Guest speaker, architect educates students about local parks, major restorations

Retired senior landscape architect for the city of Rochester JoAnn Beck (pictured above) presented a lecture on Rochester parks, specifically her most recent project, the restoration of Rochester’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park on Tuesday Oct. 17. Beck also taught her audience about Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect who designed Rochester’s park system—only one out of his four park systems that he designed. (Annalee Bainnson/photo editor)

To some people, parks are just places to walk a dog or enjoy the outdoors. Some fail to think about how local parks—especially around Geneseo—may have a lot more history than meets the eye. 

Geneseo’s Department of Art History hosted guest speaker JoAnn Beck, a retired senior landscape architect for the city of Rochester, who on Tuesday Oct. 17 taught the audience about the creation of Rochester’s park system.

During the presentation, Beck pointed out a few of the city’s more notable parks and discussed her last project as senior landscape architect: the renovation of Rochester’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park.

Rochester is unique because it constitutes one of only four complete park systems designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted fathered the term, “landscape architect,” and invented the modern park system, which was one of the inspirations for City Beautiful movement—a movement of architecture in North America between 1890 and 1900 focused on implementing extravagent and immense splendor in certain cities—with his work.

Beck used a quotation from Olmstead to suggest that people should “come to parks … in the pursuit of enjoyment,” and that parks should be places that are “inclusive for everybody.”

Highland Park in Rochester was designed by Olmsted in 1888, and was his first Rochester-area park. The glacier-carved land is a perfect showcase of several different species of cultured plants and presently hosts the annual Lilac Festival of Rochester.

Genesee Valley Park, over the Genesee river valley and floodplain, is famous for its pastoral scenery. Olmsted chose to build arching bridges—like the Bow Bridge of Central Park, another park designed by Olmsted—across the river. This feature was particularly favored by Beck.

“We get these … really gorgeous bow-bridges over the canal … that connect one end of the park to the other end,” Beck said. Unfortunately, since the Erie Canal was rerouted after Olmsted’s designs were in place, the bridges do not “really work as … they were once intended,” according to Beck.

Seneca Park, located over the Genesee River Gorge, was Olmsted’s final contribution to Rochester. Beck noted the deliberate design of Olmsted’s scenic overlooks, which are meant to give the casual walker views of nature on either side of the path.

“These [parks] were built, they were designed, they were engineered … [to take] advantage of the [natural] vegetation,” Beck said. “You were meant to feel like you were in wilderness even though you were in the park.”

Durand Eastman Park and Cobbs Hill, both Rochester parks, try to follow in Olmsted’s huge footsteps through their appealing naturalistic views and friendly atmospheres. 

“The Olmsted [designs] really taught the [Rochester] parks department how to build a beautiful park,” Beck said. “It’s part of the legacy of the Olmsteads.”

Beck finished off her lecture with a discussion of one of her own contributions to Rochester: the renovation of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park. She described the park as orignally widely “despised” by those around it, typically seen as one of the most unappealing parks in Rochester for its heavy use of “concrete and brutish architecture.”

Original plans for the park had allowed for spatial accommodation for tens of thousands of people with large residential buildings set to surround it, creating what should have been a welcoming city center.

“The people never arrived ... the housing was never built, [and] the population of the city started to decline,” Beck revealed. The park was underused and oversized.

Seeing potential in its three-dimensional and innovative design, Beck and her fellow Rochester Architectural Landscape employees devoted time and money into fixing the decaying park. They renovated underground buildings, filled the dry fountain with flowing water and turned the run-down children’s slides into a brightly colored playground.

“We tried to change it as minimally as possible to make it work,” Beck said. “Hopefully this rehab will make it a better used, better loved park.”

Biology major senior Dyamond Slater is inspired to visit the parks after hearing Beck’s lecture.

“I want to see exactly what she was talking about and how [the park] interacts with the people around it,” Slater said. 

Slater shares Beck’s hope that the renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Park brings “a better environment to the community.”