From the 1978 “It’s Time for Springfield”:
If memory serves, it was the late 70’s when local officials and the Dukakis administration attempted to link the Quadrangle to the Riverfront using the Heritage Park template. The renovation and de facto expansion of Court Square was by far the most successful element of the plan with brick walkways and period lighting replacing decaying concrete and darkness. The Riverfront Park was too difficult to access for casual use and possessed too little beyond a river view to attract destination visitors which along with the problem of stench wafting over from the Bondi’s Island sewage treatment facility was enough to condemn it to ignominy and neglect except for the occasional grand festival.
The linchpin connecting the interior space of the Springfield Library and Museums agglomeration known as the Quadrangle and Court Square was to be Pynchon Plaza. The task given the designer was to facilitate movement from Dwight Street to Chestnut Street and the 40′ of elevation which separate them. It was also true that the location of the plaza made it perfect for the creation of a terminating vista from East Columbus Avenue; except for the orange hued airwalk which linked the Civic Center to its garage. Regardless, the designer clearly prioritized form over function and produced a grand monument to Brutalism and to the 20th Century artist’s spectacular idiocy.
The epic failure begins with the stairs so steep they give mountain goats nightmares, then its on to cavernous passageways so secluded that they put the incontinent in dreamland. The super powered Niagara Falls water feature and fancy all-glass outdoor elevator were always going to be too expensive for a city in decline to maintain, and so it proved. To top it off, some sort of defect in the neighborhood sewer system spewed rancid steam into the park on a schedule only Old Faithful could rival; to this day there is what looks like the main hatch of a nuclear submarine just to the left of the “random-metal-crap-as-art” sculpture at the base of the stairs; the artwork gives the impression of rotating blades waiting to make julienne fries of anyone not accredited by the Appalachian Mountain Club attempting the descent.
As 2018 approaches the city and the Commonwealth are joining forces to bring the river, Court Square, and the museums together again. The Riverfront Park redesign is not any better or worse than its two or three previous iterations, the utilization of the faux train station at the entrance as a police substation manned 24 hours a day will help with the perception that it is too isolated, and therefore too dangerous, to visit, but once again the design relies completely on the spectacular view of the Connecticut River and the Memorial Bridge to attract visitors. The Connecticut River Walkway/Bikeway and its connection to the boathouse at the North End Bridge will help, but I think that a commercial venture of some sort inside the park is what is needed to provide the critical mass for Springfield’s #2 most under-utilized park space.
The #1 park in that category goes to the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and the adjoining STCC grounds. One step beyond the Quadrangle, and still further up the hill that made Henry Knox recommend the city as the perfect location for the nation’s first arsenal, the park is itself undergoing a retro-redo to its landscape which will make the property more open to viewing from below and more willing to provide to the visitor what is the most spectacular view in the city of the city and the valley in which it sits. Great pains have been taken to allow visitors to enter from the Byers and State Street entrance, thus saving a walker from a mile or so circumambulation of the grounds to arrive at the Armory Museum.
Since the mostly failed attempt to unite these public spaces in the 1970’s the Quadrangle has gone from being potentially one of the most beautiful public spaces in America to simply being one of the most beautiful public spaces in America. Automobiles were excluded, stone pavements and wrought iron fencing were added, landscaping was improved and, apart from the misguided acquisition and demolition of two perfectly wonderful historic buildings for, to this day, unused and unnecessary “green space” (the actual motivation in one case was making sure visitors didn’t see laundry drying on the rear fire escape of an apartment building) the Museums Association has made mostly phenomenal decisions on the design of their space (All while STILL not living up to their commitment to have the PUBLIC PARK open many, many more hours than they actual do in return for huge sums of state money. I wish I could get that deal, get $ from the Commonwealth for “X”, not do “X”, but still not have to give the money back!!!!).
The new design of Pynchon Plaza looks promising. Unlike the current plaza the stairs look to be much more user friendly. The design creates the visual permeability so lacking today. I have no doubt that the “funicular” will be just as far beyond the city’s ability to maintain as the old elevator, but it’s inclusion gets the redesign past ADA requirements and its inevitable breakdown will still leave the rest of us with a better connection from Court Square to the Quadrangle. Having another police substation here, as well as encouraging the use of the lower plaza by nearby restaurants will further diminish the isolation when compared to the old design. A water wall, as suggested, seems like a great idea especially if designed for use by children in the neighborhood as a means of summer recreation. Hundreds of children live downtown today and in that area, the pools of Chestnut Park are not open to all of them, mine included. Getting children to the park also brings parents. Parents and children put eyes on the park that one officer staffing one window cannot equal.
Springfield’s Main Street is a strong north-south corridor for pedestrians from the South End all the way to Union Station. Bisecting it from east to west, and connecting the places with the greatest potential for world class urban recreation, whether sculling on the river, biking along it, cruising around the National Park, or touring any one of 6 amazing museums, could really make Springfield the type of place people will want to spend their lives, not just their vacations. The city faces enormous headwinds to be sure, there are many places, many places nearby which may not offer as much, but they are much easier places to live. In so many ways we cannot control we are perceived as being “less than”, it makes being as close to perfect as we can possibly be in the ways we can control an absolute necessity.