Hermann Park Improvements: What’s Happening Across the Street?
If you visit our office at 1213 Hermann Drive (facing the Houston Museum of Natural Science), you may have noticed some big changes are underway across the street in Hermann Park as it celebrates its 100th birthday this year.
Last September, officials broke ground on the new McGovern Centennial Gardens and the Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion. The transformation of this 15-acre garden space within Hermann Park (estimated to cost $31 million) is being generously underwritten by Kathryn G. McGovern, Cherie and Jim Flores as well as numerous other foundations and institutions, including the Duncan Family Foundation, Houston Endowment Inc., the City of Houston, the Wortham Foundation, H-E-B and many other contributors. Chicago-based landscape design firm Hoerr Schaudt has teamed up with local partner White Oak Studio to design the new gardens.
Indeed, Something Big (and Tall!) is Taking Shape in Hermann Park.
The ‘big’ thing that is happening is a new elevated center section. Week by week, the new garden mount feature of the McGovern Centennial Gardens rises higher and higher. When completed, this new ‘hill’ will reach a height of 30 feet — 11 feet higher than the Miller Theater hill across Hermann Park Drive. It will feature an artificial waterfall, an observation platform and an international sculpture garden. From what we can see from our eighth floor office across the street, it looks like everything’s on track for completion this October.
Peter Bohlin, Celebrity Architect of Apple Store Fame to Design Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion
Visitors will enter the McGovern Centennial Gardens via the brand new Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion. This design of this new building is by celebrity architect Peter Bohlin (of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson) who is best known for all those modernist glass-walled Apple retail stores. Perhaps they will have Plant Geniuses on staff to help with your roses!
There are lots of other exciting event in store as well as other important landscaping improvements under now completion to mark Hermann Park’s 100th anniversary. But first let’s take a moment to look back at the history of Hermann Park.
History of Houston’s Hermann Park
What we know as the Museum District today was, at the end of the 19th century, a very fashionable residential district along Main Boulevard. Among the many prominent Houstonians who enjoyed riding their carriages south through the woods along the outskirts of the city (as all of the Hermann Park area was at that time) was George H. Hermann, a prominent industrialist and real estate investor.
George H. Hermann’s Generous Gifts to the City of Houston
Hermann, a confirmed bachelor, traveled extensively across the United States and Europe. From a diary he wrote during a trip to New York City in 1885, we learn that he was very impressed with the role that Central Park played in the public life of Manhattan; and he hoped Houston could have such a park one day as well. Later, when he became one of Houston’s Park Commissioners, he decided to bequeath 285 acres in his will to the City of Houston for this purpose. This large parcel was located across from the Rice Institute (today’s Rice University) and it became the core of today’s George H. Hermann Park.
His generosity did not end there. As you might’ve guessed, he also donated the land for Hermann Square, located downtown across from City Hall.
The Gift of Hermann Hospital
But there was one final bequest to Houston. Seeking treatment for his stomach cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Hermann was inspired by this leading health institution to establish a similar medical facility in Houston. He endowed the new institution with $100,000 and 10 additional acres of land adjacent to southern edge of Hermann Park. This became known as Hermann Hospital for Houston’s injured, sick and infirm.
Hermann passed away in October 1914 at age 71 while still undergoing treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Upon his death, the land for Hermann Park was transferred to the City of Houston. In 1915, under direction of Mayor Ben Campbell, the City purchased an additional 122.5 acres of parkland from Hermann’s estate, allowing Hermann Park to extend west to meet Main Boulevard along the border with the Rice Institute. This expansion of the park grounds provided an opportunity to look at new options for how the park could be laid out.
Plans for Hermann Park under the Leadership of Landscape Designer George E. Kessler
Houston Park Commissioners appointed George E. Kessler as their consultant in 1915. Kessler, who had designed parks in Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dallas and Fort Worth, created a design that extended Montrose Boulevard deep into the park in a scheme his called the “Grand Gateway”. In Kessler’s plan, there was an elliptical sunken garden at the intersection of Main Boulevard and Montrose (today this is the site of the Mecom Fountain). Beyond that, Kessler laid out a traffic circle for the Sam Houston memorial monument with a long reflection pool set beyond that, all in line with Montrose Boulevard. From the circle, Carriage Road (now the Jogging Trail) fanned out into the wooded park, a perfect route for shaded carriage rides headed towards Brays Bayou and the coastal prairie beyond.
Hare and Hare Opens the Houston Zoological Gardens in Hermann Park
In the early 1920s, Kessler partnered with the Kansas City-based landscape design firm of Hare and Hare, which took over Kessler’s role when he passed in 1923. Hare and Hare laid out the site for the Houston Zoological Gardens, which opened in 1924, as well as the Museum of Natural History which was originally at the Zoo site.
At the Grand Gateway’s traffic circle, the imposing bronze Sam Houston statue was installed in 1925. Italian sculptor Enrico F. Cerracchio modeled the figure of Sam Houston riding his horse Saracen; Houston is shown pointing in the direction of the San Jacinto Battlefield to the east. This impressive sculpture is said to be inspired by a Seymour Thomas painting.
Meanwhile, just to the south of the park, George H. Hermann’s other major bequest, Hermann Hospital, was preparing to open its doors in 1924.
Will C. Hogg, Developer of River Oaks, Helps Establish Memorial Park and Sells Additional Land for Hermann Park
Here’s where another of Houston’s benefactors enters the story. Will C. Hogg, the developer of River Oaks, always had a strong interest in developing park lands for Houston. In 1924, Hogg helped orchestrate the City’s purchase of Camp Logan which formed the basis of Memorial Park; he also personally financed the planting of two hundred live oak trees along the Carriage Drive in Hermann Park.
As it happened, Hogg owned 133 acres of land on the south side of Hermann Park adjacent to the original 1925 Hermann Hospital. Hogg decided to sell the property ‘at cost’ to the City of Houston with the intent that his land would be used to expand the park. Landscape designers Hare and Hare eagerly updated their plans to expand the park with a new stadium and other public amenities.
M.D. Anderson Foundations Successfully Acquires Hogg Acreage to Build the new Texas Medical Center Campus
However, in 1943 the M.D. Anderson Foundation lobbied for a Houston city election to vote on a proposition to sell Hogg’s acreage to their foundation in order to create a campus for a new Texas Medical Center. The rest is history: the election went in favor of establishing the Med Center. Today a remaining portion of the original Hermann Hospital building still stands. It’s now known as Cullen Pavilion, but since it was fully surrounded by a massive addition (built in 2002) it may be hard to identify. As an aside, you can learn more about the ever changing buildings at the Texas Medical Center on this interesting history page.
Restoring the Grand Gateway Entrance to Match Kessler’s Original Vision
Traffic to and from the Med Center became a problem almost immediately. Main Street could not handle all the congestion. (Many of our patients tell us they enjoy visiting our office on the north side of Hermann Park because it’s relatively uncrowded compared to the Med Center.) To cope with the traffic, Fannin Street was extended through Hermann Park, and more recently, MetroRail tracks have been added to the mix.
Unfortunately these incursions cut right into the center of George Kessler’s original vision of a “Grand Gateway” — the extension of Montrose Boulevard which ends at the Reflecting Pool. Fortunately, as part of this year’s Hermann Park Centennial Celebration, many aspects of the original design are being updated in a comprehensive $4 million dollar renovation to improve the landscaping, park lighting, seating and pedestrian access. Soon the front door entrance to Hermann Park will be an inviting place to walk and enjoy the park scenery.
It’s time to Celebrate Hermann Park’s 100th Birthday!
Throughout the year, we’ll be keeping our eye out for events at Hermann Park, many of which are free to attend. That’s not true for the next big event: the high-profile fund-raiser, Evening in the Park which takes place Friday, April 25, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets for this fundraiser, hosted by several prominent Houstonians, including Andrea and Bill White, start at $500 but they support a great cause: Houston’s own Hermann Park.