Water Garden's steward closes up shop

Staff WriterNovember 5, 2007 

— A tall pile of yellowed, dog-eared, rolled-up drawings sits at the entrance of Dick Bell's old office, a modern gray building with windows reflecting the tall trees.

The drawings, a few tables, and scattered rulers and pencils -- all remnants of a more than 50-year career in landscape architecture -- are about all that's left inside Bell's award-winning complex called the Water Garden off Glenwood Avenue.

Bell, 79, is leaving Raleigh this month. He and his wife of 52 years, Mary Jo, are moving to their condominium at Atlantic Beach.

To most, it's just another older couple moving to the beach.

But in the field of landscape architecture, Bell's departure and the coming dismantling of his Water Garden, where Mary Jo Bell also ran an art gallery, is big news.

Dick Bell will be honored this weekend by the state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects for his role as one of three founding members of the profession in the state. They're the folks who design subdivisions, parks and other spaces.

Bell's projects have become landmarks -- the Brickyard at N.C. State University, the amphitheater at Meredith College and Pullen Park are some of the big ones.

The Water Garden, his office and home off Glenwood Avenue, has been a classroom for many of the state's successful landscape architects, said Brian Starkey, a landscape architect who worked for Bell for a year in the mid-1990s. Designers, architects and others also leased office space at the Water Garden.

"He stood out because he really had a vision," Starkey said. "He always did have a broad, big-picture outlook."

Bell has never shied away from speaking his mind, especially when it comes to what he sees as problems with the way today's cities are developed.

He was the first person to sue under the state's sedimentation and erosion control law in 1978. He filed a lawsuit against a neighbor who was building a road to attract development, and won. He also is a former member of the city's Planning Commission.

He received the prestigious Prix de Rome, studying at the American Academy in Rome after graduating from NCSU. The lessons he learned about planning and development in Europe have guided him through his career.

Bell likes to talk about the "cowboy mentality" of today. Builders slap up big buildings that are no different from cowboy shanties, he says, because they can be torn down quickly.

The only difference now, he said, is the buildings aren't so small anymore.

"We built a cowboy-ville," he said. "We built our wooden structures along the highways."

Bell sees missed opportunities as he drives through Raleigh. A central business district downtown with matching benches, sidewalks and other amenities -- much like the reopened Fayetteville Street, but much bigger, across 33 blocks -- would help bring more people downtown, he said.

Across Western Boulevard from Pullen Park is where, decades ago, he envisioned a full amusement park, like Tivoli Gardens in downtown Copenhagen, with restaurants and entertainment. A landfill was put there instead.

"That was, to me, a tragic, tragic moment in my career, when I realized it's just damn near impossible to make anything work on a grand scale," he said.

What's next for Bell is the beach, where he plans to work on three books about his life. He still practices, mostly working on residential projects.

He's sad to leave Raleigh, but not the Water Garden. The leafy haven, with a handful of contemporary buildings, no longer is the quiet respite it was when it was first built out in the country.

Now it is surrounded by subdivisions, a car dealership and busy Glenwood Avenue.

Black Mountain Development LLC, an acquisition and development company, bought the 11 acres in October for $1.6 million plus other concessions, said Matt Sumner, a managing partner.

A retirement community is planned for the property, Sumner said, along with preserving as much of the landscape as possible and the name Water Garden.

"I told Mr. Bell at closing we would do something he is proud of," said Nick Francis, also a managing partner for Black Mountain.

Still, to most, it won't be the same.

"The Water Garden is a loss to the history of the profession, really," Starkey said. "There's a legacy there that's not going to be preserved -- more than just a physical legacy, but all the people who came through that office and learned to become successful practitioners. His influence is widely felt."

Bell feels good about the Water Garden's future. He's confident the new owners will do the best they can to preserve what's there.

But, just as he pushed for big, innovative projects, he didn't limit the new owners' possibilities.

"I think I left it in good hands," he said. "But I left no restrictions on it."

sarah.lindenfeld@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8983

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