A Gateway and a Hill

Houston’s 445-acre Hermann Park, inaugurated in 1914 — tied together with Rice University and the Museum of Fine Arts by a majestic live oak-studded section of Main Street — forms the nucleus of the city’s most impressively planned sequence of public spaces. After a period of shocking neglect by the city during the postwar years, in the early 1990s Hermann Park Conservancy was formed by a group of concerned citizens. Shortly thereafter, they commissioned an imaginative master plan by the Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin that they have been methodically implementing since it was officially approved by the city council in 1995. To commemorate the park’s 100th anniversary, the Conservancy began planning a centennial campaign in early 2009 to fund the restoration and rebuilding of several park components, the most important being the new McGovern Centennial Gardens and Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion, which opened in late 2014.

Located on a 15-acre section of the park — bordered by Hermann Drive, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Miller Outdoor Theatre, and a public golf course — the site of the McGovern Centennial Gardens was originally intended to be a specimen garden with a multipurpose building for the use of Houston’s garden clubs. Houston architect William Ward Watkin designed the original Garden Center in 1938, and it was built in a much-altered form in 1942. After World War II, a giant semicircular parking lot serving the theater was built in front of the garden center building, taking up most of the garden space. In 1976, the Houston Taipei Society donated a prefabricated reinforced-concrete Chinese garden pavilion that was installed on a forlorn patch of lawn adjacent to the Garden Center. This pavilion was to be the centerpiece of a Chinese garden that was never built.  

Although Laurie Olin had made preliminary studies for this site in 2005, it was not until 2009 that a formal plan for the new garden was commissioned from Chicago-based landscape architects Hoerr Schaudt. Their design sought to create a unified garden area without losing parking. It extended an allee of live oaks from a former carriage trail through the new garden, which was oriented north-south toward the Miller Outdoor Theatre. The financial crisis, which coincided with the schematic design they presented in November 2009, prompted the conservancy to suspend fundraising for the project for nearly two years.

During the lull, Doug Hoerr and his team continued to study the site, and by 2011 when the project was resumed, they had changed their design and proposed demolishing the garden center building, reorienting the garden along its longer east-west axis, and repurposing the undeveloped open space around the lonely Chinese Pavilion as a new landscaped parking area. Hoerr Schaudt’s second plan for the McGovern gardens is more classical in feel than the first, which was characterized by curving arcs of trees and asymmetrical planting beds. In the revised plan, a straight axis extended from the parking lot through the new garden pavilion to a rectilinear great lawn, lined on each side with vine-covered arbors, that was to terminate in an oval-

shaped meadow of wildflowers. In the spaces to the north and south of the long axis, they proposed a series of smaller gardens including the Woodland Garden, Family Garden, Celebration Garden, Arid Garden, Rose Garden, and a rustic area landscaped with big boulders called the Pine Hill Walk, which included the relocated Chinese Pavilion. These moves allowed for a much larger, contiguous garden area, and the dispersion of parking away from the science museum helped ease traffic congestion in a busy section of the park.  

At this point, the Conservancy commissioned Philadelphia architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, perhaps best known for their sleekly minimalist stores for Apple, to design the building for the Garden Center. Peter Bohlin and his team proposed a long and narrow pavilion that acts as a gateway to the garden. A solid wall clad with thin slabs of black Cambrian granite, pierced only by the opening leading into the garden, faces the new parking lot. A large multipurpose room and catering kitchen on the north side were visually balanced by blank walls defining an open courtyard and by a bank of public toilets on the south side. At the center was what the architects called the “portal,” a funnel-shaped opening clad with shiny stainless steel panels that provided a controlled view toward the great lawn. Pergolas on either side of the portal visually connected the pavilion with the arbors extending along the lawn.

Doreen Stoller, executive director of the Hermann Park Conservancy, described the design process between Hoerr Schaudt’s and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s teams as “iterative,” with lots of ideas bouncing back and forth. However, at the 95 percent review for design development, the design committee was in for a shock when Doug Hoerr proposed to eliminate the wildflower meadow at the termination of the grand axis with what he called “the mount,” a 30-foot-tall artificial hill with a walking path spiraling up it to a viewing platform. According to Hoerr, the gateway pavilion and long axis demanded a more forceful termination, and he was increasingly bothered by the looming presence of the science museum’s 6-story parking garage at the far end of the garden. After consulting historical accounts of gardens where such mounts had been installed in the past, the committee put its trust in the landscape architects and accepted the change. Today, happily, the mount is the garden’s most popular feature.  

The complex design process of the McGovern Centennial Gardens and Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion showcases the rare combination of a sophisticated client willing to take risks, a thoughtful design team, and an extended timeline that allowed the project to fully develop. As such, it fittingly recalls in a condensed version the hard work the Hermann Park Conservancy has done for 20 years to rehabilitate one of Houston’s most important public places.    

Ben Koush is an architect in Houston.

Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.