Park’s designer saw eloquence in wilderness

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Park’s designer saw eloquence in wilderness

August 3, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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The pavilion of the Alexandria African American Heritage Park invites visitors down a ramp into the wetlands and aligns with the George Washington National Masonic Memorial. Photo courtesy Alexandria Archaeology.

In the last three articles I have discussed the development of the Alexandria African American Heritage Park from the perspectives of history and art, and how they intertwine in this new public place. There is still another perspective to the park's creation--the urban design. 

A number of years ago Roger Courtenay, a principal with the Alexandria firm, EDAW, Inc., took up the challenge of designing a park to commemorate African American heritage. This overgrown land did not appear connected to Duke Street, to its neighbor the Alexandria National Cemetery, nor to the broader context of the new King Street Metro area. For those traveling down Holland Lane, the landmarks included the water treatment facility, old railroad tracks, a scrapyard, and derelict buildings.

If you parked your car and climbed down the steep dirt bank through the brambles, you could see one gravestone and wetlands chocked with vegetation. This place looked neither historic nor accessible. How could Roger envision the new park landscape from what he saw? Roger's first step was to visit the site, and "just try to soak it up and let the specifics identify themselves to me." He builds up from there with data about the plants, topography, public uses, history, building materials, and art.

Roger's objective in designing the park was to "enhance people's understanding of their cultural patrimony so they leave having a memorable experience." As he "soaked" up the site, Roger became aware that three elements came together in this project. First, was the "commemorative nature engendered by the cemetery, which was the "prime mover of the project." Second, the human experience was to be passive, a place to walk and contemplate. Third, the natural wetlands permitted wildlife and vegetation to be incorporated into the design.

Roger paired each of these parts with the park's design elements. The historic African American cemetery has the circle containing Jerome Meadow's bronze sculpture and the stone wall delineating its boundaries. The pavilion and amphitheater relate to the passive park use. While the perimeter walk and boardwalk take us into the wetlands.

Harmoniously, all three parts of the park tie together. The Meadow's bronze trees echo the wetlands natural setting, but sit at a higher elevation. Another bronze commemorating African American neighborhoods sits along the walkway next to Hooff's Run. The mound at the end of the pavilion speaks again of burials. The pavilion's woodwork was hand tooled, curved into ribs, and dowelled to be evocative of historic black boat building. The elements also tie with the George Washington National Masonic Memorial and the National Cemetery circle. Each part "has bits and pieces of the other so all coheres" and blends with the wider context around the park. The park design helps us feel our kinship with our collective human past and nature. Being in the park truly is a memorable experience.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.