Freedom is finding a second voice at the Third Ward's Emancipation Park with the battle cry of nationally-known architect Philip Freelon, whose North Carolina architecture firm is repositioning the historic 10-acre green — the city's first park — as a crucible for African American culture, past and present.
The Emancipation Park commission is loaded with personal meaning for Freelon. For a period, the Philadelphia-native lived on Almeda Road, two of his three children were born in Houston and his family attended the historic Antioch Church.
"This is sort of a semi-homecoming for me, and a very special moment," he said at a Thursday evening presentation at the Menil Collection.
The MIT-educated Freelon presented a strong pedigree of architectural projects that confronted similar issues of African American heritage, including the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, the International Civil Rights Center and Musuem in Greensboro, the Museum of the African Diaspora in the heart of the Yerba Buena District of San Francisco and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Slated for construction are the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture — a new crowning jewel along the National Mall.
Freelon has also been credited for revitalizing the historically African American Washington, D.C. area of Anacostia into a vital community with his design for a library nestled within a neighborhood park. If that project's success is any indication, the new Emancipation Park will usher in a new period for the Third Ward.
Prior to conceiving the park's design, Freelon mined the Third Ward's history. As explained during his address at the Menil, the tract of land was purchased in 1872 for $1,000 by freed slaves, led by Rev. Jack Yates, to capitalize on their new right to property ownership. The land became ground zero for Juneteenth celebrations and a haven for the slaves who had migrated to the Third and Fourth Wards following emancipation.
The 20th century brought complications to the park, as desegregation drew wealthier African Americans to other neighborhoods, highway construction strangled the Third Ward and the Fourth Ward was rebranded as "Midtown." Much of the land surrounding Emancipation Park is now vacant. Freelon noted how current concerns about crime have brought the park's vitality into question.
The firm is still in the conceptual stages of the project, but Freelon and the Friends of Emancipation Park have determined specific goals. First, the park will be a catalyst for local development. "We believe that putting in a new program and something exciting will be a kickoff for other development," he said. "It could be the trigger of revitalization."
The most ambitious goal is for the site to be a national and international destination. Explained Freelon, "We would like for visitors to Houston, whether coming for a family reunion, conference or business, to think, 'If I don't get to Emancipation Park, I will miss something very important here in Houston, Texas.' "
The project's team visited successful urban greens in Chicago and New York to better understand how parks can be instigators of urban change. From those ventures, the idea germinated to have an icon element, whether architectural or sculptural, to engage visitors and define the park's image.
After probing Third Ward residents for what amenities would interest them, Freelon found a near consensus on the necessity of a commemorative exhibit that pays tribute to the park's founders. From there, the project team met with Los Angeles' innovative design group, Studio Thinkwell, to articulate what is now the park's theme, "Celebrate Freedom," inspired by the area's historic Juneteenth celebrations.
Those two words have inspired plans for a "Founder's Zone," where some of the stories of the park's heroes will be told via murals, mosaics, plaques or interactive kiosks.
Other potential sections include a Neighborhood Zone for artisans and a Performance Zone that will be home to concerts, festivals and outdoor theater.
The architect offered myriad interpretations of "freedom" as relating to the park. "Freedom can mean liberation and release, as seen in the shared spaces that provide fun or to simply do nothing. We return to our lives renewed," Freelon said.
Freedom may also represent a gateway for creativity. "Thanks to its carefully planned infrastructure, every corner of the park can become a blank canvas, an empty stage or backdrop for an ever-changing series of art encounters that enrich our lives," he said.
There are two loose conceptual layouts for the park. One, entitled "Layering," would move parking to a nearby lot, place new construction along Dowling to create the opportunity for a courtyard or ceremonial entrance, and lay a central axis by placing performance venues and an iconic element in the middle of the site.
The second layout, called "Linking," would break apart the program over the entire site, placing the icon on the street corner to draw the attention of passersby. The decentralized layout could reduce crime because the entire space would always be "activated." An exercise route around the periphery of the park could feature reference points to the Houston area, such as Galveston and Texas Southern University.
"As you're jogging and walking around," Freelon said, "you might pause and learn more about connections back to adjacent activities and beyond."
Once the park has been regenerated, Freelon anticipates 25,000 total square feet of new construction, including a high school regulation-size basketball court, locker rooms, proscenium, performance space and administrative offices.
Freelon's Emancipation Park is just one piece of the puzzle of a re-ignited Third Ward, which includes a re-paved Dowling Street, new light rail lines, progressive architecture, Project Row Houses and a Tier One university.