A Rare Opportunity
When the family that owned the farm offered to sell it for use as a park, Brentwood officials knew that if they did not act, the opportunity might never come again. The City recognized that preserving the nearly 200-year-old Ravenswood home and the surrounding wooded hills and fields for the enjoyment of its current residents and future generations was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The heritage of the park land is long and storied. James Hazard Wilson II named the home Ravenswood in a tribute to his friend Sam Houston who, while spending three years living with a Cherokee tribe, was given the name Colonneh, or “the Raven,” by a tribal chief. Houston, whose colorful career also included becoming governor of Tennessee and president of the Republic of Texas, served as best man at Wilson’s wedding on the farm grounds.
With so much at stake – the heritage of the past and the quality of life for future generations – Brentwood officials asked the team to develop a master plan that protects the park from intrusions by the modern world.
“The Smith family wanted to preserve the heritage and tradition of the land and partnered with the City,” says Michael Flatt, the project’s principal-in-charge. “They had a strong desire to preserve the property, much as it has been for nearly 200 years and even longer, before the farm was established, so that as Brentwood and the surrounding areas of Williamson County become more densely developed, future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy quiet walks in the woods. The City shared that desire and immediately began the task of turning the family’s vision into reality.”
The result is a natural preserve that seamlessly blends with the fabric of the community and, as the park is developed in phases over the coming years, may come to be described as Brentwood’s Central Park.
“Brentwood is a center of commerce, the home of national companies such as Community Health Systems and LifePoint Hospitals. But Brentwood is also a city of parks, a city whose leaders are committed to enhancing the quality of life for its citizens and ensuring that they have access to open spaces for active recreation and quiet reflection. In Brentwood’s already-outstanding system of parks, Marcella Vivrette Smith Park is one more trophy,” adds project manager Mike Hunkler.
Preserving the past
Preserving the historic Ravenswood home and the surrounding grounds for public use was a key goal of the master plan. The circa 1825 home will be one of the park’s primary attractions and will be available to host wedding receptions, business meetings and other social events. Recommendations had to be made regarding new public use facilities at the house – such as new restrooms – and how to achieve a historically accurate renovation. The home was a private residence until recently, and numerous additions and changes were made over the last 187 years.
“The challenge is how far you turn back the clock,” says Hunkler. “In 1860, you didn’t have a side porch. In 1890, a window might have been added. In 1910, a doorway might have been altered. Ravenswood home has always been the home of an active family who naturally made changes over the years. So the question becomes, which changes are eliminated and which ones are preserved during the restoration?”
Leveraging all available resources, the team consulted Centric Architecture regarding the preservation of the house and surrounding structures. Such structures include well-preserved brick cabins that housed slaves on the property before the Civil War. Telling their story and interpreting their history is a crucial part of the park’s mission.
Rudolph visited the slave quarters during an open house when guides in period costume were giving tours. “To walk through the property, the slave cabins are the most powerful. To go in those structures and see what they were is an emotional experience,” he says.
Interpretive signage will be placed at the slave quarters, and Brentwood may invite local artists to use them as studios where students can take lessons. “It would be a stimulating setting with the ability to tell the story and embrace the heritage of Ravenswood,” says Flatt.
Designing an experience
Brentwood officials asked that careful attention be given to the visitor experience; to the sense of escape from the pressures of modern life. In response, the master plan envisions not only preserving 250 of the park’s 320 acres in a natural state, it also recommends protecting the viewshed by shielding the park’s ridges from development. No rooftops will disrupt the tree canopy, and no lights will disturb the night sky.
“Our goal was to balance the park’s environmental features, uses and the cost,” says team engineer Lori Lange. “Lighting will be kept to a minimum and will incorporate highly efficient LED bulbs, which consume just a fraction of the electricity of regular lights and reduce the long-term expense of operations. Natural plantings along the north and south property lines screen park facilities from view without the cost or the intrusion of fencing.”
Other features share the dual benefits of making the park more environmentally sustainable but less expensive to maintain. All of the plants and trees being introduced are native species which resist diseases and insects without extensive use of pesticides and require only minimal irrigation. “Green” features such as bioswales and rain gardens increase sustainability, as do less-visible features such as open-bottom culverts that preserve natural stream beds.
Achieving the City’s goal of creating a park where Brentwood residents can find refuge in nature and enjoy “passive” recreation – hiking, biking and other activities that don’t involve a team sport – drove the overall plan for the design. To fully understand how to create that experience for visitors, team members had to experience it for themselves and learn firsthand the power of Marcella Vivrette Smith Park to evoke a sense of wonder and connection with the natural world. During their explorations, they identified specific views that enhance the experience of hikers and highlight the property’s beauty. Those views were incorporated into the master plan.
“Team members hiked and biked the existing horse and cattle trails that crisscross the hills,” says Lange. Trails that came too close to a neighboring backyard were abandoned. Those that preserved a sense of splendid isolation were incorporated into the park’s eight miles of dirt trails, each just 18 inches wide. The end result will be, that on either side of a trail, it could be 1825 again, the year of Ravenswood’s construction.
“We made a conscious decision to stay true to the intent of the park,” says Rudolph. “The intent is to go out there and lose yourself, get away from town and be in the woods.”
To preserve the sense of solitude in the heart of the park, areas where people gather are near the entrance. Trailheads were placed near the athletic practice fields, which are located on naturally flat terrain. The fields are intended for day use only and are being left unlighted to preserve the park’s dark sky effect. Other busy areas — picnic shelters, a playground and restrooms — are nearby.
Marcella Vivrette Smith Park will provide its visitors with a feeling of escape and solitude, but the park itself will not be isolated. It will be intentionally connected to Brentwood’s existing bikeway system: a 10-foot-wide bikeway that wrap around the park’s historic area and will be shared by cyclists, runners and walkers who can pursue those activities without disturbing hikers in the interior.
The park will not incorporate equestrian trails, at least in the beginning, but it does acknowledge Brentwood’s heritage of horse farms in a very visible way. Fencing inside the park is identical to the wooden four-board horse fences that were historically used in the region.
A Smooth Transition
Any 320-acre development, even one whose purpose is to maintain the natural setting, is bound to raise concerns among neighbors, and Marcella Vivrette Smith Park is no exception. Team members participated in three neighborhood meetings and one larger public meeting.
“This isn’t a shopping mall, it’s a park. You’d think it would be an easy sell,” says Hunkler. “Most people like parks, but some people don’t.”
Of major concern was the anticipated increase in traffic for surrounding neighborhoods and nearby Ravenwood High School, a factor that helped determine the final planning for the park’s entrance.
In addition, the entrance had to be safe. The existing entry, a road across busy railroad tracks, was too dangerous. A bridge was necessary, but, in keeping with the goal of “creating an experience,” the team did not want a looming structure that might overwhelm the Ravenswood home and dominate the park. The elegant solution provides two 10-foot traffic lanes and a separate 10-foot-wide bike path and sidewalk. The bridge leads to a curving entrance road that encourages visitors to slow down — not only their cars but their thoughts — and eases their transition from a suburban to a natural setting.
“It’s quite an engineering feat,” Hunkler says of the bridge and the way the elements of the park work together to create a unique visitor experience. The City of Brentwood selected GS&P for the project because of the firm’s design and engineering skills, and the combination paid off. “You don’t think of selecting a park master planner because of their engineering, but the team’s abilities were critical to creating this great solution.”
While the initial phase of the park plans to open in late 2013, the project’s scope also involved cost estimates and a multi-year plan for construction of the park’s remaining three phases, including unlit practice fields, 80 additional acres, mountain biking and hiking trails, and picnic areas. The completed Marcella Vivrette Smith Park will be a lasting example of the City’s commitment to the well-being of its residents, now and into the future, and is something Mike Flatt and the team are extremely proud of.
“Being so intimately involved in the creation of such an important community asset is a rare and incredibly fulfilling opportunity,” says Flatt. “The team thoroughly enjoyed being part of something that embraces the past and preserves it for the future. It’s not something we get to do every day.”