Revitalization of a Civic Treasure 


LocationHouston, Texas, United States
Size18.5 acres

Hermann Park is one of Houston’s great civic resources containing a significant urban forest and many public venues. It is the flagship of the Houston Park system, serving the recreation needs of the City’s diverse population of some four million and welcoming over six million visitors a year. However, like many urban parks in America, much of Hermann Park has been leased over time to other related institutions, leaving little open space remaining for public use. There had been a framework plan prepared for this park by George Kessler followed by a Hare & Hare plan 1936 that had never been fully realized. A significant component of the original park vision is the Hermann Park Reflection Pool, which had been only partially conceived and was in poor condition, and therefore very underutilized. With only 20% of the parks original space remaining, the City of Houston acted to reclaim the original vision for the park and by doing so, to return a large useable open space to the public. In an international design competition, the Rice Design Alliance invited designers to respond to the needs of a diverse population and to set the tone for Houston’s public presence through the redesign of the “The Heart of the Park”. The restoration and completion of the “The Heart of the Park” became the generative force behind the re-activation of a central civic space. The design honors the original vision for the park’s major entry and central public space while also integrating a contemporary approach to realizing the great space as originally envisioned. Chosen from over 100 respondents, the successful entry transformed the historic heart of Hermann Park into one of the City’s most treasured civic spaces. As prime consultant, SWA led a team through a full design services process, which culminated in the $9.5 million project realized over a period of twelve years. Four core design principles were established: timelessness of design, an enduring aesthetic, a legacy that would last for future generations, and a project that could be affordably maintained in the future. Named “The Heart of the Park”, the space is designed to maximize people’s enjoyment of every square foot of its 18.5 acres. The 80-foot wide by 740-foot long reflection pool establishes the formal central axis for the space and a central cross-axis provides two smaller spaces to either side: the O. Jack Mitchell Garden and the Arbor in the Pines. Lined by elegant pedestrian promenades the formality of the promenades is reinforced by a double row of mature Live Oak trees, the Live Oak Allee’ – one row that had been planted in the 1920s to honor veterans of WW I, and a second row that was added as part of the project. As the consultant for several other large-scale projects in Houston, SWA was able to obtain the donation of and choreograph the transplanting of 44 mature Live Oaks to the park from other sites around the city where these trees would have been lost to development. Environmental issues were of central importance in the design solution. To maintain water clarity and quality the reflection pool utilizes a bio-filtration system, avoiding the use of chemical treatments and excessive power consumption. At the bottom of the reflection pool’s clay lined basin, perforated pipes draw water and debris through a gravel bed where organics are trapped and gradually decompose. To limit potential damage from increased water run-off from the site paving, most horizontal surfaces are paved with porous or semi-porous decomposed granite. Preserving the existing trees that graced this site was paramount. All excavations within the drip lines of the trees were done entirely by hand to avoid disturbing the sensitive roots. To protect the tree roots during the installation of underground piping, the contractors wrapped each individual root with moisture preserving insulation and watered them regularly. Equipment traffic around tree roots was extensively limited throughout the entire construction process. In addition to Live Oaks, a mixed pine/hardwood forest characterizes Hermann Park but over time it has dwindled. The Project added Pines, Oaks, Cypress and other native or indigenous species to the Hermann Park forest. Additional native plant materials, such as Texas perennials, were utilized in special places. Inspired by a 1930s postcard of the park, the Landscape Architect re-established the original plantings around the historic Sam Houston Monument Circle, the north terminus of the Reflection Pool axis. The Circle has been restored as the prominent civic landmark that was originally intended. Simplicity, perhaps the most significant challenge in the design of an active park space, was attained through clarity of form, a refined materials palette, and by the distribution of activity throughout the space. The materials palette was kept purposefully simple and “of the region” to ensure continuity and longevity. The dominant material is limestone, used for the reflection pool coping and all site walls. Paving materials include decomposed granite, clay and concrete pavers, and concrete. A special limestone concrete mix was developed to assure compatibility of paved surfaces with the limestone elements. Appropriate scale was another significant challenge. Each park element was drawn, modeled, mocked up on-site, tested, refined, and closely scrutinized by the design team and the client group to assure appropriateness of scale and character in this setting. The scale of the space had to respond to the larger urban design framework while also relating to the human at the same time. From a larger perspective the “Heart of the Park” provides connectivity between other important park institutions such as The Museum of Natural Science and Houston Zoo, creates linkages to adjacent institutions such as Rice University and Houston’s Museum District, and provides a portal from the Park to the City’s light rail system. This approach realizes the original Kessler intent for a grand entrance to Hermann Park at its connection to Houston’s most civic avenues. The long-ignored public realm in Houston has finally come to the forefront and people now understand the contribution that significant public space can make to the quality of urban life. Funded largely by private donations “The Heart of the Park” represents the best of civic mindedness and philanthropy for which Houston is acclaimed, and serves as a successful example of the value of great civic spaces.

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