Emancipation Park Opens to a Celebration of Freedom

Juneteenth, a Texas state holiday that is celebrated through much of the nation, commemorates the anniversary of the day that Union General Gordon Granger and his federal troops read from the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston on June 19, 1865, freeing more than a quarter million slaves. Emancipation Park, in Houston’s Third Ward, has been home to Juneteenth celebrations since it was purchased by former slaves for $800 in 1872. Over the years, the 10-acre facility had begun to deteriorate and was in need of a significant modernization and retrofit. KCI provided program and construction management services for a $33.6 million renovation of the public park, the oldest in the city.

Plans for improvements began in 1995, when Emancipation Park was identified as a jewel in need of upgrade in the Third Ward’s Redevelopment Plan. Conceptual planning began in earnest in 2007. The proposed project was developed with three main goals:

  • creating an inviting community space for play, performances and festivals
  • serving as a catalyst for local development, and
  • becoming a national and international destination for tourists traveling to Houston.
Emancipation Park Rendering 2
Adjacent to both the baseball fields and playgrounds, the “Porch” is the park’s largest shelter, where adults can rock in the shade while watching their little ones play or while taking in a ball game. (Rendering Courtesy of Perkins+Will)

“This renovation has as much to do with history as it does with urban renewal,” said Theola Petteway, Executive Director of the OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority. The organization, along with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, was charged with overseeing improvements that balance historical remembrance, educational opportunities, site amenities, and multi-functional use to create a worthy backdrop for annual Juneteenth celebrations.

KCI’s original involvement dates back to senior project manager Willie C. Jordan Jr., AIA being commissioned to conduct a nationwide search for an architect to lead the design efforts. Once the request for the qualifications process identified several candidates, his role then shifted to ensuring that the entire team stayed true to the original purpose of the project.

“The vision of the original founders was to purchase a piece of land for public use to ‘celebrate’ freedom and to continue rituals for future generations as a reminder of this history of slavery and it’s liberation,” said Jordan. “The concept was to achieve the most with the least for the least, the lost and the underserved.”

Emancipation Park Gateway
The history of the park and neighborhood is woven into many of the unique elements and treatments found in the design. The Founder’s Promenade, a spine connecting many of the site amenities, contains sculptures and commemorative markers.

Construction documents called for a host of amenities, including a new 16,110-square-foot recreation center, a new pool and splash pads, renovation to the existing pool and community buildings, playgrounds, a jogging trail, athletic courts and picnic areas. Such a massive improvement project was not without its challenges, and our team continued on in a construction management role after the groundbreaking in October, 2014.

Emancipation Park Recreation Building
The bold rust color of the recreation building was pulled from the tin roofs that can be found on some of the old row houses in the surrounding area.
Emancipation Park Construction Inspector
KCI’s on-site construction inspection was responsible for quality control including daily reports that documented progress, material quantities, and man hours expended.

Complications with the potential to affect the tight construction schedule included saving century-old trees, phasing constraints, and even smaller details like shoring design and pavers. KCI’s diverse team of construction managers, engineers and inspectors were instrumental in helping to mitigate and solve many of these challenges.

Early on, the team oversaw the process of moving nearly 60 trees, some using a delicate process of forming a root ball and then rolling them to their new locations on marine bladders. Although it would have been easier and less costly to demolish the trees to make room for construction, OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department recognized the importance of preserving them as part of the greenspace. Several of the larger trees were as old as the park itself. The moves cost more than $1 million and were carefully orchestrated to protect the health of the trees.

Emancipation Park Rollers
Nearly 60 trees were relocated on site, including several especially valuable old growth trees that were slowly rolled to their new locations using marine bladders.

Construction phasing also posed critical challenges. To keep the project on track, KCI engaged the general contractor in discussions on overall constructability. The goal was to alter, reduce or eliminate scope without impacting budget or work quality, as well as identify work sequences that could overlap to shorten the schedule. For example, the community center had to remain in service until the new recreation building was completed. This stipulation had the potential to slow down construction of the underground utilities and plaza situated directly in front of the existing building’s entrance. Construction managers negotiated a compromise whereby access to the facility was relocated, allowing it to remain open during installation of the utilities and plaza components.

One of my lasting joys from this project is knowing that the professional team exceeded our highest expectations in listening to the user groups and stakeholders for inspiration to ignite their creative juices.

Willie C. Jordan, Jr. AIAArchitect

Willie C. Jordan, Jr. AIA

KCI’s design staff also played a role in helping to move construction forward. Built in 1938 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, both the existing pool and community buildings had previously received state historic designation and were slated for renovation and preservation as part of the project, instead of demolition and reconstruction. Because plans called for removal of interior structural walls, shoring was needed to hold up the existing building once construction had begun. The contractor was required to submit a plan to the city for permit approval but needed to find a structural engineer that could quickly prepare a design. KCI’s George T. Wozny, PE, SE came to the rescue, quickly developing a complex shoring approach that would gain city approval and keep the historic buildings intact during renovation.

Emancipation Park Blessing Theatre
Unique features include restoration of the Blessings Theatre which had been bricked in for decades. The indoor/outdoor stage offers a venue for musical and dramatic performances to smaller audiences within the existing community building or larger crowds gathered on what will be a grass amphitheater.

With construction complete and the grand re-opening held during this year’s Juneteenth celebration, Emancipation Park is once again the shining jewel of Houston’s Third Ward. It is a gathering place, a community asset, a tribute, a regional and national destination, and an economic driver, with multiple residential developments underway and an on-going campaign to bring in more commercial businesses.