Emancipation Park in Houston has undergone a major transformation courtesy of Chicago-based Perkins + Will. The revamp to the 10-acre park has been a long time coming. Preliminary work began in 2011, but now the project is finally complete, offering a new “Recreation Center” and spiraling sculpture that reflects the vision of the park’s founders.
Opened to the public in 1872 by its founders, Reverend John Henry “Jack” Yates, Richard Allen, Richard Brock, and Reverend Elias Dibble, Emancipation Park is firmly rooted in African-American history. At the time of its opening, the park was the first truly public park in Houston. In the years that followed, it became a vibrant space, hosting games of tennis and volleyball as well as numerous other community activities. Boasting a swimming pool from the 1930s, the site was also the only place where African-Americans could swim in the city.
Come the 1960s however, times had changed and the cosmopolitan aura had run aground. After construction of U.S. Route 59 and policies of segregation carved up Houston’s Third Ward district, the park’s state drastically declined as affluent African-Americans left the area.
Friends of Emancipation Park, however, started to make changes in 2007, initially by cleaning up the place. By 2011, Philadelphian architect Phil Freelon with his North Carolina–based firm, The Freelon Group, were working on a much bigger plan to give the park a much-needed facelift.
Freelon has a well-established pedigree in such typologies. Of late, he has worked on almost all buildings dedicated to black heritage in the Eastern Seaboard: The International Civil Rights Center and Museum (Greensboro, NC); the Museum of the African Diaspora (San Francisco); the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture (Charlotte); the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (Baltimore); the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (Atlanta), and finally the crown jewel to date: the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Now acting as project principal and design director at Perkins + Will (since 2014), Freelon has seen Emancipation Park finally completed. Along with the aforementioned Recreation Center and sculpture, the rejuvenated park now has a new pool and a canopied plaza which provides a welcoming front porch and cover for the park’s main entrance.
On the north side of the new building—which faces the major event lawn—the canopy functions as the band shell. Down the south side, the roof structure provides shading and filters daylight into the gymnasium that is housed inside the Recreation Center along with a fitness center and a multi-purpose room which can accommodate meetings, banquets, and balls.
“The design of the new Emancipation Park Recreation Center is a reflection of the community’s goals and aspirations,” said Freelon speaking to The Architect’s Newspaper. Freelon added that new sculpture was meant to symbolize hope. “It looks forward, to the future. It’s a positive symbol,” he added.
The exterior of the Recreation Center comprises a series of panels that range in earth tones. “From a deep brown to a rich rust color, the varying shades are reminiscent of the historic painted tin roofs that remain prevalent in the Third Ward today,” Freelon continued. “This ‘patchwork’ texture also symbolizes the coming together of the community in support of the revitalized Emancipation Park, its programs and the celebration of Juneteenth.”