TAMPA — It has been 15 years since the bubbling fountains of Kiley Garden were shut off and almost a decade since its hundreds of trees were removed, turning the urban oasis into a flat checkerboard of grass and concrete.
Still, the park’s former glory continues to draw attention.
Photos of it as it looked in its prime are part of a travelling exhibit on display at the Center for Architecture in New York, honoring its namesake and designer — the late Dan Kiley, considered one of the most influential Modernist landscape architects of the 20th century. The exhibit runs through June 20 then moves on to Dallas.
And later this year, a European architectural journal will name the original Kiley Garden one of three premiere landscape designs of the 1980s. The article appears in the winter edition of the Journal of Landscape Architecture, published by the European Council of Landscape Architecture Schools.
This new international recognition, coupled with the popularity of the new Tampa Riverwalk and Curtis Hixon Park, have emboldened local fans of Kiley Garden to renew their push to restore its former glory.
“People around the world want to remember Kiley Garden but in Tampa we want to ignore what it used to look like,” said Chris Vela, an architect and head of the volunteer organization Friends of the Kiley Garden.
“If the city wants our Riverwalk to stand out among others in the country, bring back what most experts consider to be one of the most beautiful landscapes ever designed.”
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Kiley Garden once had hundreds of crepe myrtles, an amphitheater, reflecting pools, a glass bottomed canal, fountains and a checkered grid of grass and pavers separated by runnels, all accentuating the adjoining iconic structures — the soaring, 33-story cylindrical skyscraper called Rivergate Tower and the Cube of glass at its feet.
“Perhaps if enough people ask the city to get behind a restoration effort, they will,” Vela said.
The Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, whose president Charles A. Birnbaum curated the travelling Kiley exhibition, asks on its website that those wishing to see the garden restored email Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Capin already is eager to restart a discussion that last came and went in 2012.
“Kiley is a world renowned architect who wanted to create something special for Tampa,” Capin said. “If people around the world still talk about his work in Tampa, so should we. It’s worth looking into.”
Kiley designed more than 1,000 landscapes around the world, including the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis and the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden.
The travelling exhibit chose 27 of Kiley’s designs to showcase.
He once called the park in Tampa one of his top four projects.
The author of the European journal entry on Kiley Garden, Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at University of California Berkeley, said he may go so far as to call the garden one of the great landscapes of the 20th century.
“I think the Kiley design was the crowning work of Kiley’s career,” said Harry Wolf, who designed the Rivergate Tower and Cube and then worked with Kiley on the park. “The people of Tampa deserve more. It should be restored.”
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Among topics covered in the travelling Kiley exhibit is the importance of proper stewardship, comparing landscapes properly maintained with those that are not. Kiley Garden falls in the latter category.
It is hard to imagine Kiley Garden as it once was.
The canal is gone, the pools have been filled in with gravel, and the water for fountains and runnels shut off.
The trees were cut down in 2006. There is little foliage at all.
It is a garden in name only.
All that remains in full are the amphitheater and the checkered plaza.
Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa city councilwoman, said landscape architects have estimated a restoration project would cost $1.5 million. Saul-Sena speaks with some authority: Her film “City Visions,” about urban public spaces, won a merit award from the American Institute of Architects.
“That is such a minimal amount of money to bring an internationally recognized treasure back to life,” Saul-Sena said.
Vela with Friends of Kiley Garden has been given a higher estimate, around $3 million to $5 million.
Both projections include replanting trees and turning on the fountains and runnels. Neither includes bringing back the reflecting pools or overhead canals, which many agree would cost too much.
In a statement emailed to the Tribune, Buckhorn’s spokeswoman Ali Glisson said the city budget does not allow for any restoration work on Kiley Garden.
“Kiley presents some serious maintenance challenges,” according to the statement. “It’s not just restoration. It’s also ongoing maintenance costs. The city hasn’t done a formal review of what it would take to restore the fountains, irrigation, and landscaping in years.”
Councilwoman Capin said it may be time for such a review.
“We need to focus on how we can do this rather than why we don’t do it,” she said. “If that means we pay for it in increments and do a little at a time as we can afford it, then we should do that.”
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One reason the park was stripped down was to preserve the parking garage beneath it. The park’s floor doubles as the garage roof but drainage and waterproofing was faulty. Water leaked in, raising fears of a collapse.
So the flowing water was turned off and the trees removed to repair the damage.
Today, opposition to restoration comes largely from those who enjoy concerts at the now treeless park, Saul-Sena said.
But restoration does not require replanting all the trees, she said. A few would provide shade and make concerts even more enjoyable.
“People think when you talk restoration that means it has to be look exactly like it did,” Vela said. “Not at all. We just need to bring back its integrity.”
The new garage roof can handle a restored park, Saul-Sena said.
“It was a marvelous design but it was done at a time before the technology could handle it. Now we are at a point that it can be done right. The roof is safe.”
The city need not foot the entire bill, she said. Private grants and donations would help.
She suggested seeking help from the new owners of Rivergate Tower, Mount Kellett Capital Management. Company representatives could not be reached for comment.
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Rivergate Tower was commissioned in the 1980s by North Carolina National Bank and its CEO, Hugh McColl, who wanted a new national headquarters. He brought aboard famed architect Wolf, who saw the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive as the gateway to downtown and the cylindrical design as distinctive and less obtrusive.
He added spotlights on the roof to create a lighthouse affect.
The connected Cube building was designed to mimic Tampa’s urban grid.
Then there is the use of the elegant Fibonacci series to draw up the measurements. Each number in the series is the sum of the previous two — 0,1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13, and so on.
These proportions were used to draw up the tower’s radius, floor heights, dimensions, and frequency of windows.
Wolf said the series is commonly found in nature, in tree branching or the patterns in a pine cone.
“Everything flows together,” said Wolf.
Other intricacies include concentric circles in the building’s lobby that mark distance of time and space and 365 paving stones around the floor of the tower to represent the calendar.
Vela of Friends of Kiley Garden calls it “brilliant mathematic artistry.”
The tower has received architectural awards around the world.
Wolf also wanted a park to flow from the structure employing the Fibonacci series.
He said only Kiley could have accomplished that in combination with a breathtaking landscape.
“I called him and said it could be one of your greatest landscapes,” Wolf said. “I think a lot of people agree.”
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Seen from above, the park looked like a tapestry or an urban grid, depending upon the observer.
Water flowing into the runnels and fountains came from a 400-foot overhead canal, which connected the tower to the Cube.
The bank paid for park, around $3 million. The city had it built and took over ownership.
“It was our present to the city,” Wolf said.
It opened in 1988.
“It was gorgeous” said Vela with Friends of Kiley Garden. “I remember running under the overhead canal as a kid and thinking it was amazing.”
But by the early 1990s, the water damage emerged. What’s more, Kiley’s design called for dwarf crepe myrtles but the city planted full sized ones.
The city could not keep up with the trimming, Vela said, so his organization formed to take care of maintenance there.
“We then found a tree broker would buy back the trees and with the money we could purchase the right ones,” Vela said. “Things were moving forward.”
In 2006, in preparation for the drainage work and waterproofing of the underground parking structure, the trees were removed.
Vela said he was given no warning. The trees were never handed over to his organization.
“The city knew we were moving forward,” he said. “I don’t why they did that.”
He asked permission to find other ways to raise money and replant trees but was denied.
“Why?” asked architect Wolf. “Where are the trees? Why weren’t the fountains fixed? Tampa deserves better.”