portion of the site when this photograph was taken in July 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

Mellon Square, designed by John Simonds, underwent rehabilitation last year. The treatment was in progress on the southern portion of the site when this photograph was taken in July 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Many works of modernist landscape architecture are currently threatened. Due to their relatively young age, many do not meet the 50-year period set forth by the National Register of Historic Places. Those still extant have often been subjected to unsympathetic modifications and additions. More still have undergone insensitive adaptations, compromising their integrity and rendering them nearly unrecognizable as representations of notable design. Many suffer from original design or construction flaws. Miscommunications and misunderstandings due to differences in terminology and opinion arise when deciding when, where, and how to treat these landscapes. Few have been effectively preserved or restored. Those that have escaped demolition remain in the hands of private owners who have the capability to allocate necessary funds for preservation and subsequently high level of maintenance. In addition, these endangered landscapes commonly face negative public perception. Oftentimes these historic sites are viewed as outdated, dangerous, or aesthetically displeasing.

As a graduate student with a background in landscape architecture, my interests in historic preservation and landscape architecture led me to become interested in modernist works and their endangered state. My graduate thesis looks at the rehabilitation of significant modernist park plazas in urban settings, the actions and actors involved in the intervention, and the ultimate result of the revisions to the landscape. The purpose of my research was to determine common issues in interventions at significant modern urban park plazas for contemporary use and generate a set of considerations for future preservationists to follow. (For the purpose of the thesis, a modern landscape is a designed landscape constructed during the mid-to-late 20th century, inspired by the modern movement in art and architecture.)

Kiley Garden in August 2013, after the intervention by RS&H to provide necessary structural improvements to the garage below.  Most of the original crape myrtles were removed for construction. image: Caeli M. Tolar

Kiley Garden in August 2013, after the intervention by RS&H to provide necessary structural improvements to the garage below. Most of the original crape myrtles were removed for construction.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

The case study approach was utilized, and my selection process yielded three case studies:

  1. Kiley Garden, Tampa, FL;
  2. Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, PA; and
  3. Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN.
The entrance to Kiley Garden in August 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

The entrance to Kiley Garden in August 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Kiley Garden, also known as NationsBank Plaza, was designed by Daniel Urban Kiley (1912-2004) and opened to the public in 1988. It is built over a parking garage and was one of the renowned designer’s last projects. Mellon Square was designed by landscape architect John O. Simonds (1913-2005) and completed in 1955. Like Kiley Garden, Mellon Square was built over a parking garage. Peavey Plaza, designed by M. Paul Friedberg (1931-), was completed in 1975 and is part of Nicollet Mall. Through analysis of these three modernist urban park plazas, their history, and preservation efforts, I was able to determine a list of common problems that landscape architecture preservationists face.

View of the office building that formerly housed North Carolina National Bank (NCNB), designed by Harry Wolf, photo taken August 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

View of the office building that formerly housed North Carolina National Bank (NCNB), designed by Harry Wolf. Photo taken August 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Ron Sill, landscape architect with RS&H, explained that each paver was recorded, removed, and replaced after the construction process. Photo taken after the treatment, August 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

Ron Sill, ASLA, landscape architect with RS&H, explained that each paver was recorded, removed, and replaced after the construction process. Photo taken after the treatment, August 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Data gathered and analyzed included conducting short interviews with city employees, advocacy groups, parks department employees, members of the preservation firm, recognized experts in landscape architecture preservation, and an original designer. Analysis of books, oral histories, journal articles, and news articles have also contributed to compilation of common problems and the subsequent list of considerations for landscape architects and preservationists to consider when approaching intervention at these sensitive sites. The following aspects were considered during compilation of common issues: original design intent versus contemporary use, terminology confusion, public perception, management strategies and priorities, maintenance failure, and rationale for intervention.

Construction on the terraced fountain underway at Mellon Square, July 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

Construction on the terraced fountain underway at Mellon Square, July 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

A new terrace, now accessible to pedestrians, has been added to Mellon Square, providing a space for concerts and events to be held. Photo taken July 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

A new terrace, now accessible to pedestrians, has been added to Mellon Square, providing a space for concerts and events to be held. Photo taken July 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Simonds’ signature terrazzo triangular paving at Mellon Square, July 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

Simonds’ signature terrazzo triangular paving at Mellon Square, July 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Granite staircase leading up to Mellon Square, July 2013. image: Caeli M. Tolar

Granite staircase leading up to Mellon Square, July 2013.
image: Caeli M. Tolar

Major issues found to be recurring throughout the case studies included maintenance failure, communication issues, and the inevitable evolution of public space. These findings generated a set of considerations that invested parties may reference in order to effectively and sensitively perform a historic intervention. The list of considerations included the following:

  • Develop a long-term management plan
  • Ensure clarity of terminology
  • Involve the community
  • Strive for transparency
  • Perform research and documentation.

More detailed information on suggested methods of implementing these considerations was also presented. It is my hope that this research will be of assistance to future preservationists undertaking interventions at these treasures of modernism in our urban cores.

by Caeli M. Tolar, Associate ASLA

Caeli M. Tolar has a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture and is completing her Master of Historic Preservation at the University of Florida. Her graduate thesis is entitled, “Treatment of Modernist Urban Park Plazas: Considerations for Adaptation for Contemporary Use.” For more information, please contact Caeli Tolar at caelit90@gmail.com.

2 Responses to “Treatment of Modernist Urban Park Plazas”

  1. Lisa Horne Says:

    Thank you for bringing up an issue that is important, but often overlooked. In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, some are still in use (Dan Kiley’s Fountain Place) and some are closed while determinations are made on how to restore appropriately (Lawrence Halprin’s Heritage Plaza). It is a complex issue as restoration can easily invoke newer code and accessibility issues that were nonexistent when these sites were designed. It is and will be an area for the profession to address creatively and sensitively in the coming decades.

    • Caeli Tolar Says:

      Thanks for reading, Lisa! It has been an interesting topic to research. I believe this is an increasingly important topic of discussion for landscape architects and preservationists to address.


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