Evelyn’s Park: Bellaire’s First Front Yard

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Opened in 1910, Teas Nursery occupied a healthy 5-acre lot at the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Newcastle Drive for nearly a century, until the Teas family sold the land in 2009 to the Rubenstein Foundation. Philanthropists and longtime Bellaire residents, the Rubensteins, in turn, sold the land to the City of Bellaire.

Now, there are live oaks and crepe myrtles — trees we consider quintessentially Houston — that grew, if not out of the pots, then out of what the nursery started. And soon, Evelyn’s Park will open here as a memorial to many things, but, namely, to the Rubenstein family’s late matriarch. Overseeing the family’s vision is Evelyn’s Park Conversancy, with the mission of “connecting us to our city, to our surroundings, and to each other.”

SWA Group, the park’s landscape architecture and master planning firm, materialized this mission. Central to SWA’s design process was bringing Bellaire its first community park. Sure, single-use facilities like swimming pools and tennis courts come with Bellaire’s high property taxes. But “there’s no way for the community to develop their own dialogue about creating different activities” in Bellaire’s few public spaces, says SWA Group Principal Scott McCready. The plan, then, was to construct a gradient of programs that would bring a representative cross-section of residents to the same place.

Master Plan. Courtesy: SWA Group and Lake Flato.

Master Plan. Courtesy: SWA Group and Lake Flato.

The result is a program-heavy plan — not unlike that of Discovery Green (Hargreaves Associates) or the new Levy Park (The Office of James Burnett) — with zones that transition from public to private. The intersection of Bellaire and Newcastle hosts a café and event space to attract passerby, serving as the park’s public face. Excitement gradually transitions to pensive environments the further in one ventures. Wide trails guide you to a great lawn open to user activation — McCready suspects the lawn will be appropriated by resident adolescents escaping parental supervision — which protects Evelyn’s Memorial Garden in the southeastern corner. To the north is a recessed meadow of native plant species to teach visitors about their local flora and fauna. A dense arboretum encloses the park from the residential area in the north. Art installations and gardens of the butterfly, meditation, and perennial variety adorn a biodiverse, urban ecosystem.

Landscape is often reduced to a pedestal that supports a building. Lake Flato, the architects of Evelyn’s Park, approached this project differently by looking for creative ways to elevate, not isolate, the landscape. With that in mind, Lake Flato designers Andrew Herdeg and Graham Beach conceived of a building to contain a café and event space that would “frame the garden and create an edge,” says Herged, acting as “thresholds to different public and private spaces.”

Courtesy: Lake Flato.

Courtesy: Lake Flato.

Lake Flato is well known for their ability to contextualize buildings to their environment; the historical context, too, was a motif that guided the architecture of Evelyn’s Park. “There was an effort to acknowledge that history [of Teas Nursery] with the idea of preserving one [of its] elements,” says Beach. “We immediately fell in love with the old yellow house. It was just really charming.” Preserving an element may be a misnomer, since the house was ultimately torn down. However, its reincarnation legibly memorializes the Teas house — one, it is rumored, bought from a turn-of-the-century Sears catalog — with vernacular detailing.

This blending of the historical and the contemporary is true for the park and for the city, too, as the urban and suburban meet here to give form to a new place. In reproducing one of Bellaire’s oldest buildings on a landscape programmed towards its established community, Bellaire has declared itself an authentic urban experience with a heritage that its residents can identify and take pride in. I am reminded of Buffalo Bayou Park—not just because SWA and Lake Flato were involved there, too—because it also connects its visitors to the site’s unique role in Houston’s history. Evelyn’s Park is similarly historically referential, branding itself as the face of Bellaire and rebranding Bellaire as a city with history, much like Buffalo Bayou reinforces Houston as the Bayou City.

By Geneva Vest

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