The bar has been raised for Houston’s green spaces in Houston. Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou Parks and Memorial Park have all been expanded or improved. Now Hermann Park will soon reveal a $52 million project that includes an innovative play area.
Behind a tall fence that runs along Fannin and Cambridge streets, dozens of workers, earth-moving machines and even horticulturists are working on the newest improvement to one of Houston’s marquee parks: the 26-acre Hermann Commons at Hermann Park.
Work has been underway for a year now, and portions of the project are taking shape, as 12-foot concrete sidewalks have been poured and trees and plants have been put in place at the Fannin entrance across from the Memorial Hermann Professional Building.
When the project finishes early next year, Hermann Park will have, hands-down, the coolest new children’s play park in metropolitan Houston, expanded family picnic areas and more shady places to just sit and soak up nature.
This $52 million project wasn’t launched with proceeds from a mega-donor, but instead with a broad base of support from hundreds of Houstonians. The largest gift was just $5 million, from longtime zoo and park supporter Kathrine G. McGovern, the wife of the late John P. McGovern, after whom the park’s Children’s Zoo is named.
Hermann Park Conservancy president Doreen Stoller said the organization is still working to raise the last $1.7 million.
Some $4 million of the project will go to a dog park that should be finished by the end of summer.
The rest of the money is going to the 26-acre Hermann Commons, which will add shady rest areas, picnic pavilions, a carousel and innovation play areas. Parents may wish they could be kids again.
The park’s big new ideas and stunning designs are the work of two award-winning design firms, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Marlon Blackwell Architects, who received the AIA Gold Medal not long after accepting the park project commission. As landscape architects, MVVA is handling the bulk of the work, including play areas, while Blackwell and his firm designed the major structures: picnic pavilions that almost look space age, a glittering carousel, restoration of the park’s historic pavilion and a restroom building so gorgeous that it’s hard to imagine that all it holds are sinks and toilets.
MVVA was hired to create a new master plan for Hermann Park in 2017, and it soon began planning the Commons project, including sustainable soil preparation, play park ideas and the hiring of Blackwell in 2018.
In Houston, MVVA has done the landscape design for the Menil Collection and Bayou Greenways; it was also hired for the Buffalo Bayou East and Tony Marron Park project that was announced last fall. Elsewhwere, MVVA’s work can be seen in the Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Woodland Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and both the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
Jack Ohly, associate principal at MVVA and the lead landscape architect on the Hermann Commons project, said that the section of the park along Fannin, from the back of the Japanese Garden to the front of the Houston Zoo, just needed an update.
Ohly wanted to take advantage of the canopy of live oak trees at the entrance at Fannin and Cambridge — to be called the Welcome Garden. A steel grid will be laid along the ground to protect tree roots and hold expansive decking, so that visitors can walk or sit under the trees where it’s too shady for grass to grow. Ramps will make it accessible to everyone.
This corner serves many from the Texas Medical Center, employees taking a break from stressful jobs or patients or their loved ones needing to escape a medical setting to enjoy nature, Stoller said.
In all, the Commons will get 1,200 new trees and 45,000 new plants, and the planting was done with existing soil enriched by using a novel technique generally reserved for sustainable agriculture — not in public parks.
The soil was old and compacted, Ohly explained. Generally, a plan for renovating such a space would involve scraping off the top several inches of soil and trucking it out to a landfill.
Instead, they used a regenerative agriculture method, planting seven acres of daikon radishes, a tuberous root vegetable that can grow 18 inches into the ground. When left in place to rot, the radishes break up the soil as they decompose. Then, cereal rye grass that grows about waist high is planted; it matures and dies in place.
The rotting radishes and decaying grasses leave the soil loose and rich in organic matter. That enriched soil was moved into large piles for use as new top soil. The radish planting was a two-year project that started long before current work; it ultimately saved money and is better for the environment.
“The conservancy put out signs saying, ‘We didn’t forget to mow the grass; this is intentional.’ We explained what we were doing and made it a demonstration project,” Ohly said.
The play area will cover several acres and is meant to engage kids of all ages and abilities. The centerpiece is a space adventure area with play structures resembling a splashdown capsule, parachute and rocket launch with slides and climbing structures. Shade structures help cope with the heat.
“The architects don’t want to call it a ‘playground’ — they want it to be called a ‘play garden’ and these are landscapes of the imagination,” Stoller said. “There will be plants with silver and blue leaves, and kids can feel like their splashdown capsule has landed on a different planet.”
Other play areas are animal-focused with a 10-foot gorilla made of wood and equipped with a climbing structure on its back. Kids can work their way to a platform and look out, or shimmy down one of two slides: the gorilla’s arm on one side and a banana on the other.
There are two more structures on an elevated area, one a snake and the other a toad. Any kids can go inside those structures, but they’re meant to be helpful to children on the spectrum who may want a quieter place to themselves.
“We want there to be a sense of discovery, with a real diversity of types of play and levels of challenge. Spaces for different kids’ abilities and moods so they can choose their own adventure,” Ohly said.
For the youngest children, there will be basket swings and small wooden dragonflies where toddlers can pull themselves up. The Commons will have water play and wet sand play areas. A restroom building offers a rooftop terrace.
“Every project is a part of a larger set of ideas. It’s great to test ideas not just about form or shape, but also about people,” Blackwell said. “Every building has to do more than it’s supposed to do. The bathrooms, for example, could just be bathrooms — but what else can it do? It becomes a shade provider and something iconic with a bit of delight.”
The public restroom structure is shaped like a cube but with curved walls. Bricks lining the walls will be installed in a sawtooth pattern, so that each one protrudes at an angle, rather than creating a smooth surface.
The structure’s roof will be a metal ring with openings at each curved wall so that plants at the base will get sunlight and rain. It also allows the natural light to come through and dance along the curve and crevices of the wall.
“The roof is a warm metallic, and it’s slightly upturned to reflect the grass around it. In the soffit, you’ll actually see subtle colors of green and whatever is planted around it,” Blackwell said. “Every element in this structure is doing something.”