Have a seat:
There are very few public spaces in America worthy of the great European tradition we have inherited. Of all of the characteristics of our ancestors to abandon, their ability to fashion inspiring cityscapes would be among the last we should wish to eschew. In spite of that our public space in America is mostly unattractive, inhumane, and thoughtless. Our streets are automobile sewers, our parks are designed with the same regard for composition as an L.A. Fitness, and the plaza and the square have become suffixes attached to shopping pits. It was not always so.
There was a time when both the public and private sector were proud to design attractive buildings, even heavily adorned buildings, without shame and without the concern that they would be accused of wasting money on beautifying the public space. Parks were designed by landscape architects who knew that formal recreation was only part of the experience that an intentional natural setting could provide, and our public squares were actual public spaces designed with well formulated ideas of providing order and dignity for people as they went about their every day lives.
90% of everything that has ever been built in the United States has been built since World War II, nearly all of that is disposable, and much of it was built on top of the quality structures which proceeded it and so it is rare in America for any community to have any great public space. Springfield was lucky enough to be at its height of prosperity and significance at the time of the American Renaissance and so it has a number of buildings and public spaces worthy of appreciation, but there is one in particular which was disassembled over 100 years ago now, which we have an opportunity to restore.
Stearns Square was designed by a Dream Team of American artists: Stanford White and Augustus Saint Gaudens. The park contained the original Deacon Samuel Chapin statue which went on to be Gaudens’ best known and most popular work, reproduced in both full sized and miniature versions which are still on display in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Puritan was no accidental feature of the square, it was clearly intended to be the masculine vertical counterpoint to the fountain at the other extreme of the space. Today, with the statue relocated to the banal Merrick Park, the square sits poorly framed by the missing teeth of parking lots where structures should be and its broken fountain looking forlorn and useless.
While obviously at a different scale and with different purpose, Stearns Square is as close to a Saint Peter’s Square as any American city can hope to have; Saint Gaudens is our Bernini. Whatever the current shortcomings of the surrounding area, and however long ago the mistake of dis-assembling the original design took place, we should do whatever we can to reassemble the pieces as they were originally placed, and encourage development around the square to suitably frame the space.
Moving the Puritan from Merrick Park and restoring it to Stearns Square will serve three purposes: first a step toward the restoration of the original design of the square; secondly the opportunity to give Merrick Park a more thoughtful and useful design; and finally to encourage visitors to the Quadrangle to venture out and explore the rest of the downtown. It is a 6 minute walk from the Springfield Museums to Stearns Square. The route goes past Mattoon Street down the wonderfully framed Chestnut Street past the soon to be created Apremont Triangle Historic District. The block from Chestnut Street to the square is among the least attractive in the downtown it is true, but that can be changed; parking lots can be landscaped, sidewalks can be redesigned, and banners and such things can be erected to distract from the random destruction we visited upon our own community after WW II without B-24’s or B-17’s.