Soon the public will be able to set foot on a small island in the Schuylkill River that has kept watch over Philadelphia’s Boat House Row for more than half a century. The island, which didn’t exist until a buildup of sediment from a dam created the formation, is just one component of a larger park design behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, overseen by Susan Weiler of OLIN. Access to the island will replace public land lost to parking when the museum’s expansion plans (designed by Frank Gehry) are realized. OLIN’s new project will act as a gateway between the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which runs from City Hall to the museum, and the adjacent Fairmount Park.
“The art museum is the pivot point,” said Fairmount Park Executive Director Mark Focht, though he noted that the area behind the museum is a key “transitional space.”
A traffic circle acts as a centerpiece of the new park design. At its center sits a fanciful reproduction of a Borghese Gardens fountain by Christoph Untenberger, a gift to the United States from the Italian government in 1926. Four winged horses, whose hindquarters morph into fish, support the fountain’s basin on flowing travertine manes and fins.
“The revitalization of the fountain acts as a visual terminus. It makes the whole ensemble work seamlessly,” said Weiler.
The designers were charged with incorporating existing parking and providing access to a newly completed green-roofed garage, also designed by OLIN, that sits next to the museum. The challenge was to merge the needs of cars, park, and people. OLIN’s success with traffic circles, notably New York’s Columbus and Philadelphia’s Logan, provided precedents, though the scale of the new circle is much smaller. To put some room between pedestrians and cars, the designers expanded the circle 19 feet beyond the existing curb. The proposal transforms a two-foot-wide blacktop path into a 14-foot-wide pedestrian plaza paved with permeable bricks. A swath of lawn replaces the foreboding thorns of rose and barberry bushes, and a thick berm of new plantings quell noise.
“The plantings are all native and Italian-inspired,” said OLIN’s project manager Leigh Ann Campbell. “If there is something there, like the Italian fountain, then it’s a major responsibility to address it. But this design was more about the movement and the feeling of the space. I think we’re definitely moving away from the styles of the past.”
As the park extends west toward the river and north toward the boathouses, the flow of the design draws foot traffic into the park, toward the river’s edge, and out to the island. A grove of cherry trees, a gift from the Japanese government, graces the northern edge of the park. Between the grove and the circle, a long path meanders through bio-swales that capture and deposit rainwater into an “infiltration garden”. To the south, a small bridge connects the mainland to the island, which is already a popular destination for local wildlife.
Over the years, native red-bellied turtles have competed with invasive red-eared slider turtles for basking rights, and while the design can’t influence which group gets the most sun, it does make efforts to stay out of their way. A boardwalk winds across only one half of the island, and stays above ground at all times. The turtles can anticipate company in about 2013, and the project is expected to be completed in three phases over the course of the next three years at a cost of $4 million.