Good, Better, and Some Ugly
Good, Bad, and Ugly
August 15, 2020
The best part about Memorial Park’s new Eastern Glades is the boardwalk through the woods.
Visitors to the popular park on Buffalo Bayou in the middle of Houston can now easily wander and wonder at our native woods and wetlands, complete with dead trees or snags, a vital part of the forest ecology. (Perhaps some signage will be coming along to explain the snags and wetlands to city slickers.)
There are also vast expanses of thick green exotic Zoysia grass for picnicking or just lying around, a Live Oak Court for events, and some lovely pavilions and picnic areas for outdoor grilling and dining, though the pavilions are currently closed due to the Covid.
The 100-acre Glades, on the east side of the park north of Memorial Drive, opened at the end of July. The $35 million project, including $10 million in public funds, features a 5.5-acre artificial lake for detention and water re-use, 2.5 miles of new trails, and environment-friendly dark sky lighting. It’s the first phase of a long-term renovation of the 1,464-acre park, about 40 percent of which is the 600-acre plus golf course (until 1995 the course occupied only 260 acres), recently redone with $13.5 million in private funds to support the PGA Tour’s Houston Open. Sadly, this redoing involved the removal of large numbers of trees so that crowds of spectators can have a better view of the professional golfers during tournaments.
More Green, Less Gray, Some Bad and Very Ugly
The Eastern Glades is part of the long-term Master Plan for the once heavily forested park. Next comes the controversial Land Bridge, which will cover Memorial Drive and connect the north and south sides of the park. This too involves the removal of a great many more trees, although the current design looks greener and less industrial than previous drawings.
Although many trees were removed for the Eastern Glades and a thick carpet of exotic grass laid down, as built the area also seems somewhat gentler, greener, wetter, and wilder than the original plans, allowing at least for a less manicured, more natural experience of the remaining woods. We, and many others, are thankful for that, as Memorial Park was always meant to remain in as natural a state as possible. Let’s hope this aesthetic influences treatment of the rest of the park.
And maybe those bright purple irrigation lines snaking through the woods near the boardwalk are only temporary.
Big Depressing Mistake
The design of the formal Oval Promenade of the Eastern Glades is loosely based on the 1920’s Hare and Hare plan (p. 21) for a formal entry into the park at Blossom Street. From 1917-19 the land which became the park in 1924 was part of Camp Logan, a World War I military training facility and hospital that at the time extended past what is now Westcott Street. See note below. (Ed. Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the original entrance to Camp Logan was at Blossom Street. The camp entrance was at what is now Washington Avenue and Arnot.)
Alas, the massive, newly built stone entrance into the park at Blossom Street is preposterously ugly, jarringly out of character in material, color, texture, style, and scale with the surrounding natural scenery and the airy, restrained architecture of the cabin-like pavilions. Built of depressing gray and blindingly bright hot white, beige-y Central Texas limestone or shellstone, the design intentionally evokes the 1920s or 30s. Why? Does it have to look dated? Can we not move forward?
The choice of materials is justified because the stone is native (to Central Texas, a completely different environment) and used in big civic projects like the San Jacinto Monument and Houston City Hall. (p. 80) But THIS IS A PARK, NOT A BUILDING! A park that, once again, was intended to provide people with a soothing, consoling experience of nature, not more built environment and hard, hot, glaring surfaces. The uncomfortable stone benches belong in a bus station waiting room.
We have local materials that could have been used with subtlety and taste. Buffalo Bayou is lined with sandstone, and sandstone historically has been mined in the region and used for building materials. (Chimney Rock?) Dark reddish brown irregular sandstone would have blended in nicely with the surrounding park.
Brick factories have a long history in the Houston region, and within the boundaries of the park itself was a brick factory that fired bricks from local clay. The remains of this brick factory still exist on the banks of the bayou in that section of the park known as the Old Archery Range west of Loop 610. A short, low, modest wall made of local earth-colored brick would have been more appropriate.
Wood railings have been the historic fencing in the park. Why not simple, light wooden railings made of some of the many trees that have been taken down?
Like a Mausoleum
Some have described the Blossom Street entrance as looking like the entrance to a mausoleum. And in fact the entrance leads to a grassy allée lined with what appears to be blank, yellowish tombstones. These are, again, totally out of sync in every way with the surrounding natural environment. And yes, the funereal headstones are depressing not just because they’re alien, confusing, and weird. It turns out that they are supposed to interrupt our picnic and make us think of those who died in World War I.
The whole park is named Memorial Park in honor of those who died in World War I. We don’t have to turn the park into a gloomy cemetery in order to do that. Next they plan to take out more forest on the west side of the park and plant pine trees in rigid, unnatural rows to make us miserable there too.
As if we don’t have enough to feel uncomfortable about. In these difficult times, many people come to the woods of Memorial Park for solace and uplift. Perhaps those who served and died in World War I would prefer that for us.
A Performance: Black Lives Matters 1917
On the other hand: there was once some talk about a memorial in the park to the Houston Riot of 1917, also known as the Camp Logan Mutiny. That hasn’t happened, but those events are particularly relevant today.
On Aug. 23, 1917, during the Jim Crow-era, black soldiers stationed as guards at Camp Logan, then under construction, reacted to racist verbal and physical abuse from the police and white residents and to rumors of the murder of a fellow soldier by the police. They mutinied and marched through the city, with tragic results.
On Aug. 19, 2020, Diverseworks will broadcast a free online performance called “Fire and Movement Revisited” inspired by the those events. Registration required.