Michele Yellin, a painter, is a frequent visitor to the North Carolina Museum of Art, where she visits her favorite works and explores new ones.
On Sunday, she smiled broadly at the early afternoon party celebrating the official opening of the museum’s art park.
The Bulltown Strutters, a New Orleans-style parade band from Durham (one bedazzled umbrella-twirling dancer insisted they were from “Durm”), bounced, strutted and shimmied as they led a parade of donors, politicos, art dealers and other VIPs. The parade ended at the Ellipse, the front porch of the park, designed for art, music, meetings and more.
“This is so exciting,” Yellin said. “I’m dying to see people discover this place.”
Over the past week, thousands have flocked to the Ellipse to see the five giant inflatable rabbits camped on its manicured lawn. A flat 600-foot wooden bench surrounds the flat lawn, but the two aren’t parallel, which raises a nagging question: which isn’t level, the lawn or bench?
While Yellin has been a frequent visitor to the museum and park, it was the first time for many of the thousands at Sunday’s party.
Max Desrochers biked with friends on the greenway for his first trip to the museum.
“I’ll be back,” Desrochers said.
Sunday was an exquisite example of Indian summer in November: a crystal blue sky, nary a cloud, with a bright low hanging sun warming the thousands of people strolling through the 164-acre park.
Children somersaulted or rolled like logs down the hills in the meadows, or tried to climb three giant concrete rings rising from the meadow. Couples cuddled on blankets in the shade. Families picnicked, food trucks hummed, jazz bands pulsed and cyclists rolled along the bike paths.
This museum was once a prison. It is now a site for art, people, nature and recreation.
Dan Gottlieb, director of planning and design of the N.C. Museum of Art
Dan Gottlieb, the museum’s director of planning and design, said he had never seen so many people strolling the grounds, getting a taste of the potential of the museum and its park.
“This museum was once a prison,” Gottlieb said. “It is now a site for art, people, nature and recreation.”
Over the past century the land at the northeast corner of Blue Ridge Road and Wade Avenue has evolved from incarceration to inspiration.
After serving as a World War I tank training facility, the barracks formed the base of a prison camp in 1920. The Polk prison had a sordid history: after an escapee raped and murdered the wife of a top prison official, the state converted it to a youth prison designed for rehabilitation. By the 1990s, the prison was dilapidated, overcrowded, and plagued by violence and sexual crimes.
A towering smokestack is the only remnant of the prison. Barbed-wire fences have given way to a towering spinning whirligig by the late Wilson artist Vollis Simpson. The prison parking lot has been turned into wave gardens, curving mounds planted with more than 150,000 plants of differing colors and textures.
One subtle component of the park is its attention to the environment.
A 1,000-foot-long water garden catches runoff from the parking lots and filters out pollutants. Behind the original museum, a retention pond has turned into a small nature preserve, a favorite spot for museum volunteer Carol Kepler.
“This was a fenced-off muddy swamp behind the prison,” said Kepler, who moved into the adjoining neighborhood before the museum was built.
Terraces now surround the pond, planted with loblolly pine and river birch. Bald cypress extend their roots and knees into the pond.
Kepler pointed to some rushes where a great blue heron stood motionless, apparently oblivious to the thousands of homo sapiens wandering through the park.
“That means the water quality in the park is really good,” Kepler said.