Updated: Friday, May 4, 2007, 2:29 AM
The name John F. Collins may be unfamiliar, but if you've spent any time wearing down shoe leather in Center City, you've probably passed through his world. A landscape architect, Collins has made a specialty out of slipping pocket parks into the cracks in Philadelphia's street grid. Stumbling upon one of his secret gardens today is like finding a $10 bill on the sidewalk - better, in fact.
It was Collins, 70, who provided city planner Edmund Bacon with the idea in 1965 for the pedestrian walk that now hopscotches among the townhouses and gardens of Society Hill. Known as St. Peter's Way, it almost does take you to heaven - a shaft of open space that Philadelphians call Three Bears Park. That's another one of the outdoor rooms Collins furnished with nothing more than concrete, brick paving stones, and plants.
Though Collins' best parks tend to be small, his imprint on our daily experience of city life has been huge. To appreciate just how much of Center City's park space has his handprints on it, you have to hike over to Ambler, where Temple University's landscape architecture department has put together a retrospective of his career. The show, which runs until June 15, includes gorgeous original pencil renderings from Collins' many Philadelphia projects, as well as selections from such far-flung locales as Alaska and Virginia.
Like all good architecture surveys, this one simultaneously helps put the past in perspective and makes us see the present more critically. As you lose yourself in the rich graphite shadings of Collins' drawings, you can't help but wonder why Philadelphia doesn't build urban oases like Chestnut Street Park or Markward Playground any more. Couldn't at least one of the derelict lots that was cleared under the Street administration's $250 million blight program have been formally landscaped as a neighborhood park?
Collins, who founded a firm called the Delta Group, designed nearly all his parks between the mid-1960s and the early '80s, when Philadelphia was awash in federal money for urban-renewal projects. Collins would be called in to camouflage the harsh effects of highway and housing projects.
You get a sense of the era's ambition by looking at the landscaped deck he designed in the late '60s to hide the gash of Interstate 95 as it rips through Center City. If only his plan to extend Society Hill's streets gently and seamlessly down to a two-lane Columbus Boulevard had been realized, then Philadelphia wouldn't be having a tortured conversation today about how to reconnect Center City with its Delaware waterfront.
Collins' design for the I-95 deck isn't perfect, by the way. Like so many landscape plans conceived under Bacon's reign, this one includes far too much landscape and not enough real urban stuff - streets, buildings, shops. It's an abstract composition that looks good only from above. But the version that was built can't even claim the easy waterfront connections that Collins envisioned. No wonder it's a dead place.
Collins, who shares some of fellow landscape architect Lawrence Halperin's environmental sensibility, did his best work on a smaller canvas. He could whip up a charming civic nook with a scrap of empty land and some spare city funds. Yet the addition of a modest amenity, like the Markward Playground on Pine Street, alongside the Schuylkill, instantly made that neighborhood a more desirable place to live. Collins was the one who conceived the adjacent Schuylkill Banks park - back in 1978. It took 25 years for the city to get around to building a stripped-down version of his design. Yet the skinny river park was so warmly embraced that the public was using it even before the recreation trail was finished.
My favorite Collins design has always been Chestnut Street Park, a slip of a public space just west of 17th Street. The park was a gift to the city from the Haas family, which organized a competition in 1978 to pick an architect. Collins won with a design that inserts a secret outdoor room between a row of retail stores. When you're sitting within its dense umbra, with the water softly plucking at the fountain's concrete pillars, you almost feel you are resting in a mountain grotto. Since the park is also open to Ranstead Street, you can easily use it as a cut-through, for a fleeting alpine pick-me-up between meetings.
One of Collins' innovations was to insist that his parks and streetscapes be endowed with a maintenance fund. When the money for Chestnut Street Park proved insufficient, Collins and his family would stop by to tidy up.
Compare the civic generosity that shaped Chestnut Street Park with the gated space next door, at the high-rise offices of Duane Morris. Once, the tower's plaza was a place where the public could loll in the sunshine with a cup of coffee, but the law firm has installed a fence to keep people away from Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes sculpture. A tall, awkward metal fence now blocks views into Collins' refuge. Both public spaces have been diminished.
Walking through the Temple retrospective of Collins' career on the second floor of the Ambler Campus' Learning Center, you realize that our city has become a lot more stingy about its public spaces.
The Center City District's Paul Levy, who recently launched a proposal to landscape Dilworth Plaza, believes that "you could never get Three Bears Park built today." The neighborhood probably wouldn't allow it, he said. The city wouldn't want to pay for it. People would argue that it couldn't be maintained.
Yet it's there now, alive with noisy children who clamber around the bronze family of bears. The neighbors recently raised the money to renovate the park. Philadelphia can only be grateful that someone like Collins was around to imagine it.
Changing Skyline | If You Go
The John F. Collins Retrospective, sponsored by Temple University, is on the second floor of the Learning Center at Temple's Ambler Campus, 580 Meetinghouse Rd. The center is open from10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and the exhibit is free. For more information, call 267-468-8000.
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