By Garret Eakin
Scoville Park has never looked as good as it does now, thanks to many hands, directed by Josephine Bellalta and John MacManus, landscape architects at the firm Altamanu. This is something to be proud of — the first public park in Oak Park built in 1913, restored 100 years later. It was a pleasure to stroll through the commons and see the architects' work through their eyes and discuss the ideas that drove their design.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, this is one of the great public parks in the Chicago area. The 4.6-acre green is located in the heart of the community, surrounded and defined by the chiseled-edge Oak Park Public Library, the English Gothic First Baptist Church, and a ring of multi-story apartment and retail buildings. Scoville is located on the village's natural ridge, which represents the first highland west of Chicago.
Jens Jensen, the master Prairie School landscape architect, is credited with the park's original design. Before the $2.1 million ($1.6M from a state grant) renovation, the park was a bit rough and had some functional issues. Jensen taught us "to appreciate the environment we reside within — beauty does not have to come from a tulip from Holland or a maple from Japan." His philosophy could be summed up as, "Every plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring its full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping."
Jensen hated "the tyranny of the straight line."
As John MacManus explains, "We decided to interpret Jensen."
They would follow Prairie principles, asymmetrical native plants, and curvaceous forms — a subtle celebration of nature.
The only significant entrance was at Oak Park and Lake Street and it was far from perfect. The layered rectangular shapes have been reshaped into sensual forms that frame and define the main portal. Elegant serpentine wood benches were custom made and are a delight in form and function.
The seating is reinforced with a random pattern of Wisconsin Aqua Grantique paving. This material forms a welcoming plaza which is repeated throughout the park (unfortunately the paving pattern is a bit small and bland in color).
An ellipse-shaped planter and bench provide appropriate scale for the National Register plaque, surrounded by flowers. Directly behind this detail we encounter the Horse Fountain which was designed by Richard Bock and Frank Lloyd Wright. A denser planting of trees layered with understory define an oh-so-elegant entrance experience.
The open green or "meadow" as Jensen called it, has been expanded and irrigated while the straight paths are now more in keeping with the Prairie-style curvaceous theory. This natural sloping amphitheater is perfect for concerts, Frisbee, people-watching or sunbathing.
An inventive raised landscape stage has been built into the south edge of the park, eliminating the need for the unsightly mobile aluminum stage. Unfortunately, the plan has omitted the screen of landscaping. While watching a performance, we can see the cars whizzing by on Lake Street. The visual leakage of this grand space should be corrected.
Opposing the stage at the top of the slope, we see the beautifully restored Peace Triumphant Memorial that is now defined as a plaza. It is brightly lit at night, forming a striking focal point in the park setting.
To the west, the architects have opened up the park to the library and Lake Street. This secures a more positive relationship with a new planting plan and resolves a security issue at the corner. The new trees are good-sized yet appear undersized when compared to the mature green definition on either side. A few years and it will be fine.
The park entrances at the four corners are much better defined and welcoming. Each has its own character. I especially love the northeast corner entrance (Oak Park Avenue and Ontario Street) with its hawthorn tree, set in a rich flower bed, surrounded by Aqua Stone and benches. This new portal is picture perfect.
Not quite as successful are the brick and stone gateways that are too tall when compared to the iron fencing along the library.
The massive limestone cubes and low bull-nosed stone curbs are a good idea but are more neo-classic than Prairie. As some of my colleagues say, there are too many and clutter the beautiful shapes. The trims do match the memorial steps yet have little to do with Prairie-style language.
Now visitors can take a loop through the park without having to cross a street. This is a real plus as the paths meander through a variety of spaces, always returning to the meadow. The ideas of open and closed, shaded and sunny, create a sequence of compelling spaces.
If you haven't taken a walk in the park, try it. It is a very successful "living room" in our village. This is one beautiful park that serves the people, including seniors out for a walk or to grab a bench and children, who seem to love the intimate tot lot. Veterans are shown respect at the restored peace plaza, the screened tennis courts are very popular, teens love the meadow for Frisbee, readers enjoy the relationship with the library, and I love it simply to walk through on my way to the el.
Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.