Yesterday, in her invaluable—always informative and frequently entertaining—blog “The Gossips of Rivertown”, Carole Osterink’s critique of Cathryn Dwyre’s plan for the redevelopment of the Seventh Street Park in Hudson sparked a lively, though largely one-sided response.
In general, Carole and those who commented on her post support the idea of restoring the park as an attractive and useful civic amenity, but argue that whatever resources are available would be better devoted to replicating its original nineteenth century design, complete with its centerpiece, an ornate fountain of dubious aesthetic merit currently in storage and apparently in very poor condition.
I in no way oppose the historic preservation of urban environments. Indeed, I ardently concur with the principles enshrined in Jane Jacob’s great book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities”, in which she tirelessly advocates for the preservation of neighborhood character.
That whatever design integrity the Seventh Street Park once had has been moreorless entirely violated by a crude hodgepodge of modifications over the decades, that in its current state it’s a veritable eyesore serving few useful functions, and that anything would be better than what’s there now, no one seems to dispute, a consensus that is certainly a healthy starting point.
However, the Seventh Street Park is no architectural masterpiece (in fact it’s a pretty typical, run-of-the-mill town square with awkward proportions, given that a railroad track pierces it), The argument that the original design deserves restoring by virtue of any intrinsic aesthetic merit is slender at best.
Neither are the surrounding buildings of particular architectural import, so compatibility is hardly an issue (indeed, the centerpiece of the surrounding streets may well turn out to be the adaptive reuse of a neoclassical monolith by none other than the ultra modernist architect Rem Koolhaas).
Hudson itself comprises a rich patchwork of architectural styles imposed over a span of close to 250 years, a fact that surely alone invalidates any argument against introducing something new.
At the other end of the line, so to speak, nothing could be more distressing and depressing, in hindsight, than the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City. It’s now universally acknowledged that it was a crime on a massive scale to tear down what was arguably the city’s most architecturally and socially innovative structure of the twentieth century. However, while plans are afoot to finally replace the monstrosity that took its place, no one is suggesting replicating McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece in the twenty-first century. It would be beyond logic to do so now that the requirements for a transportation hub are so completely different.
Likewise, in a small but burgeoning city like Hudson, the purpose of a public square is no longer to be simply emblematic of civic pride reflected in faux-beaux-arts decorative elements and a mini-Versailles floor plan. Indeed, Hudson has such a heterogeneous population that no particular historical or regional style could be deemed appropriate to our diversity as a community.
Better then to pursue a design specifically prioritizing the needs of people for their sake, rather than preservation for its own sake.
Consider the remarkable case of a public space constructed out of a few semi-abandoned blocks in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Designed from the ground up, Maya Lin’s Rosa Parks Circle—not dissimilar in scale and concept from Cathryn’s Dwyre’s proposed design for the Seventh Street Park—is widely regarded as one of the most successful small urban park projects executed, attracting thousands of downtown workers and visitors daily with its ingenious, asymmetrical mix of skating rink, swing dance floor, concert bowl, open spaces, shaded lawns and walkways, and lively perimeter, overlooked by a thriving museum of contemporary art.
This entirely original design has paid huge dividends for once deeply depressed Grand Rapids. In 1991, former Mayor John Logie walked what was then a section of Monroe Street, counting 76 vacant storefronts before the city decided to yank the bricks, ending what Logie called the ill-fated malling, or “mauling”, of downtown. Today, occupancy along Monroe is peaking as once vacant industrial-era buildings are filled with tenants and the street level features a diverse mix of restaurants, boutique hotels, and bustling retail shops, anchored by a civic center as well as the museum.
Still doubtful? Then consider as well the case of the same Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, now widely considered the most effective modern monument in America. According to Wikipedia: “When it was first proposed, negative reactions to Lin’s radical design created a controversy; a compromise was reached by commissioning Frederick Hart (who had placed third in the original design competition) to produce a bronze figurative sculpture in the heroic tradition. Opponents of Lin’s design had hoped to place this sculpture of three soldiers at the apex of the wall’s two sides. Lin objected strenuously to this, arguing that this would make the soldiers the focal point of the memorial, and her wall a mere backdrop. A compromise was reached, and the sculpture was placed off to one side.” While Lin’s memorial draws 4.5 million visitors a year, hardly anyone as much as notices Hart’s statue.
Perhaps the Hudson city fathers could find somewhere nearby for the famous fountain. The little triangle at the intersection of State, Greene, and Columbia would be dandy, and nobody could miss it.
Rosa Parks Circle, Grand Rapids MI
Rosa Parks Circle (left) Seventh Street Park, Hudson (right) [Google Maps: same scale]