Davidson Reading Garden: Reinventing an Underused Space With an Artistic Touch
by J’Nell Bryson, ASLA

Located 30 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina is the small, southern town of Davidson, North Carolina. Home to Davidson College, the town has a Main Street, with retail, wide sidewalks, a soda shop (with real orangeades!) and a community library.

Bryson - Image 1
Image courtesy J’Nell Bryson.

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Image courtesy J’Nell Bryson.

Tucked between the town library and a commercial building is a small overlooked and underutilized space along Main Street.

Bryson - Image 3
Image courtesy J’Nell Bryson.

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Image courtesy J’Nell Bryson.

Close by is green space where concerts and street markets are held. The space includes a large water oak (Quercus nigra) that is a reminder of when homes sat along Davidson’s Main Street. College students use the space primarily as a cut through from the center of town to the heart of the campus.

Last year, the Davidson Art Commission sponsored a competition that asked landscape architects to team with artists to present design ideas for the space with a literary theme, to complement its proximity to the library.
I have been a residential landscape architect for 25 years. I took a sabbatical from landscape architecture to earn a degree from culinary school. In combining my two passions, during the past few years, much of my residential work involves the design and creation of outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms. It is in this context that I have worked with clients in Davidson over the years.

In the spring of 2009, I received the request for qualifications and invitation to participate in the design competition. While I had never designed public art before, I decided to participate. A total of fifteen other teams entered the event.

Fortunately, the literary theme fit nicely with the body of work of Lydia Musco, an artist I had recently met. Lydia is a renowned sculptor and was Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Davidson College. Her work involves stacking and layering concrete to create the sculptures.

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Image courtesy J’Nell Bryson.

Musco has described her work as “sedimentary layers and the work of gravity and time.” It is amazing to take such heavy, rigid material and transform it into swaying towers of soft, loose stacks that resemble paper, rags, or books. You can see her work at www.lydiamusco.com. I felt it was perfect for the reading garden and when asked, she happily agreed to be involved in the design.

The Art Commission’s Selection Committee was composed of twenty Davidson residents, with diverse areas of expertise and points of view, ranging from those with backgrounds in art and architecture to regular citizens of Davidson. I developed a concept using Musco’s art as a focal point and made a formal presentation to the Committee. We prepared a slide presentation as well as a fly-over video of the space. The Committee narrowed the pool to two teams and gave us feedback on our designs. Their suggestion for my part of the design was to make it more child friendly. After tweaking the design and making a final presentation to the Committee, in early spring 2010, Musco and I were selected to install our design in the space.

I designed the space as an urban reading garden.

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Image courtesy J’Nell Bryson.

I included a precast concrete bench to swirl through the space, offering sunny or shaded seating around the star of the show: the three sculptures by Lydia Musco. We chose to punctuate and celebrate the intersection of several pedestrian pathways by placing the three sculptures there. The benches will act as retaining walls that create planters to add definition, soften the surrounding architecture, and add color and texture to the outdoor room. Just underneath the bench cap we will install a six-inch tall stainless steel “ribbon.” On the ribbon we will include names of authors, quotations, and other literary references.

We will use color generously to attract children and well as adults to the space. The sculptures will be primarily three separate colors, the bench caps will add soft sweeps of earthy reds, yellows, and gray/greens. The gray-green base of the concrete bench will be sandblasted to uncover white bits of limestone that will add a different texture. The pavers will be charcoal-colored “European” style pavers to provide a striking change from the existing red brick surrounding the space.

I have learned a lot from my first foray into public design. Working for my residential clients brings with it a comfortable one-on-one relationship. Residential clients typically have a fairly consistent point of view. As we get to know each other, I develop a clear idea of what they want and the process can be quite collaborative. In contrast, working with a Committee that includes 20 different voices is not as intimate and fluid. In this process, I found myself trying to answer each individual’s concerns and began to try and bend the design in numerous and sometimes conflicting directions.  As I tried to tend to the desires of many, the design became diluted. Fortunately, an artist on the Committee reminded me that I was hired because of my creativity and expertise and that I should be confident in making the design decisions. It was just the shot in the arm I needed to get back on track.

As we all know, residential clients sometimes have budget issues. Clients may want designs to be installed in phases. However, in a public project, the loss of a funding source can create lengthy delays. After our design was approved, the town lost the public art federal grant, which caused the project to go dormant. Thankfully, there is a strong desire in the town of Davidson for this park to come to fruition. After a year of virtually no activity, town members identified local sources of funding, and the project came back to life. We are now set to begin installation of the garden in this spring and expect it to be completed in the summer.

In the end, the most gratifying part of this experience has been the opportunity to be involved in a project that will improve the aesthetic of the town and enhance the quality of life for many people. If I have done my job well, this park will become a valued part of the fabric of Main Street in Davidson and remain that way for many decades to come.

W. J’Nell Bryson, ASLA, is a principal at j'nell bryson Landscape Architect in Charlotte, North Carolina, and can be reached at: jbryson.com.

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