• Location
  • Call
  • Favorites
  • Cart

Cleveland’s DERU Landscape Architecture sees big stories in small spaces

Posted February 22, 2024 in Articles

Author: Zach Mortice

 Inside the Cozad-Bates House, a handsome, red brick Italianate building on the east side of Cleveland that’s the last pre-Civil War house in the University Circle neighborhood, is a small exhibit that tells the history of Ohio and Cleveland’s role in the Underground Railroad. A map of Ohio created in the late 19th century by the Ohio State University history professor Wilbur Siebert traces the clandestine network, with thin arteries arrayed south to north, reaching across almost all its counties. Seven of these trails converge in Cleveland before crossing Lake Erie into Canada. It gives every impression of the loose town-to-town network of sympathetic families that would open their homes to people escaping enslavement that the railroad was—long on hope, short on actual infrastructure.

According to the exhibit, 275 people fleeing slavery passed through Cleveland over eight months in 1854. Siebert’s 1898 book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, asserts that Cleveland was one of the Underground Railroad’s most important hubs and that the route from Kentucky to Ohio was likely the most traveled. “Ohio may lay claim to eight terminal stations, all comparatively important,” he wrote.

The position of Ohio between slave-holding Kentucky and freedom in Canada, where slavery had been illegal since 1834, made the Cozad-Bates House an ideal location for the Underground Railroad, though there are scant direct accounts of people who made their way through Cleveland.

Few enslaved people could write, and even if they could, “Most of us don’t write down on paper, ‘I just broke a federal law today,’” says Kathryn Puckett, the board president of Restore Cleveland Hope, an advocacy organization that led the restoration of the Cozad-Bates House to commemorate Cleveland’s role in the Underground Railroad. “There are very few places that can document that a fugitive was actually there.”

When Puckett’s attention turned to the plot of lawn that surrounded the house in 2018, she began to wonder how a landscape could tell this story. Puckett says she wanted a space that could communicate “the intelligence and courage it took to be a freedom-seeker and [an Underground Railroad] conductor.”

“How do you make that journey?” she asks. “How do you decide from the familiarity of the Kentucky plantation to walk toward freedom; freedom you’ve been told about but you haven’t read about. You don’t have a map. [You] don’t know who will help [you] or who will turn [you] in. How do you feed yourself along the way? The plants were sustenance to get from here to there. [You] don’t even know where there is. They were walking among the plants and hiding among the plants and living among the plants.”

Interpreting this for the grounds of the Cozad-Bates House became the brief of DERU Landscape Architecture, which was founded in 2014 by Jayme Schwartzberg, ASLA, and now includes Erin Laffay, ASLA, and Maci Nelson, Associate ASLA. After the house served a long spell as a boarding house and then sat vacant for about 20 years, DERU was hired by University Circle Inc., a community development nonprofit that has owned the house since 2006, to design an experience of “physical empathy” into the land, Schwartzberg says.

The project began humbly, with a grant from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District for a bit more than $200,000 to install a stormwater bioswale on the property. The initial plan seemed bare bones and a bit clumsy: a squiggly permeable-paver path to the house bordered by a loosely triangular rain garden depression. Schwartzberg called it a “hole in the ground and some plaques.” University Circle brought DERU in “to develop what that was really going to be,” she says.

Schwartzberg had worked with the sewer district before on green infrastructure demonstration gardens, prompted by a stringent Environmental Protection Agency consent decree that required the city to capture and treat more than 98 percent of water heading into its combined sewer system. “They were kind of pushed into doing green infrastructure,” Schwartzberg says. “They’re engineers, and they care about dollars to gallons, and they don’t particularly care about how you get there.” But DERU’s richer vision to focus attention on how people traveled through the landscape and what they encountered along the way was able to hitch a ride on the sewer district funding. The majority of the project’s total budget of $300,000 was fulfilled by the grant, which was satisfied by placing a richly planted, crescent-shaped bioswale in the northwest corner of the house’s lot.

The new design concept is organized around the constellations of the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and North Star, represented by brass stars affixed to pavers and stones, some already showing the teal patina of weathering. Stepping down into the bioswale, there’s a quote by Harriet Tubman on pavers of alternating height: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” As stormwater levels rise, the last phrase above the water line will be “liberty or death.”

And that’s not the only way this landscape will change with the weather and seasons. As the bioswale grows in, it will get shaggy, denser, and the meticulously sited navigational star arrays and Tubman’s defiant words will get less visible. That’s part of the plan.

The plantings in the bioswale are dense and messy, an interpretation of what former slaves seeking freedom might have encountered as they crept through marshland and across rivers.

“We thought a lot about how, when you’re a freedom-seeker, you’re not taking the main road,” Schwartzberg says. “You’re taking the backroads, untrodden paths. We wanted [to get] people off the walkways and to dig through plants. You have to push your way through a little bit.”

DERU’s landscape evokes this experience with a soggy, sunken trough that might faintly call to mind trekking through a marsh or crossing a river. To deal with the more intensive than usual bioswale foot traffic, DERU selected hardy plantings and used sandy soil that’s less subject to compaction and also aids drainage for the water that is collected from the roof of the house and piped into the swale.

The plantings in the bioswale are largely medicinal and edible, documented for their utilitarian uses during the 19th century, including by Indigenous people. There are persimmons, serviceberry, and currants to satiate hunger. There’s Echinacea to fortify the immune system before setting out on a life-threatening journey, antiseptic yarrow to clean cuts and scrapes, and rose hips to ease joint pain, all labeled with wispy white line drawings by Schwartzberg’s mother, Ilynn Guldman. The labels also explain their medicinal uses. On the Underground Railroad, “the only things that were constant were the stars and sometimes the plants,” says Matt Provolt, the associate director of planning and design at University Circle Inc.

Beyond the bioswale, DERU’s landscape is a series of interlocking, arcing paths and small plazas. Herringbone pavers highlight arrows pointing north, and the cup of the Big Dipper, detailed in a kente cloth pattern, comprises Joan Evelyn Southgate Walk, named after the legendary founder of Restore Cleveland Hope, Joan Southgate, who walked from Ripley, Ohio, to St. Catharines, Ontario, along one route of the Underground Railroad while in her 70s. From the black, gray, and earthy ochered red-brick pavers here, an axial, narrow line of pavers leads toward the North Star, on the handle of the Little Dipper. Separated by the bioswale, another small plaza is bordered by sandstone reclaimed from the site and arranged in terraced stair seating that matches the sandstone foundations of the house—room enough for a small outdoor classroom.

The Cozad-Bates House was completed in 1853 in what was then East Cleveland Township, a rural farming area, but which is now a busy neighborhood defined by the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. The owner, Justus Cozad, was an engineer for the railroad, and his work often took him across the Midwest, but he lived at the house on and off for the next several decades, expanding it with an Italianate addition in 1872. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and proclaimed a Cleveland landmark in 2006.

One of the historical quotes, attributed to Justus Cozad, on the ground next to a picnic table near the rear of the house, reads: “I myself have worked many a day in the field with runaway slaves and always sat at the table to eat with them.” Despite this sentiment, there’s no definitive proof that the Cozad-Bates House was a stop on the Underground Railroad, though some members of the Cozad family (like Justus’s uncle, father, and grandfather) were documented aiding escaped slaves.

Navigating by the stars, trusting strangers with your life, foraging for food and medicine, stalking through wild country: Visitors to the Cozad-Bates House will experience small pieces of all of this. When Schwartzberg talks about the landscape that she and the team at DERU (which at the time included Laffay and Anna Enderle, Associate ASLA) designed, there’s the sense that she recognizes that this project does something that she’s likely never done before and that many designers never get to do. “You could tell the story in a way that helps people put themselves in this,” she says. “[It’s] so visceral.”

This story is told in a small interpretive center on the first floor of the house by photos, maps, historical illustrations, and especially documents, pulled from the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society and Restore Cleveland Hope. Many of the materials came from personal diaries and journals of the Cozads’ neighbors. “We’re pretty dense in here,” says Elise Yablonsky, University Circle’s vice president of community development. The landscape offers “literal and figurative breathing room to connect with the emotional and first-person sides of the story,” she says.

“You’re surrounded by parking garages and hospitals, so to save that plot of land and put your back to Mayfield Road, and just be in that moment—you can be transported in time even without going through those doors,” says Angie Lowrie, the director of the Cleveland History Center, a part of the Western Reserve Historical Society and a key partner providing historical research for DERU and University Circle Inc.

During her research, Schwartzberg visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and saw what she didn’t want. After a tired exhale, she whispers, “It’s boring. It’s a lot of text. You’re only getting secondhand, thirdhand stories about people after they’ve died. It’s a surprisingly hard story to tell.”

But some landscape exposition at the house was unavoidable. For this, the team turned to the graphic designers at Agnes Studio, who designed two double-sided displays with gold lettering and star patterns at their base. They selected a deep indigo hue to reference the cash crop that Black people were enslaved to grow and process, a nod toward the economics of slave labor. On the signage is written interpretive text developed by researchers that doesn’t hedge: “There was always someone in pursuit—someone claiming ownership or someone seeking a reward for capture. There were sounds of dogs and horses, and shouts in the night. Failing meant brutal punishment. It meant continuing a life of endless hard labor in which they were not considered human.” And of the conductors: “They chose to break the law. But many more did not.”

Schwartzberg says that roses signify the (potential) joyful resolution of the freedom-seeker’s journey; they reside with “a little river of irises” that flows through the bottom of the bioswale. “It’s easy to make flowers pretty,” she says, but “we wanted things that weren’t just friendly, pretty plants, because it can’t just be a success story. There are too many people who never escaped.” As such, a gnarled Zydeco Twist black gum sapling at the southern edge ends the landscape with a grim totem. “We felt like it was a good tree to represent what slavery does to humanity,” Schwartzberg says.

Not far from the Cozad-Bates House, DERU is helping to tell another nuanced story of perseverance and victory at Rockefeller Park, again with University Circle as the client. Working with the Cleveland artist Angelica Pozo, DERU’s design for Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza celebrates the legacy of Jesse Owens, the Cleveland-native track and field star, whose four Olympic gold medals earned in 1936 in Berlin rebuked the Nazi myth of white supremacy. Each of Owens’s gold medals came with an oak tree seedling, and they made their way to Ohio when he returned. The last confirmed living tree from this group was planted at a local high school where Owens trained. In 2017, it was cloned and propagated at Cleveland’s Holden Arboretum.

That clone is now planted at the center of the Olympic Oak Plaza. Four concrete markers, sloped and rounded rectangles given a shape that’s a hybrid between an oak leaf and a tendril of Olympic flame, are placed along a narrow reddish-brown running track, 200 meters long—the length of one of Owens’s gold-medal-winning races. The mile markers remind visitors that Owens’s legacy was based on “traversing space and distance,” says Pozo, and her tile mosaics installed last summer are lined in glass tile the color of flame along their narrow edges, while their broad faces are covered in green ceramic tile. One face of each marker will have written accounts of Owens’s life before, during, and after the 1936 Olympics, narrating his triumphs as well as his disappointments, including when he was denied the traditional White House visit by President Franklin Roosevelt. On the opposite side will be drawings on ceramic tile that Pozo sketched from photos of Owens.

DERU’s design surrounds the thin and wispy oak tree with St. John’s wort ground cover. Schwartzberg wanted the planting contributions to be “understated because [Pozo’s] art is very colorful and strong and vibrant,” she says. In front of the tree will be a concrete podium with a bench on each side, each the length of his medal-winning long jump, all covered in Olympic-medal-colored glass tile: gold on the tallest (center) podium, silver and bronze on the others. Like the Cozad-Bates House landscape, it’s an act of remembrance. Schwartzberg says she wanted the tree to be front and center “so it doesn’t get lost again.”

Reconciling civil rights inequalities means “making significant marks in the landscape,” she says. As one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, “Cleveland has more to reconcile with than most.”

The Cozad-Bates House landscape is grounded in sensory experiences of plants and space that are powerfully elemental and intensely individual. “When you put a berry in your mouth, and experience that sharp, sweet taste, that’s so evocative, that’s such a strong sense-memory,” Schwartzberg says. “We wanted people to experience that moment.”

Original Article: https://landscapearchitecturemagazine.org/2024/02/22/star-tracks/

Back to News

Signup Be the first to know about special events, openings, news and more!