Court Where?

Posted on Tuesday, October 25 2005 by Heather Brandon

Last week I had the honor of being a guest of Henry Lu, professor of landscape architecture at UMass-Amherst. He had invited me to attend an undergraduate senior class presentation of proposals to re-design Springfield’s Court Square. I ended up on a panel, of sorts, with a few professors, a pair of alum design professionals from Connecticut, and Alvin Paige, artist-in-residence at American International College. There was a roughly 15- to 20-year-span age difference between me and the other panelists in attendance. While I have a bachelor’s degree in Growth and Structure of Cities, I am not a design professional, and I lack decades of informed experience. I can talk a good line, though, so I dove in with the rest of them to critique the designs, and had a good deal of fun in the process.

The students started out with a slideshow outlining facts and history about downtown Springfield. Some of their facts were a little ragged around the edges or incomplete—for instance, they weren’t quite sure what that new civic center was called, or if it was opened yet—but for the most part their presentation was interesting and informative. They skirted around the subject of why Court Square exists in the first place, relegating it to a single-sentence description of how buildings were removed to make room for it, back in the early 1800s. But why? I thought. If we don’t know why the place existed before, how will we ever be able to put in context the reason for its existence today? What in heck are we supposed to do with Court Square?

In the past, Professor Lu and other UMass academics and students have worked with Springfield city officials on a project known as the Urban Laboratory, or the Urban Places Project. Areas of focus have included many neighborhoods across the urban landscape: Mason Square, Hill-McKnight, the North End, the State Street corridor. I am not familiar with any projects in the past that focused on downtown. Professor Lu told me that there is currently no funding to continue the Urban Laboratory, but he seems motivated to continue brainstorming design ideas for the city, regardless of whether there’s a working relationship or not. His students understand this, but of course, without a slightly-real-world client working relationship, it’s easy to get off course and trail out into the nether regions of an infinite design budget and no restrictions on how the space is used when you’re working on a project like hypothetically re-designing Court Square.

That’s what made the student presentations so grimly intriguing. Most of the designs completely obliterated the 100-plus-year-old oak trees. Only two designs (out of the seven presented) even acknolwedged that there was an important bus stop there along Main Street. All of the designs completely relied on the Picknelly hotel project going forward, most with a dreamy, leafy café setting that extended a bit out into the square. None of the designs fittingly acknowledged the fact that several important monuments and memorials are at the square; a couple of them sort of half-heartedly noticed them, and most said they would actually relocate all of the memorials to another spot closer to First Church. None of the designs included the famous lion’s head fountain on the sidewalk, or the tiered lion fountain, or the copper-roofed bandstand. The design professionals on the panel had a good laugh, reminding students that in the field, these things (i.e. existing structures, especially memorials) are eminently more important than we may, at first, believe, or wish.

In the fall/winter 2005 Park Matters, a newsletter of the Society of Everett Barney, Inc., I found a bit of the Court Square history I had sought but not found from Professor Lu’s students: “On April 8, 1821, five well-known Springfield citizens, realizing the need for an open square or yard near the Hampden County courthouse, bought of Elizabeth Sheldon, ‘…one acre of land, more or less…’ for $3,000, which was termed a ‘great expense.’ A provision of the sale was that the land was ‘…never to be alienated or encumbered with buildings or appropriated for other use than a public common, except such trees for shade and adornment.’”

Some of the UMass student designs attempted to veer away from this initial intent with a bit of radical this-or-that, my favorite example being colorful, illuminated plastic boxes as sittable art. A more austere example is another design’s free-standing Greek-style columns dotting the pedestrian walks (more for pigeons than humans, I noted in my feedback). The most practical included another design’s wetland-like small, triangular pools for grass and collection of excess water—which that area of downtown probably receives. One thing missing from all the designs, though, was a sense of why. It’s true that when you’re standing inside the new MassMutual Center looking out, you have a lovely, unprecedented view of Court Square. The potential for the two to have a pleasant, working physical relationship was clearly grappled with by the students. But I got the sense that they hadn’t really stood there and looked at it.

As we wrapped up the presentations, and Professor Lu stood with his students for a last word, I heard him say, “On Monday, I want you to go to Springfield. Go visit Court Square. You really need to see it.”

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