On the occasion of its centennial, the Hermann Park Conservancy commissioned architectural historian Barrie Scardino Bradley to write its history. The resulting, Houston’s Hermann Park, while uneven, is nonetheless a valuable reference documenting the development of one of the very few public spaces in Houston.
Although today the urban form of Houston is synonymous with sprawl, even spawning the pejorative code word, “Houstonization,” events initiated in the first three decades of the 1900s suggested a different trajectory. During these years such progressive and cultural institutions as the Houston Public Library (1904), Rice University (1912), the Houston Symphony (1913), the Museum of Fine Arts (1924), and the University of Houston (1926), were established. In 1912, the newly formed Houston Park Commission brought Boston landscape architect Arthur C. Comey to prepare the first planning document for the city. His proposal, Houston: Tentative Plans for its Development, was published in 1913. In the early 1920s, developers Will and Mike Hogg planned River Oaks, which was originally intended not as an enclave of the superrich, but as a model demonstrating the benefits of rational planning for the city. Mike Hogg even went so far as to personally fund Houston’s first, albeit failed, attempt to institute a comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1929.
It was in this progressive milieu that oilman and real estate developer George Hermann’s bequest in 1914 of some 285 acres (soon after increased to 445 acres) of undeveloped land for what was then to be Houston’s largest park was received. In 1916, noted landscape architect Joseph E. Kessler of St. Louis, best known for planning the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, was invited at the behest of oilman J. S. Cullinan to design a master plan for the new park. (Cullinan would also personally commission him to design the nearby Shadyside subdivision and to transform Main Street south of Montrose Boulevard into the tree-lined Main Boulevard.) Kessler’s plan for Hermann Park, which established a ceremonial entrance axis at the intersection of Main Street and Montrose Boulevard that ran along a rectangular reflecting basin and culminated at a picturesque lake was the framework around which the park slowly developed in ensuing decades.
Beginning in the New Deal era and continuing through the postwar years, there was a palpable shift in the priorities of Houston’s entrepreneurial elite. Instead of tree-lined boulevards, Houston got freeways lined with feeder roads and instead of grand public parks, a new generation of business leaders like Gerald Hines developed the Galleria. Hermann Park, too, was adversely affected by this engineering logic that saw public space as a resource to be exploited rather than a communal amenity. As Bradley explains, a third of the park was sold by the city to become the Texas Medical Center in 1943. Later in the decade, Fannin Street was extended through the park as well as North and South MacGregor Way. An enormous, amoeba-like parking lot began growing inexorably larger in its center. Maintenance of the original reflecting basin was suspended and its muddy banks eroded until it was barely recognizable.
In 1992, after fifty years of neglect by the city, a private civic task force under the aegis the Rice Design Alliance, of which Barrie Bradley was a member, organized the “Heart of the Park” competition to solicit proposals for revitalizing the ceremonial axis along the reflecting basin. Following on the success of this competition, which drew 117 entries, the newly formed, Friends of Hermann Park (renamed the Hermann Park Conservancy in 2004) hired Philadelphia-based landscape architect Laurie Olin, best known for rehabilitating Bryant Park in New York in the early 1980s, to create a new master plan for the entire park that incorporated the winning Heart of the Park proposal. This plan, officially adopted in 1995, has guided all new development in Hermann Park since.
This story, like many local histories, suffers from myopia. We are inundated with names, dates, and facts, while such troubling issues as the abdication of the city’s historic role in maintaining its own facilities and the privatization of public space through the efforts of groups (no doubt with good intentions) like the Hermann Park Conservancy are not adequately addressed. Parallels with other major parks beset by similar problems are only hinted at (here Central Park, and even Houston’s Memorial Park, which is also being re-planned, come to mind). One of the most fascinating sections of the book is a several page interview with Laurie Olin. In it, Olin begins to analyze the cultural shifts that precipitated the increasingly tenuous status public space has in American cities today. Although Bradley does an admirable job of tracing the history of the Hermann Park’s development, from the Kessler Plan, through its period of neglect, and finally to its rehabilitation through the efforts of the Hermann Park Conservancy, the book would have gained much if it also tackled some of the larger issues at hand.
Ben Koush is a Houston-based architect and writer. He is currently working on a book about modern architecture in the Bayou City for the University of Texas Press.