Park Central Square

by Tim Rosenbury, AIA

Tim, a principal at Butler, Rosenbury & Partners, was partner in charge of the Park Central Square rehabilitation project.

In 1836 Springfield founder John Polk Campbell set aside the space now known as Park Central Square. He called it Public Square. The most recent rehabilitation marks the 1972 version as the longest-lived version of the historic center of Springfield.

In 1974 Park Central Square was closed to traffic, and “tuning forks” were implemented at the east and west ends of downtown. In addition to the changes in traffic, additional concrete retaining walls and green space were installed around the square. The gazebo was painted dark brown.

These improvements failed. In the late 1980s the square and its spoke streets were reopened. In 1999 the tuning forks were decommissioned and two-way traffic was returned to McDaniel and Olive Streets. Park Central Square received its first maintenance project, by removing all of the trees on the brick plaza, as well as the concrete seating blocks. New concrete bricks were installed in places. Shrubs were added, as well as one ramp connecting lower level of the square to the area underneath the gazebo. The remaining latticework was removed from the gazebo, and the gazebo frame was painted dark green.

By 2008 Park Central Square was in poor condition. The fountain’s 40-year-old piping leaked, and replacement parts for the pumps were no longer available. 1 in 3 brick pavers were damaged. The square had little direct access from the perimeter, and was isolated due to the additional concrete walls and overgrown shrubbery. Lighting was inadequate. View the before photos and see the conditions at the square.

What’s more, the perimeter of the square was as inactive as its center. In the mid 2000’s the City of Springfield received federal funds specifically for improvements to the square, and the focus was on activating the square by making changes to it.

As changes were contemplated, a small but tenacious group of advocates of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and Associates’ square design listed the square on the National Register of Historic Places. This assured that if federal funds were used, the State Historic Preservation Office could determine how. Park Central Square – the portion designed by Halprin and Associates – became a preservation project.

Preservation projects often incorporate minor changes to improve accessibility, and this is where the most significant changes were made. Ramps at four corners of the square provide improved access. Formerly elevated areas at the southwest and northwest corners, and south of the fountain, were lowered to align with new perimeter sidewalks to improve accessibility. These spaces can also be used as informal seating and dining areas.

New irrigation, sound, lighting, security camera and drainage systems were installed. 40 truckloads of well-draining subsoil were brought on site to replace hard, expansive clay. 72,000 new brick pavers were placed. And, although 31 trees were removed in this project, 65 were added back.

These changes may not be immediately obvious, and that’s the point. Lawrence Halprin and Associates’ Park Central Square has been rehabilitated to last another 40 years. It has been adaptively reused to improve its purpose as an active space for programmed and unprogrammed activities.