Art Works

Adding interest, character and beauty to blank walls and barren spaces

By Stacy St. Clair

A bronze statue by Gary Price of children at play, titled “Circle of Peace,” marks the entrance to the Glenview Park Center in Glenview, Ill.

When the Glenview Park District decided to build a recreation center on a decommissioned naval airfield in suburban Chicago, officials knew patrons would be treading on hallowed ground.

The property had been the longtime home of the Glenview Naval Air Station, which trained generations of military pilots and ground crews from 1942 until its closure in 1995. The airfield served a critical function in World War II, having been used as a Primary Training Command site.

Its alumni list read likes a who's-who of military men. Astronaut Neil Armstrong and Presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford all trained at the station during the war. The field was also home to Chicago's most famous naval hero, Edward O'Hare, a fighter pilot who saved the U.S.S. Lexington from sure annihilation in 1942 and was posthumously honored with an international airport bearing his name.

When budget cuts forced the U.S. Navy to close the airfield in 1995, developing the area was no easy task for Glenview, an affluent community in Chicago's north suburbs. The village spent months contemplating how the 1,102-acre property could best be used.

In the end, they opted to convert the military base into a civilian hamlet that included upscale homes, shopping, sports fields, entertainment areas, a golf course and recreation facilities.

Glenview entered into a no-cost lease/purchase agreement with the Navy to use 140 acres for the benefit of the public good. The project was named the Admiral Gallery Park, and designers intended its crown jewel to be the Glenview Park Center.

Still, excitement about the development was tempered with nostalgia for the airfield. The naval station had been a source a pride for the area for decades, and it was difficult for many to see it replaced by $1 million homes and stores.

Community history is showcased at Glenview’s Splash Landings.

Rather than try to bury the community's nostalgic affection for the training center and the role it played in American history, the Glenview Park District embraced the parcel's past. The district incorporated the land's history into the interior design of its new recreation center.

By honoring the past, park officials both delighted the town and followed the hottest trend in recreation design. These days, it's simply not enough for recreation facilities and parks to slap a pleasingly colored paint on the walls and call it décor. Today's facilities reflect their past and future of their communities.

"Recreation centers are living legacies to the community," says Lori Miller, director of operations for Williams Architects in Carol Stream, Ill. "We're very sensitive to that. Today's centers are reflecting more of a theme."

Williams Architects designed the Glenview Park Center, a $23 million facility that opened in December 2000. Situated at the end of a former runway, the architects designed the building's interior as an homage to the property's past. Local foundations ensured the tribute by donating more than $100,000 for artwork.

Community history is showcased at Glenview’s Splash Landings.

Visitors are aware of the effort from the moment they step in to the 165,000-square-foot building. A large lobby skylight pours sunlight through tempered stained glass, drawing patrons' eyes to a gorgeous fireplace. A hand-carved terra-cotta brick mural sits above the mantel, depicting scenes from the community's history.

The state-of-the art natatorium celebrates the area's past with an incredible aviation motif. World War II biplane replicas—purchased through a local foundation's generous donation—hang from the ceiling. The water play area has several aeronautical features, including a small slide designed to make the users appear as if they're bailing out of the cockpit.

The piece de resistance of the natatorium, however, is the cleverly named Splash Landings waterslide. Williams Architects designed the stairs leading up to the slide as a replica of the Glenview Naval Air Station control tower.

"It ties into the overall theme," Miller says. "It really is impressive."

Impressive, but not overdone. The facility doesn't look like a campy aviation playground or American Airlines' answer to Disneyland. Rather, designers combined tasteful art such as the terra-cotta mural with whimsical elements such as Splash Landings to create a recreation center that reflected Glenview.

"It truly is a living legacy," Miller says.

School looks

Not all interior designs, however, need to be as lavish or honor the history of something as grandiose as a naval air station. When Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., opened its $15 million recreation center in April 2000, designers created an atrium to reflect the freshness and openness of the Minnesota prairie.

The 80,000-square foot facility was built into the hillside, at the mouth of the school's 800-acre arboretum. Architects added numerous skylights, to give the place a sunlit, natural atmosphere. They also constructed a rock-climbing wall in atrium to amplify an outdoorsy, back-to-nature ambiance.

Carleton's interior designer, D. Mariea Guthrie, insisted the atrium include some of vegetation found in the arboretum. After 40 years of decorating campus buildings, Guthrie has a policy of ensuring her buildings share a connection. Even if several decades separate them, she wants history and the college's commonalties to unite them.

"My philosophy is the design should always incorporate Carleton's past, present and future," she says.

Art projects

The easiest way to pay homage to a facility's past is with artwork. In some cases, it's as simple as Glenview's terra-cotta mantelpiece. Others are more elaborate, such as the three relief sculptures on display at the Dublin Community Recreation Center in Dublin, Ohio.

The central entrance rotunda of the Bartlett Community Center in Bartlett, Ill.

The facility's proponents ensured historic art would be included in the suburban Columbus facility by hiring an artist to work in tandem with the architects. The artist gave invaluable input on where the sculptures should be placed and how to design the spaces to best present the pieces. The arrangement guaranteed the art would look like an integral part of the facility, not a last-minute decorating decision meant to cover bare walls.

The three pieces, completed in 1996 by area artist Andrew F. Scott, were a series of low-relief sculptures composed of mild steel, brass and mirror. The first piece, titled "Charting History," is located in the center's entry hallway and reflects the growth of Dublin, with three large abstract maps from the 1792, 1842 and 1996.

The second, called "Running Man Frieze," is located along the side of the running track. It pays tribute to the facility's purpose with a depiction of a running sequence. As patrons jog by the sculpture, the sequence creates illusionary motion and makes joggers feel as if they have someone running alongside them.

The third sculpture puts a new spin on the tried-and-true time capsule. Obligatorily dubbed "Community Time Capsule," the piece features photographs Dublin residents, past and present, enjoying all types of recreation. To ensure it will continue to record the city's athletic history for years to come, the piece includes a trophy case with space left for future athletic accomplishments.

The Dublin Arts Council, a not-for-profit agency that oversees public art projects such as the recreation center sculptures, insisted the pieces incorporate the town's history. Artists who applied for the job knew their work had to be more than aesthetically pleasing—it had to be relevant to the burgeoning suburb as well.

"It either has to relate to Dublin as it is today or how it was in the past," says Christie Rosenthal, executive director of the Dublin Arts Council. "We feel it's really important because it gives the community an opportunity to connect with the project."

The Dublin's public art project began 1989, when the arts council formed a partnership with the city. The municipality, which oversees the town's recreation department, agreed to earmark 25 percent of its motel taxes to the endeavor. The council, in turn, agreed to oversee the annual selection process and its creation.

The council initially earmarked $70,000 annually for a new piece. The amount, however, has increased to $125,000 as the costs of materials—as well as residents' expectations—have risen.

Once a piece is finished and dedicated, the council turns control back to the city. The municipality then has the responsibility for maintaining the piece.

"We really have a wonderful deal with the city," Rosenthal says.

The art, however, does not just give an added boost to indoor décors, such as the relief sculptures in the recreation center. The community has used the endeavor to give face-lifts to their outdoor parks as well.

In fact, Dublin's first public piece was dedicated in Scotio Park. The statue "Leatherlips" is a 12-foot limestone bust of the famous Wyandot Indian Chief. Local legend contends fellow tribesman near the park executed Leatherlips because he refused to fight Dublin's white settlers.

The most recent addition was a whimsical baseball-themed sculpture at Darree Fields, a 66-acre park filled with baseball diamonds and soccer fields. The piece—made of aluminum, bronze and stainless steel—features a baseball bat smashing an old-fashioned alarm clock from a mock home plate over the centerfield wall. The clock appears to fly more than 300 feet over the field, hitting a series of metal disks with the words "going" stamped on them.

The final disk has the word "gone" on it and looks as if the clock passed through it before sailing out of the park. "Gone" sits atop a gate that leads visitors to an adjoining wooden trial. More clocks and baseball items—many of them partially deteriorated—appear along the trail.

The artist intended the project to give onlookers a sense of how fleeting time is, especially as parents. It's a subtle reminder of how quickly Little Leaguers grow up and find more adult pursuits.

Coral Cove in Carol Stream, Ill., sports a colorful tropical theme.

"Primarily the people who will view it are the kids who come to play baseball or soccer and their parents," Oregon artist Don Merkt told a local newspaper shortly before its dedication. "I think kids will get the 'going, going, gone‚' and I think the adults will understand the time theme. Perhaps the kids will, too; I think they can."

Perhaps the greatest artistic nod to Dublin's recreation history is its Jack Nicklaus Tribute. Created by two Chicago artists, the larger-than-life bronze statues depicted a middle-aged Nicklaus crouching next to a young golfer. The Golden Bear points off into the distance with a smile on his face. The sculpture was unveiled shortly before the 1998 Solheim Cup, a biennial match similar to Ryder Cup that pits American women golfers against their European counterparts.

The piece is meant to honor the golfing legend for his contributions to both his sport and Dublin. In the early 1970s, Nicklaus and his business partners developed the Murfield Village Golf Club and residential neighborhoods, one of the country's first golf-course communities. The project is universally credited with transforming Dublin from a sleepy farm community of 1,000 people to today's bustling suburb with 22,000 residents.

The city's visitors and convention bureau publicizes the statue—along with all public art projects—on its Web site and in its tourist brochures. The pieces are listed as just one more reason to use the area's top-notch recreational facilities.

"These projects have created tourism," Rosenthal says. "We know that for sure."

And it's not just art lovers who enjoy the sculptures at Dublin's recreational facilities. The sports-minded patrons who use the parks and recreation center find themselves inadvertently taking in culture, too.

"People who would never look at art are enjoying it," Rosenthal says. "The community has a real connection to the projects."

The art piece at Hilltop Park in Signal Hill, Calif., is "Hilltop Perspectives" by Cicchetti, Weir & Stone 1998 as commissioned by the City of Signal Hill.
How Great Thou Art

Unless you're one of the few recreation managers with a degree in art history, the process of selecting a sculpture or mural for public display can be a frightening prospect.

Relax. You weren't hired for your discerning artistic tastes.

When it comes to picking public art, look outside your recreation centers and park. Your community is filled with people with the knowledge—and passion—for picking timeless pieces.

In Dublin, Ohio, for example, the city depends upon a jury established by its arts council to select projects. It also solicits residents' input, so the community has a sense of excitement and ownership in the project.

"The jury finds the community's input invaluable," says Christie Rosenthal, executive director of the Dublin Arts Council. "It helps them decide what the community's looking for and what they would connect with."

Across the country in Signal Hill, Calif., city officials created a blue-ribbon panel of art experts—including area artists, university professors and members of the local arts association—to help pick their public art. The Signal Hill ad-hoc committee was charged with the daunting task of finding a "unique" piece of artwork that would reflect Signal Hill's character.

"We wanted something unlike anything we would see someplace else," says Kathy Sorensen, the city's community services director.

The city leaned heavily upon the Friends of Signal Hill Cultural arts, a non-for-profit corporation that promotes culture activities within the community. The corporation's connections within the California arts community helped attract 28 submission for the project.

In the end, the city selected a piece that includes several shadow art frames that allows patrons a panoramic view of Long Beach in the distance. It also includes art and pictures of Signal Hill‚ depicting past, most notably tributes to its roots as an oil-drilling community.

The piece, without question, was the distinctive artwork Signal Hill officials desired. The task could never have been accomplished without the blue-ribbon committee's advice and expertise, Sorensen says.

"That was the wisest thing we did," she says. "I would tell everyone to do the same thing."

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