The Downtown Park You Didn't Know Existed

Revitalizing Heritage Plaza

Architect Lawrence Halprin knew the key to the city in 1969…and it didn’t involve any doors. Now, plans are underway to relaunch Fort Worth’s original gateway to the Trinity River.

Fort Worth’s Heritage Plaza resembles an open-air museum without a roof or doors and is purposefully perched on the same half-acre bluff where the original Fort Worth stood, the city’s namesake. Although hidden behind the courthouse on Main Street in downtown Fort Worth, it is arguably one of the city’s finest and most meaningful jewels. Cutouts like windows in the concrete walls purposefully frame North Main Street, the Stockyards, the historic courthouse and the Trinity River — our heritage.

“The terraced site was originally animated by water features that enveloped the visitor and gradually channeled flow downward toward the Trinity River, demonstrating reverence to the topographic feature that made this site historically significant,” writes Alison Bick Hirsch in her book, “City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America.”

But the sophisticated water features that once delicately crawled through the labyrinthine outdoor rooms are now dried up, and plant overgrowth obstructs the allusive views. In 2007, the city erected a chain-link fence closing Heritage Plaza without warning or specific plans to reopen. Local architects, historians and art lovers, and benefactors were annoyed, some outraged. But few people knew there was always a plan to reopen the plaza. Andrew Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth, Inc., said they were waiting for the right time and that time is now.

Stepping slabs near the lower wall at Heritage Plaza. Below: The site before construction circa 1975. Photos courtesy of HIstoric  Fort Worth, Inc.

The Architects The plaza is a nationally recognized work of art. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed Heritage Plaza, which he completed in 1981. He is known all over the U.S. for his alluring work. In 1964, Halprin completed the famed Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. He later completed the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in D.C., and dozens of respected projects in between.

“The plaza was designed at the same time that Halprin was developing his winning proposal for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Heritage Park Plaza is a significant antecedent to that landmark design for which Halprin depended on scoring movement through a sequence of ‘outdoor rooms’ embodying the career of the former president,” Hirsch writes (page 113). Heritage Plaza has a similar progression of rooms that lead the visitor to the city's history and the Trinity River.

One of Fort Worth’s biggest art benefactors always had her eye on Halprin. The then mayoral-appointed Streams and Valleys Committee, now a nonprofit, was initiated through the City Planning Department in the 1960s. Amon G. Carter’s daughter, Ruth Carter Stevenson (then Mrs. J. Lee Johnson III) was on the board, and with the help of the Carter Foundation, she brought Halprin to Fort Worth, Feb. 28, 1969, “to evaluate the feasibility of beautifying and developing recreational aspects of the Trinity River from a long-range plan,” city planner Randy Hutcheson said.

Famed architect Phillip Johnson had designed and completed the Water Gardens by 1974 in south downtown, six years before Heritage Plaza was erected on the northern edge of downtown. Halprin envisioned a “Public Square Park” with retail and dining, the “public and social” part of the city life to these “private and introverted” quiet parks and plaza areas.

To put it into context, Velma and Kay Kimbell put Fort Worth on the architecture and art map with the incomparable Kimbell Art Museum, designed by Louis Khan and completed in 1974. It soon became known around the world as one of the most important pieces of architecture of the 20th century. Students and architects still come from all over the world to study the museum’s perfect use and balance of natural and artificial light.

The city and committee were so impressed with Halprin’s plans that he was brought back to build the plaza to celebrate Fort Worth’s culture, connect urban development to the river, and to celebrate the country’s bicentennial in 1976 (although it wasn’t completed until four years afterward). It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the area of landscape architecture.

The Trinity River Until recently, Fort Worth developed with little to no connection to the river. In as late as the 90s, few jogged or biked along the river downtown on a quiet Saturday morning or after dinner. Halprin always saw the river as a major resource, aesthetically and recreationally, as he did most bodies of water in urban development.

“In the 1960s the Streams and Valleys Committee, a newly formed local organization dedicated to reclaiming the abused Trinity River as a historic, scenic and ecological resource, invited Lawrence Halprin & Associates to develop a plan to fulfill its mission,” Hirsch wrote (page 101).

The interactive water features that run throughout the plaza were meant to guide the visitor toward the river and away from the city. As one moves away from the bustling traffic around the courthouse and into the plaza, the landscaping becomes less manicured and more native and rugged, which Hirsch said takes one back in time to the “untamed lands” of Fort Worth originally discovered in 1849 by Major Ripley Arnold (page 110).

“The path then leads the visitor out of the plaza space and down the stairs to complete the journey along the switchbacks to the river’s edge. This culminates the choreographed procession through this transformative space,” Hirsch wrote.

It seems Stevenson and the City of Fort Worth were trying to delicately turn our heads to the river and what our city is really about, which was something widely underappreciated, or at least forgotten by current generations. And although Halprin’s Trinity River Report to the Streams and Valleys Committee was shelved for a while due to a stagnant economy in the 70s, his recommendations are finally being considered as seen in the Trinity River Vision projects.

Created roughly 40 years ago, out of this report not only came the plaza, but “low water dams to maintain the river flow, more trees along the river banks, bicycle [and running] trails, and an annual celebration on the riverbank, Mayfest, which raised money for implementing [the rest of] Halprin’s plan,” Hirsch wrote (page 104).

It is now hard to imagine a time when the river wasn’t such an integral part of Fort Worth. The trails and parks along the river are flourishing and bustling with life. The river hosts a slew of races like Friends of the Trinity, Mayfest Run, The Blast 5K, and the Color Run to name just a few. Development continues on what was once the Edwards Ranch with restaurants like Press Café offering views of the river on the now active Clearfork trailhead. One can see tubers, fishermen and kayakers enjoying a sunrise or sunset. Our heads have been turned. Fort Worth now has a valuable backyard for all of its residents to play in.

Halprin’s vision of the city completed for Streams and Valleys, and through his landmark work in Heritage Park and Plaza, was a huge influence on what we see developing along the river today, to say the least. 

The view out of Heritage Plaza from an elevated walk. Below: Halprin's March 1977 view of the overlook extending from the bluffs toward the river on the north. Photos courtesy Historic Fort Worth, Inc.

Why Now, and What Can We Expect to See? Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. president Andy Taft said there are 6,000 people now living in downtown Fort Worth and that it is becoming a regional destination. Downtown is safer than it was 20, even 10 years ago. It is more populated with people spending more time on the river, thus more interest in connecting to the river and bettering walkability. He said Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. recently renovated General Worth Square, The Water Gardens and Burnett Park. Plus there are all of the Trinity River Vision projects coming to fruition. 

“So this is what’s next,” Taft said.

Randy Hutcheson is the City Planner and city liaison on the project, and Melissa Konur is the project manager with Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. Under their direction with what I can imagine must have looked like the Council of Trent, a steering committee of 20 people came together for years debating how to delicately (or not-so-delicately) update the plaza. The ideal is not to take away from Halprin’s original design while making the park safer and more efficient.

The final vote ended up with what seems to be Fort Worth’s favorite architect, Bennett Benner Partners. The firm’s work includes the new Sundance Square piazza (remember the Public Square Halprin envisioned?) and Westbend. They are also building The Frost Tower, which is Fort Worth’s first high-rise building in more than 20 years. Look BBP up; they’re everywhere right now.

And just as important as the architecture is the landscaping. The team selected a firm out of Dallas called Studio Outside.

“Halprin’s vision originally was well before its time. The city had turned its back on the river for so many years, and now there is a resurgence of attention,” Andrew Duggan, principal at Studio Outside, said.

Duggan said Heritage Plaza was once on the edge of town but will now be in the center - it will be the originally intended anchor point on the route just as Halprin envisioned. The Fort Worth Water Gardens are now to the south, progression continues through Sundance Square, past the courthouse, to Heritage Plaza and then down to the river.

While it is still early in the process because plans haven’t been finalized and not a piece of ground broken at the site, Michael Bennett with BBP said their plans are to reopen the park sooner than later. Taft said with the $3.5 million they have in hand, they should be able to reopen phase one, which is simply restoring the plaza.

“As far as a description of the work for this phase, the intent is for us to be able to reopen the park and to improve the ADA accessibility, while at the same time being carefully aware of the park’s historic and aesthetic importance,” Bennett said.

Konur said when the water features are turned on, visitors will not hear the car traffic outside the respite’s walls, but rather the breeze in the leaves and the water trickling throughout. They decided this would make for a lovely event space and support additional fundraising. Hence, potential additional plans to make the plaza an event space will require additional fundraising. This would require electrical outlets for band equipment and better lighting.

These events would help bring in money to maintain the plaza’s upkeep. Parks and plazas with water features are not cheap to keep up. Which is why this idea to convert something into a temporary event space is not uncommon to help raise money to maintain the plaza. The Fort Worth Zoo has an event space, The Kimbell Art Museum has the new Renzo Piano Pavilion and The Fort Worth Botanic Gardens and many other local attractions have spaces for hosting events.

The water wall at Heritage Plaza. Below: Heritage Park Plaza perspective. Photos courtesy of Historic Fort Worth, Inc.

Minimal Changes Expected for Maximum Results Hirsch said because of the city’s failure to see beyond the scope of the plaza Halprin proposed at that time (1970s), and the slowing economy, it became isolated because the roads were not pedestrian-friendly around the courthouse by the plaza. This may be why few people know of this hidden gem. Only part of his plan was then implemented.

Taft and his team would agree that this is part of the reason it was shut down. People didn’t feel safe, and the only visitors were architects and students studying the brilliant work of art.

Although in disrepair, BBP and Studio Outside hope to rehabilitate the plaza and open a fraction of the wall that was the intentionally designed “screen and barrier” to the then unfriendly pedestrian situation on Main and Houston Streets. The current wall enclosed the park and redirects one to the opening sloping toward the river.

That wall also used to have water falling over the words, “Embrace the Spirit and Preserve the Freedom which inspired those of Vision and Courage to Shape our Heritage.” This would not be removed.

Hirsch wrote if the plaza entrance had offered straight access into the site, then the intricate sequence with which one is to move throughout the plaza would be obscured. Some local and regional architecture historians argued the structure should be untouched or barely manipulated so not to change a nationally recognized masterpiece. But times have changed in Fort Worth. “Once one enters the plaza, the modern city disappears, as the senses are overcome with flowing water and breezes off the river through the leaves of gridded live oaks,” Hirsch writes. “Views unfold as they reveal the historical narrative of the city’s development. The water is choreographed through weirs, falls, runnels, cascades and pools, all ultimately running toward the river at its base, and celebrating the significance of the Trinity River as integral to the founding of [Fort Worth].”

It makes one realize what all goes into the making of a beautiful city, which Fort Worth has become. This isn’t just happenstance. This connection between downtown’s urban development to the water has been in the works for decades. It seems to be working.