It was none too inspiring—just a paved area behind a Downtown house-turned-office. But the people behind the Blue Moon Fund, a philanthropic organization that occupies the building, had a vision for their outdoor space that went far beyond simply sprucing up the spot where they park their cars. “They approached us to create a progressive landscape,” said Tommy Solomon, a designer with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. “To set a new standard for landscapes in the city.”
The mission was not only to create a more pleasing approach to the rear of the building; it also included attracting wildlife, creatively dealing with stormwater on site, and serving as an example of healthy native ecosystems. All on a single city lot.
In answer to that fairly tall order, the firm came up with this basic scheme: Parking would move to the extreme rear of the lot, and those exiting their cars would travel along a “spine”—i.e., a boardwalk—on their way to the courtyard just behind the building. Along the way, they’d experience several different environments: a grove of river birch trees, a small meadow planted with native species, and perennial beds. “We reorganized the entry sequence for employees,” said Solomon. “It became an immersive experience.”
The project aimed to be as green as possible. For example, Solomon and his colleagues designed the site to deal with stormwater in several interconnected ways—containing it in a cistern, allowing it to evaporate, and channeling it to a bioretention area where it can safely infiltrate the ground—thus keeping runoff out of the city sewer system. “This site would handle a 10-year storm event before any water leaves the site,” said Solomon. “Everything is connected, like a natural system would be.”
Plantings, too, reflect the firm’s and the client’s shared ecological interest. Native grasses and sedges fill in the rain gardens. Warm season perennials in the meadow demonstrate what this fast-disappearing ecosystem would have looked like before invasives arrived. Winterberry provides an understory to the ethereal river birches at the rear end of the boardwalk. And perennials near the courtyard are chosen to attract pollinators.
Aside from the project’s lofty goals, it is quite simply a beautiful place. As the boardwalk slopes down on its way toward the building, board-form concrete walls rise up to create a private space in the form of a bluestone courtyard, which employees can not only use as an outdoor meeting spot, but enjoy viewing from within the office. The geometric cut stone is offset by rough, angular boulders from the Alberene soapstone quarry in Schuyler.
“The context is very urban—it’s close to Downtown, and the railroads are right there,” said Solomon. “So the palette is very honest: concrete, metal, stone, wood.” Honest, but not without poetry—in the interplay between aluminum railing and delicate grasses, or the diagonal angle of the boardwalk as it lands, boldly demarcated by a channel of dark stone dust, within the courtyard.
As Solomon put it, the project embodies “implied simplicity” but rewards a close look with many layers of meaning. It is a total reimagining of a small space, made significant by the attention. “I don’t think there’s an inch of the site left untouched,” said Solomon.
Approximately 4,000 square feet
Materials or finishes
Board-formed concrete from Allied Concrete; weathered steel walls and aluminum guardrails/metalwork fabricated by Shickel Corp.; Bluestone terrace; soapstone boulders from Alberene Soapstone Company; soapstone fountain designed and fabricated by sculptor Toru Oba; FSC-certified ipe wood boardwalk; FSC certified cedar screenwall; steel photovoltaic array designed by architect Stoneking/von Storch.
Fixtures at ipe boardwalk are low-profile path lights by Hunza; fixtures in garden are stake lights by Lumiere
Rain garden at parking court: Swamp Milk Weed, Tawny Cotton Grass, Soft Rush, Virginia Mountainmint; Grove at bioretention: River Birch underplanted with Winterberry; Demonstration native warm-season meadow: Native anemone, Andropogon, Lance Leaf Coreopsis, Coneflower (Echinacea), Purple Lovegrass, Common Boneset, Switchgrass, Aromatic Aster, Little Bluestem; Mound: Prairie Dropseed (native grass); Terraced perennial beds: Bistort, White Coneflower (white Echinacea), Blue Star Amsonia; Hedges in central garden: Dwarf Fothergilla; Hedges at the ramp: American Cranberry Viburnum; Perennials surrounding the lower terrace: Common Lady’s Mantle, Snowdrop Windflower, Black Cohosh, White Bleeding Heart, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea), Coral Bells, Blazing Star (Liatris), Wild Bergamot, Beard Tongue, Black-eyed Susan, Foamflower, Spiked Speedwell; Tree at lower courtyard: Sweetbay Magnolia