Historic Houston: Perkins+Will’s Emancipation Park Celebrates the Past With an Eye to the Future

The 10-acre renovated park was founded in 1872 by four former slaves.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

This weekend, Houston’s historic Third Ward — the center of the city’s African-American community — is celebrating the rededication of its beloved Emancipation Park, a 10-acre green space and social hub that’s served the neighborhood for over 145 years.

Perkins+Will’s Phil Freelon, design director of their Charlotte, North Carolina–based practice, led the redesign of the massive public park, adding several new recreational elements to the grounds as well as brand-new facilities. Every structure now features rust and earth tones, evoking the tin roofs traditionally used on Third Ward homes. This design detail, as well as the decision to renovate and expand the park’s cultural and aquatics centers, brings the rich history of the parkland to the forefront of its future as an attractive civic space. Emancipation Park is set to be a much more welcoming and versatile version of its former self.

Emancipation Park Before Redesign

“We set out to honor both the historical story of Emancipation Park and the community’s vision for its future,” said Freelon. “These two ideas came together thanks to a genuine collaboration and countless conversations, planning sessions, research initiatives and connections made with supporters of the project in the Third Ward and throughout the city.”

Rendering of Emancipation Park After Redesign

Emancipation Park has always been the lifeblood of the Third Ward community and played a major role in the history of Houston. As Texas’ oldest park, it was the site of the state’s first Juneteenth celebration, an annual holiday commemorating the day when emancipation and freedom reached Texas. This was June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed.

The park was established In 1872 after being purchased for $800 by a group of former slaves — whom the architects honored through commemorative sculptures set in the four corners of the park. In 1918, it became an official park with the City of Houston, and later, under the Works Progress Administration, local architect William Ward Watkin — who created the master plan for Rice University — designed the park’s original buildings. Until the 1950s, it hosted the only swimming pool in Houston open to African-Americans.

The parkland and its various structures fell into disrepair in the 1970s, and by 2007, it had ceased hosting Juneteenth celebrations. A neighborhood organization, Friends of Emancipation Park, formed later and began an extensive multiyear plan to fundraise and redesign the park, returning it to its heyday as a cultural and historic landmark.

Freelon’s design brings a new recreation and health center to the site as well as a new entry plaza to welcome visitors and provide information on the park’s daily activities. The center includes a gymnasium, basketball court, weight room, classroom, lobby and kitchen. The historic Blessings Theater, the indoor and outdoor performance area of Emancipation Park, was restored, as well. A new event lawn, a Founder’s Promenade, sports fields and courts were also added to the site along with a new children’s playground and interactive water feature. The park’s three buildings and its landscape restorations are set to reach LEED certification or higher.

Tomorrow, in a weekend-long Juneteenth celebration, Emancipation Park will be rededicated to the community with an entirely new energy, look and feel. The momentous occasion comes at a time when highly anticipated projects like the National Museum of African American History and Culture — a design also led by Freelon — are finally being realized and giving space for the story of African-Americans to be told and live on through the built world.

Images via Perkins+Will and Mark Herboth Photography