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Photos: Houston’s Emancipation Park reborn after $33.5M renovation

Overseen by architect Phil Freelon, redesign highlights park’s historic nature

Emancipation Park Houston
The event lawn at Emancipation Park, a new pubic space in Houston that will be re-dedicated this weekend.
All photos courtesy Perkins+Will; Mark Herboth Photography

The highly anticipated renovation of Emancipation Park, an historic public space in Houston’s Third Ward, was re-dedicated earlier this month after a $33.5 million renovation. Overseen by lead designer Phil Freelon of Perkins + Will, who was the lead architect for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the renovation brings a refined look to this 10-acre recreation center while referencing the traditionally African-American neighborhood’s rich history.

“We believe that the design, structure, and landscape of a project has to be of its place and of its time,” says Freelon. “The historical context is a major driver in our design process. And we were just blown away by the story here.”

The recreation center

The park has played an important role in Houston’s history since its founding. The site of the state’s first Juneteenth celebration, a holiday celebrating the announcement of the abolition of slavery, the park was established in 1872 by a group of four formerly enslaved African Americans who pooled together $800 to purchase 10 acres of land, and was the first public park in Texas.

The original park buildings were designed by Houston architect William Ward Watkin, who helped devise the masterplan for Rice University, and built by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. The park has been a community hub for generations, especially during the Jim Crow era, and until the ‘50s, contained the only swimming pool in the city open to African-Americans.

Recreation center
Entry screen around pool

Freelon’s redesign features a number of new facilities that help solidify the park’s place as a center for recreation and civic life, all featuring rust and earth tones that reference the tin roofs, shotgun houses, and red brick traditionally used on homes in the nearby Third Ward. The park reopened to the public during this year’s Juneteenth celebration, on June 18, the culmination of years of work by the Friends of Emancipation Park.

Playground
Arch

In addition to a new entry plaza and welcome center, the renovation adds a cultural and aquatics center, children’s playground, and recreation center with classrooms, a health center, and basketball court. The renovated lawn and recreation areas include ball fields, outdoor courts, picnic areas, and a founder’s park, as well as commemorative statues of the four founders, located on each corner of Emancipation Park.

The range of different facilities reflected the design team’s goal to create a comprehensive park program for the entire community. The placement of covered seating near recreational facilities offers the elders of the community a chance to sit in the shade and watch and interact with younger generations.

“We tried to create a program that speaks to the entire range of the community,” Freelon says, “making sure it was vibrant and full of activity from the young and old and everyone in-between.”

Updated June 29 with quotes from Phil Freelon