Through provident circumstances, Rice Park has been able to maintain the whole of its land and its remarkable features while its surrounding buildings have maintained their handsome architectural solidity, preserving strong edges to the park. In this aspect, these stalwart edges meet architectural historian Christopher Alexander’s statement, in his book A Pattern Language, that “The strength of a boundary is essential to a neighborhood (for this book’s purpose, the term ‘park space’ will be substituted). If the boundary is too weak, the park space will not be able to maintain its essential character.” (Pattern Language, #15, Neighborhood Boundary) One may speculate whether the integrity of the park’s street borders and its strong architectural enclosure is strengthened by backup reinforcement of the definable east boundary of St. Peter Street’s dense architectural massing. To the south, the busy Kellogg Boulevard formed an outer border. The western boundary is defined by the bulk of the massive auditorium complex and to the northeast by the Travelers Companies elaborate modern architectural castle complex.
Christopher Alexander also pointed out that well-being is enhanced by gateways or passage points in and out of the park space. These principles should permit only a few passages; their width should be relatively narrow with tall flanking structures that lend the sense of crossing a boundary; the passage should emphasize the feeling of entrance transition that forms a starting point within the park space. (Pattern Language, #102, Family of Entrances) At Rice Park, principal gateways entering this distinctive downtown sub-area proceed from street layouts and traffic movement patterns by pedestrians and vehicles that provide a limited number of pathways: both east and west directions along West Fifth Street and Market Street or Washington Street from Kellogg Boulevard.
The first significant changes to Rice Park began in 1965. The Saint Paul architectural firm HGA (Hammel Green and Abrahamson) prepared design documents for the makeover. HGA designed walkways paved with pebble-faced concrete aggregate that connect the park’s four corners with a circular plaza formed by a two-tiered pool and fountain. The functional water feature is a system of twenty low-mounted spray devices set in a clusters off-center within the circular basin sending upward continuous lily-like watery shapes that rise then splash into the pools. The fountain’s name ‘Source,’ represents the source of rivers, culture and perhaps life itself. Standing in the fountain is a bronze female statue, created by Saint Paul sculptor Alonzo Hauser. The young figure, standing in a pose suggesting beginning of a ballet movement, is said to have been inspired by Hauser’s wife Nancy, who formed the renowned Nancy Hauser Dance Company and School.
The location of this feature departed from the traditional center to be decidedly asymmetrically located in the northern part of the park. The round plaza and concentric ringed shape of the pool display a modernist design principle in keeping with the then-prevailing architecture intent on celebrating architectural asymmetry during the latter part of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, its mild simplicity and low profile provides pleasant consonance with the traces of the park’s nineteenth century Victorian sensibility. Most important, the original well being of Rice Park remains in place.
HGA designers circumscribed the size of the hard surface area to allow gathering of small groups of people nearby and a short distance from the pool and landscaped edges, avoiding Modernism’s infatuation with the anonymity of broad hard paved plazas. Most important, urban parks are created for people, and the hard-surfaced area and its perimeter benches, surrounded by low lying spreading junipers, and with broad canopies of mature deciduous and conifer trees draw private events of many types, many spontaneous, attracting weddings and other family and group occasions.
In the early 1980s, more attractive lighting and benches were installed. Statues of Peanuts cartoon figures influenced by cartoonist Charles Schulz, who was a native of Saint Paul, and a bronze figure of F. Scott Fitzgerald were added, with funds provided by the Saint Paul Women’s Institute. In 1985, streets surrounding park were paved with brick, and Linden trees lining the walkways were planted. Fountain steps around the circular pool were paved over in 2000 over to create a larger plaza.
During warm weather months, workday noontime brings brown bag toting lunch people to the park. Various visitors meander around the walkways, complemented by street life people waiting for buses along Fifth Street. These daylight activities contrast delightfully with night-time strolling people under the twinkly lights of Rice Park’s own galaxy scattered above in the trees’ craggy branches.
Today Rice Park serves local office workers during warm weather with lunch opportunities, strolling by various visitors and street life waiting for buses along Fifth Street. The park is a four season entity: tiny bright green sprigs become springtime’s buds of summer promise, eventually giving autumn leaves that enrich the park’s landscape. Winter’s snow covers the grounds and clings to the tree branches festooned with tiny dots of twinkly lights. During Winter Carnival time, from the Ordway Theater’s upper floor open mezzanine, theatergoers view an extra added attraction of an assembly of ice sculptures that cast gleaming slivers of light. The Saint Paul Winter Carnival’s ice sculpture contest give Rice Park a special grace.
The park serves as a connecting place for several parades during the year. An ice skating rink with a warming house is popular during wintertime. Rice Park is known for presenting a tableau for some special human events. Once in a while, a couple sitting close with each other, occasionally finds a ring coming out of a pocket to be presented with a proposal for one of life’s romantic moments that become treasured memories.
Rice Park and its surrounding environs are my favorite part of downtown St Paul. Too bad Minneapolis’ Gateway Park is completely obliterated.