Save Paradise

The movement to rescue a neglected urban garden.

The Dan Kiley park was a complete surprise the first time I visited. In the summer of 1998, while working at the Tampa Museum of Art, I braved the heat to take my bag lunch outside and climbed a few concrete steps to find some shade. I was instantly transported to a magical place. New to the South, I had no idea what kind of tree produced the pink and white cones of papery blooms bursting from every branch in this vast grid of an arbor. Memory tells me it smelled wonderful, but that may have been the tail end of the jasmine blooms. I was in a timeless garden, allées of trees divided by a wonderland chessboard of grass and white concrete rectangles.

The park had been built in 1988 as part of the NCNB (later NationsBank) complex at 400 N. Ashley Ave.; by the time I discovered it, the water features had been silenced and the grass was patchy. But the park hadn't yet reached the dreary, comatose state it's in now. The trees were lush, and I could sit on a bench and eat my sandwich, enveloped in a pleasant, slightly dappled shade. A few others lunched or napped nearby. It was our secret garden - and all the better, I thought. That I could stumble upon this lovely oasis in downtown Tampa gave me hope for more discoveries in my new city.

People still seem to share a sense of wonder about the park. High school athletes make it part of their training path. Photography students choose it as their first subject for architectural assignments. Less active youth call it "trip park," and not because of the uneven pavers. As a modern ruin, with its classical amphitheater and formal lines, it has a tarnished romance.

But the secret garden's no secret anymore. Supporters were roused to attention when it seemed that Rafael Vinoly's proposed design for the art museum and its Ashley Avenue site would require the garden's demolition. Then, when the Vinoly plan was rejected, the garden received at least a temporary reprieve - and now there's a movement afoot to return this landmark to its early glory.

Back To The GardenIt is no accident that this park elicits such a resonant emotional response: It was designed by the preeminent landscape architect of the last half of the 20th century. Dan Kiley, who died last year at the age of 91, created some of the most esteemed and beautiful landscape designs of our time. He is the only landscape architect to have received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an artist in the United States. Venerated by the international art, architecture and design professions, two of his designs are the only works of landscape architecture designated National Historic Landmarks in the United States.

Kiley designed many significant public gardens, including those at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Oakland Museum of Art. And of all of his achievements, he believed that, if properly maintained, Tampa would represent his most important public design.

Kiley's gardens combine modernist simplicity with classical principles of order and a reverence for nature. His work was inspired by le Nôtre, the French landscape architect whose formal designs are ubiquitous throughout Europe, and he collaborated with great modernist architects I. M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn. But it's not necessary to have an intellectual knowledge of design to enjoy his work; the magic is universally sensed, present even in the arid remains of the Tampa park.

A symposium and garden tour held earlier this month helped explain what Kiley intended. The event, organized by Sarasota landscape architect Sue Thompson and Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, brought two men to town who were pivotal in the garden's creation: Harry Wolf, architect of the NCNB tower (recently renamed the Rivergate Center), and landscape architect Peter Schaudt, who worked on the park with Kiley, as well as Robert McCarter, professor of architecture at the University of Florida School of Architecture.

Wolf and Schaudt paid tribute to Dan Kiley and his park through slides and discussion, reminding us of the singular and exquisite place it used to be. The audience gasped at images showing the park's original beauty and vibrancy. Our awe was equaled by Wolf and Schaudt's shock the next morning as they toured (for Wolf, the first time in over 10 years) what's left of Kiley's garden.

Wolf remembers Kiley as having "a profound respect for nature, a sense of things sublime." He and Kiley collaborated closely on the NCNB project, and as a result the garden was a magnificent synthesis of architecture and landscape architecture. Kiley designed the garden as a formal extension of Wolf's concepts for the bank buildings; the geometric system of fenestration (windows) in the circular tower is echoed in the grid structure and its geometric proportions are repeated in the shapes that make up the garden.