On a warm February morning in 2011, I visited the Ryan Middle School, located a few blocks from Emancipation Park in Houston’s predominately African American Third Ward. I was there to talk with the students about architecture as a profession, to show examples of the cool things architects do, and to get their ideas on the renovation we were starting to design for Houston’s most storied park.
They were an energetic and inquisitive audience. Naturally, they were much more familiar with Emancipation Park than they were with architecture and design. We learned from each other, which is one of the best things about a lively face-to-face session with middle school kids.
The conversation at the Ryan School that morning made me more aware of the awesome opportunity in front of us. The redesign of Emancipation Park, a beloved part of community life for a century and a half in the Third Ward, presented an opportunity to not only renovate the historic site, but also bring the park’s richly textured story to life in our design. If we succeeded, the social, cultural, and economic benefits of a bustling new destination would contribute to a thriving future for the Third Ward.
Steeped in History
The Emancipation Park story began in 1872, when four formerly enslaved members of the Third Ward community pooled their funds to purchase 10 acres of open space for $800. Historically, the park hosted Houston’s Juneteenth celebration, the annual holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, the day when news of Emancipation and freedom reached Texas – more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
Emancipation Park, as they named it, became the first public park in Houston. For decades, it was the only public park and swimming pool in the city open to African Americans. It hosted family reunions, concerts, parades, festivals, and multiple sporting events. Juneteenth celebrations drew large crowds, which included long-time residents and former neighbors who regularly returned to the park to participate in this annual event.
The City of Houston acquired the park in 1918. During the Great Depression, the City hired Houston architect William Ward Watkin to design the park’s two original buildings. These were built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1938-39.
Decline and Regeneration
As it was in so many urban areas in the 1960’s, economic and social upheaval led to big changes in the Third Ward community – and in the park. The long-established stores, theaters, and restaurants around the park were squeezed out by the rise of shopping malls – and the opening up of formerly segregated businesses downtown. An interstate highway, U.S. 59, truncated the Third Ward community on its north side in the late ‘60s, razing whole blocks and reducing property values. Many residents flocked to the new suburbs rising all around the fast-growing city, diminishing the numbers of middle-class families in the Third Ward. Emancipation Park suffered from a lack of use, poor maintenance, and rising crime.
The park’s new life began to take shape approximately a decade later when The Friends of Emancipation Park was formed. The all-volunteer organization included a mix of newcomers and longtime residents united by a single objective: to bring the Emancipation Park back to prominence, popularity, and everyday use. It took many years to secure the funding necessary for this major capital investment. But the dedication of countless community and city leaders, including the OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority, The Emancipation Park Conservancy, The Friends of Emancipation Park, and the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, was crucial to the reinvestment and restoration of this beloved place.
We joined the initiative in 2010 when the City and the stakeholder partners selected us to plan and design the new Emancipation Park. From the start, we were impressed with how connected the Third Ward community was to the park, and to its place in the proud history of the community. The outreach and listening phase included meeting with civic groups, clergy, city government representatives, residents, business people, and yes, middle schoolers. We facilitated multiple visioning and planning sessions, and researched every facet of the park’s origin, traditions, and lost stories.
This community engagement process brought into focus the project challenges and informed our design process. The goal of the project became clear: to honor both the history of Emancipation Park and the community’s vision for its future. The excitement and optimism we experienced inspired everyone on the design team to aim high.
Design Celebrates Past and Future Stories
Visitors to Emancipation Park encounter a variety of experiences as they enter and move through an interwoven tapestry of buildings and landscape. In addition to the Park’s recreation offerings, there are multiple cultural and historic elements in the design, some direct and visible, and others more nuanced.
The idea of connecting or stitching together many different parts to create a harmonious entity is rooted in African and African American traditions, such as quilting. This is reflected in the overall Emancipation Park design – its buildings, exterior spaces, and landscape features.
- Our design commemorates the Juneteenth legacy story by creating a ceremonial gateway and promenade that add prominence to the annual celebration.
- The project pays tribute to the park’s four founders with commemorative sculptural pieces at the four corners of the site that highlight their inspirational stories. These markers are one of several interpretative elements visitors encounter while exploring the park.
- The new recreation center, the park’s flagship structure, is clad in composite panels. The rust and earth-tone colored panels represent a modern-day interpretation of the traditional metal roofs and brick masonry found in the neighborhood.
- The main entry plaza is defined by the new recreation center, the renovated cultural center, and the restored and expanded aquatic center. The plaza welcomes visitors and serves as an outdoor reception area and orientation space, with daily activities posted, plus visual exhibits and artwork that depict the park’s evolution and history.
- The park’s central axis, originally delineated in the 1939 site plan by landscape design firm Hare and Hare, establishes the main pathway from the entrance plaza through the park. The new Founder’s Promenade is organized along this axis.
With its long and storied history, the new Emancipation Park is central to the promising future of the Third Ward community. Its design reflects the pride, resilience, and hope its founders envisioned when they established the Park so many years ago.
During the park’s rededication ceremony on Juneteenth weekend, I thought about my visit with the Ryan School students six years ago. Now college-age, those young men and women will be starting families, charting careers, and launching businesses in the not-too-distant future. In my mind I can imagine that one day they will return to make their homes in Houston’s historic Third Ward and bring their children to the rejuvinated Emancipation Park.