A median garden downtown is to regain its 1920s grandeur

Park's path: Folly to neglect, rebirth

January 25, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

The garden in the middle of St. Paul Street — A sylvan sliver in the unlikeliest of places, an urban luxury once criticized as a former mayor's extravagance and then neglected for much of its nearly 100-year existence, Baltimore's Preston Gardens is finally getting its due.

The garden in the middle of St. Paul Street - which would more accurately be described as the city's fanciest median - is slated for a nearly $900,000 overhaul. The effort would not only restore the park to its former glory, but improve on it with a flourishing landscape, working fountains and better lighting - all in the hope that the hard-luck plot can become a real downtown park.

"It's an island in the middle of St. Paul Street, but for many people, the literally thousands of downtown businesspeople, it's kind of like a front yard," said Mike Evitts, spokesman for Downtown Partnership, the organization leading the restoration effort. "This could be a world-class park."

In the early 1900s, a fair number of Baltimoreans considered Mayor James H. Preston off his rocker as he zealously pushed a plan to spend $1.2 million on a slim park that would run for about three blocks along the middle of an expanded St. Paul Street.

The mayor's critics began calling the project "Preston's Folly." Those who owned homes in the path of the mayor's pet project were also less than thrilled.

Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted came up with the idea for the park as he drafted ideas for Baltimore's overall green space in 1905, but it was Thomas Hastings, another esteemed architect, who designed it years later.

Officials in jackets with tails and straw hats gathered in May 1919 to dedicate Preston Terraces, as it was then known. Dignitaries took seats in chairs set out all along the imposing stone stairs.

"It is not uncommon," Hastings told the crowd, according to articles in The Sun at the time, "to see the useful without the beautiful, or the beautiful without the useful, but it is rare to see a section such as was this, almost useless and unquestionably ugly, transformed into magnificent terraces that have already given health and life to this vicinity as well as pleasure to all who come in contact therewith."

But it didn't take long for nature and neglect to start chipping away at Hastings' magnificence.

Just a couple of years after the dedication, city fathers briefly entertained a proposal to build a series of parking garages for 2,000 cars on the garden site. That fizzled, but by the Depression, with money for niceties like floral displays out of the question, the city began leaving the gardens bare for years at a time. Many mourned the missing tulips - shots of color that they so quickly had come to expect.

By the 1950s, winos in the park were almost part of the landscape, snoozing under the now-scruffy bushes. And despite the best efforts of the most determined garden clubs, Preston Gardens has been, more or less, on a sad decline ever since.

But the Downtown Partnership hopes to turn that around. With just under $900,000 to spend - most of which is coming from the city - the organization has plans for an overhaul, one that it hopes will have people reconsidering what has long been forgettable public space.

"It's really the largest chunk of green space we have downtown," said Nan Rohrer, the partnership's retail development director. "Hopefully, when we're finished with it, it will almost resemble an English garden and lawn."

Because of the park's lineage, those leading the beautification effort are quick to call it a "restoration" rather than a redesign. They want to carefully preserve the essence of Hastings' vision for the park but freshen it so that it works as well a century later.

"We're treading very lightly might be a way to think about it," said Carol Macht of Hord Coplan Macht, who's handling the design and said she's trying to reveal the fine bones beneath the unkempt plantings. "It's a privilege to be able to work with such wonderful architecture."

So they'll haul away dead trees and overgrown shrubs, scrub and repair the ornate stone staircases and retaining wall, and tinker with the southernmost of the two fountains to see whether it can be coaxed into working again. (The other fountain has more serious, cost-prohibitive issues and could become a planter.)

They'll pad the ground with fresh grass, fill in the ground with perennials and flowering trees, and add shade-throwing species along the park's west side.

The final touch will be lighting, arranged to wash over the architectural elements and to make people feel safe.

The Downtown Partnership has made refreshing the city's plazas something of a mission. Their $6 million Center Plaza reconstruction should be finished by summer, and they've tried to brighten the gray of Hopkins Plaza with landscaping and potted flowers.

The organization doesn't just want the parks to look good, it wants people to start using them.

To get folks into Preston Gardens, the organization tried holding movie nights. And in the fall it tried picnics with live music on Fridays.

The partnership surveyed downtown residents in the fall and found that quality-of-life issues are first on everyone's mind.

"It's more than just about aesthetics for their own sake," Evitts said. "The way things look affects how people perceive the environment."

Businesses that surround the gardens have taken an interest in its well-being. Tremont hotels, for instance, has contributed money to the cleanup. It considers the donation an investment of sorts.

Tremont's managing director, Michael Haynie, has been known to escape there, seeking shade and serenity on particularly trying days.

"We definitely believe in that park," Haynie said. "The more we highlight it and clean it up, the more it becomes a focal point to a re-energized area."


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