Park It Here
The Overton Park Conservancy is the newest caretaker for the city's 11-year-old oasis.
Volunteers replant formal gardens at Overton Park
photographs by Melissa McMasters | Overton Park Conservancy
In November of last year, Memphis celebrated Overton Park’s 111th birthday. On 347 acres of land known as Lea Woods, in what was then considered the northeastern part of Memphis, George Kessler of Kansas City, Missouri, designed a park that was to be connected to downtown via parkways and would eventually be swallowed whole by the city, burning bright in the belly as an oasis among asphalt, concrete, cars and steel.
A month after that auspicious birthday, the Overton Park Conservancy celebrated its one-year anniversary. The Memphis Park Commission was dissolved by the Herenton administration in 2000 and folded into city government. In December 2011, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to allow the Conservancy to take over the management of the 184 acres of public parkland including the Greensward, Rainbow Lake, the formal gardens, Veteran’s Plaza, the 126-acre Old Forest State Natural Area, and the East Parkway picnic area. Though the entities share grounds and work together, OPC has no authority over the Levitt Shell, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis College of Art, Memphis Zoo, or the Overton Park Golf Course. The agreement between the city of Memphis and OPC is a 10-year contract.
“The Park Commission are assured of the fact that they can accomplish but little unless supported by a strong, favorable public sentiment,” wrote Judge L.B. McFarland, the first chairman of the fledgling Memphis Park Commission, in 1900. “The people must encourage and help the Commission and the administration in this work if they want a beautiful city.”
It was with this very sentiment that the newly created Overton Park Conservancy undertook a survey in 2011 to find what citizens wanted from their park. “The first five-year capital project list, and the major improvements that needed to be made in terms of operations, emerged out of the results of that survey,” says Tina Sullivan, executive director of the conservancy. “That list has been what we’ve worked from.”
In terms of improving the day-to-day park experience, Sullivan says and all seem to agree that the first year has been a resounding success. “People wanted a cleaner park, they wanted the litter picked up, the grass cut, and they wanted restrooms,” she says. “So one of the first things we did was hire contractors to cut the grass on a regular schedule, take the trash out … and we have renovated the restrooms near Rainbow Lake. People are really happy about that.”
Beginning an organization of this sort is a daunting task, yet the conservancy, with the help of others, was “off to the races,” says George Cates, a board member who led the conservancy on an interim basis in the beginning. There are more than a hundred such conservancies in the country, Cates adds, and the leaders of Overton Park weren’t shy about asking for help, specifically from those of Forest Park in St. Louis and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. “They just opened their books to us. Anything they could tell us and coach us with, they did,” Cates says. “We had a database, if you will, to draw on so we didn’t have to go out and invent the wheel.”
While things such as cleanliness are noticed at street level, it is the big splash that gets people excited citywide. When standing on the second tee box of the municipal golf course within the park, one may now hear the happy yapping of dogs coming from the new dog park. With sponsorship from Hollywood Feed, one of the first major projects was building the Overton Park Dog Bark in June last year. “Overton Bark has been very popular; it’s brought new people to the park, and they’re very excited about it,” Sullivan says.
Though city parks are for everyone, perhaps they are even more so for the children and the future generation of caretakers that they represent. Ground was broken in December on a revamped playground with an expanded footprint, new features to make the activities more challenging and interesting, wheelchair access, and a musical sculpture designed by the National Ornamental Metal Museum to beautify the area. The project should be completed by May 2013.
Memphis is a city of trees. Green in the springtime and golden brown, deep red, and yellow in the fall, the canopy of Memphis is an artist’s palette of thick, swirling oil paint. Overton Park is home to the Old Forest, a centuries-old arboretum protected from further encroachment by designation as a State Natural Area by Tennessee, but new specimens to the park are welcome all the time. With a special gift from the Miriam and Ernest Kelly Family Foundation, generous pricing by Greg Touliatos & Associates, and with help from volunteers such as Cub Scout Pack 13 at Trinity United Methodist Church, 400 trees and shrubs were planted last year. The formal gardens, first designed by Kessler and extending from Veteran’s Plaza west to Morrie Moss Lane, were renovated with another gift.
It’s this sense of ownership that is another goal of the conservancy and one being realized in the first year of operation. There has been a concerted effort to boost volunteerism and raise membership, a goal that was exceeded four times over in 2012. “The people must encourage and help … in this work if they want a beautiful city,” Commissioner McFarland wrote.
“Our challenge is going to be to transition from the startup funds we received from local foundations to build a broad base of support from individual donors and revenue from our events and rental permits,” Sullivan says. “To do that, we’re going to have to engage with people on an individual level and convince them that they personally have a stake in supporting the park.”
In addition to adding to the ranks of volunteers, they are also “trying to identify meaningful volunteer projects and identify elements of our operations that we could turn over to volunteers,” Sullivan says. Team Overton Park is an initiative encouraging those helpers to wear their T-shirts when in the park to promote a “positive, visible presence” and to feed information such as felled trees, restrooms needing attention, or broken water fountains back to the conservancy.
Though there is a forest teeming with successes for the first year, the challenge, Sullivan says, is in “trying to make improvements and initiate projects and programs that satisfy existing park users while attracting new supporters at the same time. We have to figure out how to lead the way forward but still acknowledge the park’s unique historical and artistic heritage.”
With an operating budget gleaned from the city, membership fees, and a $1.5 million gift from the Plough Foundation within the first week of the conservancy’s existence, the conservancy’s staff of five moves forward.
“I’m very pleased with the leadership team of Tina Sullivan,” Cates says. “Her staff is doing a wonderful job and it’s really encouraging, and I think this year will be even better.”
Plans include connecting the park to the nearby neighborhoods, with pedestrian and bike-friendly crossings along Poplar and North Parkway, allowing safer access for Rhodes College students. Already on the drawing board is a connector to Broad Avenue, a bikeway that leads two miles to the east to the Shelby Farms Greenline. A sculpture on East Parkway will act as a gateway and welcome pedestrians into the park. Permanent restrooms on this eastern border will be placed beside the playground there as well. Around the perimeter of the park is planned a paved path so runners, walkers, and cyclists can circumnavigate the entirety of the property.
And, through it all, Sullivan hopes the conservancy will continue to engage people, to feed ideas back and forth, and collect visitors’ memories of past visits and hopes for the future.
Threats to the park in the past have in the destruction of the Japanese Gardens by a misguided, patriotic mob in 1941, the near bisection of I-40 in the 1970s, and the ongoing danger of privet choking the Old Forest today.
And while the Conservancy has no control over past or future development by Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis College of Art, or the Memphis Zoo, any foundation poured within the bucolic landscape must be handled with the utmost care and consideration.
As sure as it has had threats, the park has had its share of guardians as well, those citizens who rose up against the insinuation of an interstate, and the attorneys, a true dream team, who took the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There have been the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park taking on all comers who wish to remove even a shrub from the Old Forest. And there are those whose appreciation carries the beauty of the park into the world, artists and writers such as Peter Taylor, who wrote in his short story “The Old Forest”: “Here are giant oak and yellow poplar trees older than the memory of the earliest white settler. Some of them surely may have been mature trees when Hernando de Soto passed this way, and were very old trees indeed when General Jackson, General Winchester, and Judge John Overton purchased this land and laid out the city of Memphis.”
And now there is the Overton Park Conservancy, put in place to manage the park aggressively, yet tenderly, by being mindful of what is added and what is taken away, and how it all benefits those that the park was designed, built and cared for: you.
“There are people who have been supporting the park on some level for decades, and we don’t want to lose that, we want to make sure they’re going forward with us,” Sullivan says. “The most gratifying feedback I get is from those people who’ve been walking the park every day for 20 years and come tell me that the park has never looked better.”