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Stearns Square, Springfield MA USA

Digitally re-creating a lost American pocket park

page added February 18, 2020

 Stearns Square - project goals

Stearns Square c.1895Once upon a time, Chester Chapin (a prominent local businessman and politician) had an idea for improving city life in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. By the late 19th century, American cities were becoming noisy, smokey, and hectic; and there were few outdoor places of refuge from the hustle and bustle. He sought out two of the top designers of the era to imagine and build the features for a special pocket park acoustically and visually isolated from the surrounding community (at the left is a photo of the park, as it looked around 1895; hover over to enlarge). Unfortunately, the experiment lasted only a few years. The park's most prominent feature was removed, the vegetation ripped out (as seen in the photo), and the park was evenutally abandoned.

Joyce Schiller, then of the Delaware Art Museum, came to our sister organization, the Institute for the Visualization of History in 2005, with the idea of digitally recreating not only the original park, but also simulating the original experience of wandering into that city sanctuary. Those were our goals (plus it had to be done quickly and on a low budget; she also provided most of the images seen here).

 Stearns Square - context and history

Sanford White's drawing of the parkThe new type of urban park was built in Stearns Square, between Bridge and Worthington Streets, in Springfield, in a then open space roughly 79 x 24m). In 1884, Chapin hired sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White in collaboration to create the public space and its monuments. The features (a grand statue of Deacon Samuel Chapin [one of the city's founders and ancestor of Chester Chapin], a stone bench, and the turtle fountain) and the planned environment (paths, hedges, and trees) were meant to aid in the transformation of downtown Springfield from a neighborhood of clapboard houses for immigrant families into the new civic center of the community with its soon-to-be-completed railroad station, theater, and other community buildings (see Stanford White's sketch of the park at the left, currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession #1999.249; hover over to enlarge).

park under constructionAs planned, the bench was for people to sit and contemplate the statue in the quiet park or (in the opposite direction) gaze across at the fountain, whose gentle splashes were designed to mask the noise of the city, further dampened by the large hedges (probably boxwood and holly) and rows of birch trees. The image at the left (hover over to enlarge) shows the two designers (in the left middleground) supervising final construction of the park and the testing of the fountain. The photo was taken just before unveiling of the statue on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 24, 1887 (this image was the frontispiece for the event's program).

Deacon Chapin statueThe park had been in place for barely a year before the social experiment was abandoned. The landscaping was dismantled, and by 1899 the Deacon Chapin statue (see at the left; hover over to enlarge) had been moved into Merrick Park located just outside the city's art museum, natural history museum, and library, where it remains today.

Google maps view of the parkNo trace remains of the carefully orchestrated landscaping or its peaceful intent. In the Google Maps view of the square today (at the left; hover over to enlarge), just a few remnants of the original design can be recognized.

Google maps view of the parkRecently, the square's open space has undergone a bit of a restoration, with the fountain back in action, hardly with the same effect on city-weary passersby, however (photo by Bartholomew Johnson; hover over to enlarge).

 Stearns Square - the digital re-creation

The 3D model of the park was based on the period photographs (some of which can be seen above, the sketch by White, a similar statue by Saint-Gaudens in Philadelphia, and current views of the square). With time being short for the delivery of the final product, the goal was not to produce a detailed digital replica of the original environment, but to produce a short video that simulated the look and feel of the park, which was completed in 2005.

click below to play the final video

 Stearns Square - selected bibliography

Doss, Erika
2012     "Augustus Saint-Gaudens's The Puritan: founders' statues, Indian Wars, contested public spaces, and anger's memory in Springfield Massachusetts, Winterthur Portfolio 46.4:237-70.

Dryfhout, John H.
1982     The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England. (especially Catalogue #125)

Greenhill, Jennifer A.
2012     Playing It Straight: Art and Humor in the Gilded Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (especially pp.111-20)