The 19th-century mental health reformer Dorothea Dix believed in the therapeutic power of nature. When she succeeded in getting the state legislature to approve building a new mental hospital on a hill overlooking Raleigh, she sought a building that would “engage the land.”
In 1851, a legislative commission selected a site just west of the city it described as having “a commanding view of the city and is believed to be perfectly healthy. The grounds are beautifully undulating and susceptible of improvement.” The resulting building designed by New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis was a graceful structure with a tall, central pavilion affixed with two residential wings set atop a hill renamed Dix Hill.
The design offered a serene setting, though a fire and clunky additions eventually obscured Dix’s vision of a haven in harmony with its natural surroundings. Now, a century and a half after the 1856 opening of the Dix Hill Asylum, a new effort is underway to see how the land and its structures can again soothe the spirit. This time the focus is on the Raleigh city park that will occupy about 300 acres of the grounds of the now-closed mental hospital.
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That conceptional effort got underway in earnest Thursday night at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus. More than 400 people turned out to hear planners outline themes and aspects of the new park’s design. A meeting earlier in the day at the Raleigh Municipal Building drew 200 people.
The strong public interest reflects the land’s grand potential. It’s a rare chance to shape hundreds of acres for public recreational uses near the city’s rapidly growing downtown. But the city and the park’s planners must win wide support for the shape and character of the park without succumbing to a design by committee. That could squander an exciting opportunity and produce a bland plan.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the city hopes to create a park that reflects the city’s character, but also adds an impressive new dimension to city life. The City Council started by picking a planning group that has shown imagination and sensitivity to the public’s ideas. The choice was Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of Brooklyn, N.Y., a firm that recently designed the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
McFarlane said the city considered excellent proposals from several planners, but the Brooklyn firm had the best approach to the public side of the process. “They were about getting everybody engaged in what it is going to be. Some of the others were great designers, but they wanted to design it and then sell (the design). We wanted to be collaborative.”
That group thinking began Thursday as Matthew Urbanski, a principal of the planning firm, stood before a movie screen in a packed auditorium and reviewed ideas and options for the property that the city purchased for $52 million from the state in 2015. He started his talk about what will be Raleigh’s Central Park by reviewing the actual Central Park in Manhattan. He noted that New York’s signature park has added features and buildings over the years. He said that’s an important consideration as Raleigh plans Dix Park.
“You don’t have to do it all at once,” he said. But, he added, you do have to begin together. Given the challenges of the property, he said, “We want many solutions from many directions.” After Urbanski’s review, the audience went upstairs to view a model of the Dix property and submit ideas about what they wanted in the park.
Urbanski said afterward, “We’ve designed parks. We know how to do it. But every time you do a park it’s for a specific place and a specific population. We want to fill in what the main goals are for the people who are going to be using the park.”
Some major issues are already clear. Planners want to connect Dix Park to Pullen Park, which sits just northwest of the park across Western Boulevard’s four lanes. One idea they’re considering is creating a broad, grassy “land bridge” over the road that would create a continuous flow of parkland. Planners are mulling how the adjoining state Farmer’s Market might be part of the park experience. There is also a question of how to create a flat, bike- and pedestrian-friendly loop that would connect the park’s hilly terrain. Trestle-bridges over low-lying areas are one idea for flattening the loop.
Along with wooded and open spaces, there are buildings to consider. Dorothea Dix’s original asylum grew eventually to more than 85 buildings, some still occupied by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Planners will have to decide which buildings to remove and which might be converted for civic and recreational uses.
Creating a popular and distinctive park while restoring the campus to a natural space will take a lot of thinking, consulting and listening, but Raleigh is off to a good start.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org