Monday, October 24, 2011

A Park as it Was: Chester Commons

Lunch break at Chester Commons, popular mini-park in busy downtown area.
Photograph by Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, June, 1973, for the Environmental Protection Agency.

In recent years, the park at Chester Avenue and East 12th Street had fallen into such disrepair that it became somthing less than attractive to the downtown population. It is now in the process of being completely rebuilt.

Indeed, the concrete structures in the park had come to feel brutalist in nature. (Brutalism is the architectural style charaterized by imposing, massive concrete and stone - the wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art designed by Marcel Breuer is an excellent example of this.)

It's worth looking at what this park looked like originally, in the 1970s, when it was built.


Photograph by Clay Herrick. Courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project.

Eric Johannesen, in his classic work on the city's built environment, Cleveland Architecture: 1876-1976 described it as follows:
Visually the most successful part of the [Erieview] project area by 1976 was the square at East 12th Street and Chester Avenue. Built by the city in 1972 and called Chester Commons Park, the square is one of the best genuinely urban pedestrian spaces in Cleveland. Considerable spatial drama is created wtihin a small compass on a stage set of concrete and plantings. The space is divided and made to appear much larger than it is by the use of numerous levels built up of stepped platforms at irregular angles. Some of the concrete parapets take on the shape of imaginary fortified bastions. Trees, wooden benches, brightly colored graphic designs, and a small cascade at the center of the square add variety and freshness, and the ensemble has a distinctly playful quality. However, the urban character of the square is dependent on the backdrop of the older Chester Twelfth Building, the new Diamond Shamrock and Penton Plaza Buildings, the Chesterfield Apartments, and Park Centre.

CHESTER COMMONS, POPULAR MINI PARK IN BUSY, DOWNTOWN CLEVELAND, 06/1973
Photograph by Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, June, 1973, for the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are a few major differences between the park as originally built and how it was up until a few years ago that are worth noting.

One is the presence of color in the figures on the concrete walls. I can't recall whether they were still in color at the time of demolition - what I do recall is that they felt quite gray - the vibrance in these images was definitely gone from them.

DOWNTOWN WORKERS AND SHOPPERS ENJOY LUNCHTIME BREAK AT CHESTER COMMONS MINI-PARK, 06/1973
Photograph by Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, June, 1973, for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Further, as built, the space feels far more open. While my tendency is generally to be in favor of trees in parks, it seems that in this situation, they space, as originally concieved, worked better with them being much shorter. I'm not sure why.

DOWNTOWN WORKERS AND SHOPPERS ENJOY LUNCHTIME BREAK AT CHESTER COMMONS MINI-PARK, 06/1973
Photograph by Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, June, 1973, for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps these slides will provide some insights into what has and hasn't worked in the way of parks in downtown Cleveland. In this sort of history, we ought to be able learn something about which paths will and won't work in the future development of this area.

3 comments:

  1. The Parties in the Park. I always heard about them on the radio. Would be great for this to become a vibrant gathering spot again.

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  2. If you check out Google Street View, the park is still there. There is paint on the walls but it appears to have faded or just all painted one similiar dull color. (View it from Chester and then look at the pic of the guy and girl talking)

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