In 1995, the Hermann Park Conservancy hired landscape architect Laurie Olin to create a master plan for Houston's most important public park, which began with grand ambitions but had suffered through decades of neglect and underinvestment, with sections of the original park unceremoniously carved away to make room for the Medical Center, Fannin St, and other encroachments. One of the final pieces of that master plan, a reimagined formal garden, will open to the public this weekend as part of the Conservancy's year-long centennial celebrations.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the McGovern Centennial Gardens, which replace the old Garden Center, is a 30-foot-high, grass-covered mound at the garden's northern end. According to the Conservancy's executive director Doreen Stoller, an architect once observed to her that Houston has "a bad case of the flats." To remedy that problem, Doug Hoerr of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects made the mound, which is 175 feet wide at the base and weighs about as much as a 40-story building, the focal point of the 15-acre gardens.
But it fell to Jim Patterson of Houston's White Oak Studio Landscape Architecture to implement Hoerr's audacious vision, a task that required the cooperation of a civil engineer, a structural engineer, two geotechnical engineering firms, and an earthwork contractor. "It was a massive challenge," Patterson says. "I don't know anything like that that's been built. And it has water cascading down the front, so we had to bring in our water feature consultant."
From the top of the mound, which can be reached via a spiraling, ADA-compliant footpath, visitors can survey the entire gardens, including the expansive Centennial Green, a wide stretch of grass perfect for picnics and public concerts; the Celebration Garden, meant to host weddings or other private events; the Family Garden, a food-producing garden featuring fresh fruits and vegetables; the Tudor Family Pine Hill Walk, which includes winding paths through tall pines, and where the relocated Chinese Pavilion can be found; and a number of smaller gardens featuring thousands of roses, arid plants, and shrubs. On the opposite end of the Centennial Green from the mound is the new Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion, designed by Peter Bohlin, the architect responsible for the iconic glass Apple stores.
"It will have wonderful surprises that you don't expect to find in a garden here," Patterson says. "The idea is really to create a great public garden for the city." The $31 million cost of the new gardens was raised by the private Hermann Park Conservancy. Stoller says it was a challenge at the beginning to convince Houstonians to pony up for a public park. “When I started with the Conservancy 12 years ago, none of the fabulous parks we have now, like Discovery Green or Buffalo Bayou Park, or the Memorial Park master plan, had been created. So people were not used to the idea of private investment in public parks: 'Why on earth would I do this? I pay taxes—can’t the city take care of the parks?'”
After the Centennial Gardens' offical grand opening on Saturday, they will close again for a few more weeks of construction (the recent rain set back the schedule), then open permanently at the beginning of November. Houstonians will have to wait until next year to view the final piece of the Hermann Park master plan, the grand gateway entrance from Mecom Fountain to the Sam Houston Monument, whose opening has also been pushed back because of construction delays. But Stoller says the Centennial Gardens represent the fulfillment of a century-old dream. "I really do think this shows what a miracle can happen when the community gets behind something important like public parks. This is really the pièce de résistance of the master plan."
The grand opening runs from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and includes talks by architects Peter Bohlin at 11 a.m. and Doug Hoerr at 12:30 p.m. Click here for more renderings of the garden by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects.