American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2005 Professional Awards
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An aerial photograph of “The Heart of the Park” describes its relationship to the city fabric and surrounding cultural, educational, transit and park destinations. The design creates connectivity, expresses the larger urban design role of the space, and most importantly, provides an active public park for people (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
The Hare & Hare Plan that followed Kessler’s Framework Plan for the park establishes “The Heart of the Park” as the beginning of the Montrose Boulevard axis, one of the city’s most significant urban design legacies.
The 1992 competition-winning plan prepared by the Landscape Architect develops the Hare & Hare concept into a wonderful park environment, focused along a Reflection Pool.
“The Heart of the Park” and park entrance prior to the 1992 design competition are compared to the improved park entrance (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
“The Heart of the Park” today. A 740-foot long Reflection Pool defines the axis and is flanked by sloping lawns and Live Oak Allees comprised of both historic and transplanted trees. The Sam Houston Monument and Circle is the northern landmark along the north/south axis and the Pioneer Monument and Molly Ann Brennan Smith Plaza mark the southern end of the axis, connecting it to McGovern Lake and The Houston Zoo beyond (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
The Reflection Pool was narrowed and lengthened to formalize the Montrose Boulevard Park axis. An ornamental limestone coping flanked by decomposed granite walks enable access to the water’s edge. The Reflection Pool was lowered 18 inches below natural grade to improve aspect and expand reflected views (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
The Cascade, a series of sloping and stepped surfaces at the pool’s north end, expresses a grade change and creates falling water that provides a subtle sound. The Reflection Pool utilizes a bio-filtration system to cleanse water and the Cascade is the return source for this system (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
The sloping lawn panels, shaded by historic Live Oak trees invite people to picnic and to enjoy the activity and the views along the Reflection Pool (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).

The Heart of the Park at Hermann Park, Houston, TX
SWA Group, Houston, TX
Conceptual Design Collaboration Consultants: Olin Partnership, Ltd., Philadelphia, PA

"Civic art is back and it’s really working. . . Magical, you can be in full sun, shade, even woods . . . to enhance anything in a renovation is really, really difficult . . . lovely contrast from out in the open and to the back."

— 2005 Professional Awards Jury Comments

Hermann Park is one of Houston’s great civic resources containing a significant urban forest and many public venues. It is the flagship of the Houston Park system, serving the recreation needs of the City’s diverse population of some four million and welcoming over six million visitors a year. However, like many urban parks in America, much of Hermann Park has been leased over time to other related institutions, leaving little open space remaining for public use.

There had been a framework plan prepared for this park by George Kessler followed by a Hare & Hare plan in 1936 that had never been fully realized. A significant component of the original park vision is the Hermann Park Reflection Pool, which had been only partially conceived and was in poor condition, and therefore very underutilized. So in 1992, with only 20% of the parks original space remaining, the City of Houston acted to reclaim the original vision for the park and by doing so, to return a large useable open space to the public. In an International Design Competition, the Rice Design Alliance invited designers to respond to the needs of a diverse population and to set the tone for Houston’s public presence through the redesign of the “The Heart of the Park”. The restoration and completion of the “The Heart of the Park” became the generative force behind the re-activation of a delightful, civic space.

In their award-winning plan, the landscape architect, teamed with an architect, urban planners and graphics designer, honors the original vision for the park’s major entry and central public space while also integrating a contemporary approach to realizing the great space as originally envisioned. Chosen from over 100 respondents, the successful entry transformed the historic heart of Hermann Park into one of the City’s most treasured civic spaces. The landscape architect, as prime consultant, led a team through a full design services process, which culminated in the $9.5 million project realized over a period of twelve years.

The landscape architect and the client group, stakeholders, and the parks master planning consultant established four core design principles: timelessness of design, an enduring aesthetic, a legacy that would last for future generations, and a project that could be affordably maintained in the future. Named “The Heart of the Park”, the space is designed to maximize people’s enjoyment of every square foot of its 18.5 acres.

The 80-foot wide by 740-foot long reflection pool establishes the formal central axis for the space and a central cross-axis provides two smaller spaces to either side: the O. Jack Mitchell Garden and the Arbor in the Pines. Lined by elegant pedestrian promenades the formality of the promenades is gracefully reinforced by a double row of mature Live Oak trees, the Live Oak Allee – one row that had been planted in the 1920s to honor veterans of WW I, and a second row that was added as part of the project. As the consultant for several other large-scale projects in Houston, the Landscape Architect was able to obtain the donation of and choreograph the transplanting of 44 mature Live Oaks to the park from other sites around the city where these trees would have been lost to development.

Environmental issues were of central importance in the design solution. To maintain water clarity and quality the reflection pool utilizes a bio-filtration system, avoiding the use of chemical treatments and excessive power consumption. At the bottom of the reflection pool’s clay lined basin, perforated pipes draw water and debris through a gravel bed where organics are trapped and gradually decompose. To limit potential damage from increased water run-off from the site paving, most horizontal surfaces are paved with porous or semi-porous decomposed granite.

Preserving the existing trees that graced this site was paramount. All excavations within the drip lines of the trees were done entirely by hand to avoid disturbing the sensitive roots. To protect the tree roots during the installation of underground piping, the contractors wrapped each individual root with moisture preserving insulation and watered them regularly. Equipment traffic around tree roots was extensively limited throughout the entire construction process.

In addition to Live Oaks, a mixed pine/hardwood forest characterizes Hermann Park but over time it has dwindled. The Project added Pines, Oaks, Cypress and other native or indigenous species to the Hermann Park forest. Additional native plant materials, such as Texas perennials, were utilized in special places. Inspired by a 1930s postcard of the park, the landscape architect re-established the original plantings around the historic Sam Houston Monument Circle, the north terminus of the Reflection Pool axis. The Circle has been restored as the prominent civic landmark that was originally intended.

Simplicity, perhaps the most significant challenge in the design of any active park space, was attained through clarity of form, a refined materials palette, and by the distribution of activity throughout the space. The materials palette was kept purposefully simple and “of the region” to ensure continuity and longevity. The dominant material is limestone, used for the reflection pool coping and all site walls. Paving materials include decomposed granite, clay and concrete pavers, and concrete. A special limestone concrete mix was developed to assure compatibility of paved surfaces with the limestone elements.

Appropriate scale, another significant challenge, was key to a successful civic space. Each park element was drawn, modeled, mocked up on-site, tested, refined, and closely scrutinized by the deign team and the client group to assure appropriateness of scale and character in this setting. The scale of the space had to respond to the larger urban design framework while also relating to the human at the same time.

From a larger perspective the “Heart of the Park” provides connectivity between other important park institutions such as The Museum of Natural Science and Houston Zoo, creates linkages to adjacent institutions such as Rice University and Houston’s Museum District, and provides a portal from the Park to the City’s light rail system. This approach realizes the original Kessler intent for a grand entrance to Hermann Park at its connection to Houston’s most civic avenues.

The long-ignored public realm in Houston has finally come to the forefront and people now understand the contribution that significant public space can make to the quality of urban life. Funded largely by private donations “The Heart of the Park” represents the best of civic mindedness and philanthropy for which Houston is acclaimed, and serves as a successful example of the value of great civic spaces.

The design also represents the best of a collaborative process. In all, 11 different entities were involved in making the project a reality including City departments, not-for-profit groups and commissions, and park users themselves. The “Heart of the Park” in Hermann Park is not only a beautiful civic space, but also a source of pride for the entire City of Houston.


Great care was taken during construction to assure preservation of the existing Live Oak trees. All excavation around tree roots was conducted by hand and the roots were protected while piping was being laid. Restrictions were placed on the machinery and stock piled materials to avoid soil compaction within drip lines of trees (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
The Live Oak Allée consists of the historic Live Oaks supplemented with a second row of 12 – 24 inch caliper Live Oaks that were rescued from the park site and also from other sites around Houston. The Allée provides shaded seating areas that offer views to the Reflection Pool. A continuous ground plane of decomposed granite allows large civic gatherings and festivals to occur and a simple single row of lights centered in the Allee’ illuminates the space enabling it to be used at night (photo: Tom Fox, SWA Group).
At the mid-point along the Reflection Pool more intimate spaces provide places for people to gather. On the West side the “Arbor in the Pines” provides a shaded banco under a Wisteria-draped Cypress pergola. The building behind the pergola houses mechanical systems for the pool, plaza fountain, and neighboring McGovern Lake (photo: SWA Group).
The Molly Ann Brennan Smith Plaza anchors and activates the southern end of the Reflection Pool and bridges to McGovern Lake. The 100-year old Pioneer Monument was relocated 150 feet south to mark the intersection of the north/south axis with the east/west axis of an historic carriage path system. The surrounding plaza invites gatherings and water play in its interactive fountains. Houston artist Ketria Bastian Scott created the bronze fountain grates (photo: SWA Group).
Designed as a legacy to future generations, materials were chosen for lasting quality as well as beauty. For example, the pedestrian promenades of decomposed granite allow water run-off and assure the appearance of the walkways for generations to come (photo: SWA Group).
On the south side of Molly Ann Brennan Smith Plaza the Lake Terrace provides a passive space to accommodate gatherings and formal galas that is punctuated with a central Picnic Lawn. The Lake Terrace Steps afford sitting and viewing of McGovern Lake, paddle boaters, and the Houston Zoo beyond. Every 20 minutes Hermann Park’s train moves through this space providing delightful sounds of train whistles and children laughing (photo: SWA Group).
Both the Sam Houston Monument Circle and the North Plaza are quiet spaces from which visitors can observe the larger historic urban design context. Prior to the park improvement cars and buses parked around the traffic circle obscuring both the monument and the pool. The traffic circle has been reconfigured and a separate parking lot has been constructed to accommodate cars and buses, which abound during the school year bringing students to other park venues (photo: SWA Group).
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