A new conceptual landscape plan for the Birmingham Museum was approved by the city commission on Monday, March 12, following a presentation by Leslie Pielack, director of the museum.
Pielack explained that the site of the Birmingham Museum, which includes the Allen House, is one of the most historically and topographically complex in the city, with natural landscape features on a steeply sloping lot with a rich history dating back to pioneer times. “Its location makes it accessible to people as well as a haven for a wide range of wildlife, yet it is centrally located in downtown Birmingham,” she said.
She said the museum board worked on the 2018 museum master landscape plan as part of their review of the 2017-2020 Birmingham Museum Strategic Plan, which “involves evaluating and developing a strategy to preserve and protect the historic features of the museum site while enhancing public access through physical and virtual means.”
The board hired Brian Devlin, a historic landscape architect with Nagy Devlin Land Designs, to made recommendations for redesigning the four-acre site.
Devlin told commissioners that some of the biggest issues facing the site is that while the house sits on Maple Road, it has a steep slope down on its north and west sides. He divided the landscape into four zones: the heritage zone, which includes the house; transition zone, behind the house; riverine/woodland zone, to the west of the house; and pond zone, along Willits Street.
He noted that the heritage zone had been redesigned in the mid-2000s, with a new layout for cars and pedestrians, handicap access, and auto access via a cut in off Maple Road. He suggested what remained to be done was removal of undesirable species, and to replant a hybrid elm tree which would mirror the original elm trees of the site.
In the transition zone, behind the house, he said is a historic fieldstone wall between the two houses with a variety of trees growing. “What we're trying to do with the historic plan is expand the steps for potential gatherings, but transition it from the top of the steps to the bottom of the steps,” Devlin said.
To the immediate west of the house, in the riverine/woodlands zone, he said are steep paths with bark. “Some of the steps are rotting away. The wall we believe may have been part of the barn, and it's starting to roll down the hillside,” he said. He noted the current composition of the plantings are weedy, and trees have invasive species.
“We will have to plant some desirable trees, and we'll have to try to eradicate others, over a long period of time,” he said.
Devlin showed a pathway in the zone which could connect into the Rouge River corridor to Maple Road. “The museum board wants to keep the existing path and work it into the Rouge River pathway,” he said. “The master plan is calling for an overlook with the trail entry at the lower northern portion with the path connecting to Maple Road and a path to the river with an overlook and plantings. It would create a woodlands that is native to the area. We would use boulders that would be artistic, and create a boulder retaining wall to ease the steep fall off the paths.” He said it could then be ADA-compliant.
In the far rear of the property, reaching back to Willits Street, is a pond, which Devlin said has a very unique feature in that a pool was built inside the pond by the Allen family for a disabled child.
“We really want to use that as an interpretive tool,” he said. “We're trying to add second handicapped access from the house, around the pool. It would be a staging area – similar to when the Allens' used it for their son's therapy. There's a wetland, and we would create a water garden. We'll have to create retaining walls to prevent people falling in. The path will be crushed limestone so it will be wheelchair accessible.”
“We think the pond will be the biggest draw,” Pielack said. We think people will want to engage with the Rouge overlook.”
Commissioner Rackeline Hoff asked why this plan wasn't integrated into the city's parks and recreation plan.
Pielack said because they took it to the Historic Design Commission. “It's different. We're in a unique position,” she said.
Hoff countered that as she saw the plan, “It's a half-million dollars, and there are so many things that need to be done. That's a lot of money for an area that doesn't get a lot of use. How much input did the public get to have?”
Pielack said she spoke to two neighbors, and 15 people showed up to a January presentation.
“That's a small amount of Birmingham people. There are so many other Birmingham parks and issues,” Hoff said.
“It provides the framework that allows us to talk to funders,” Pielack countered.
Commissioner Stuart Sherman pointed out that commissioners were not asked to approve the plan, just to accept it as a conceptual plan so they can go forward for funding.
City manager Joe Valentine explained that commissioners would see specific details and approve exact plans when sources of funding were identified. “It's a conceptual design. The individual elements would all need to be developed,” he said.
Commissioners approved the conceptual plan, 5-2, with commissioners Hoff and Patty Bordman voting against.