The first, oldest, and possibly largest example I found of a creative reinterpretation of a large-scale public utility is Seattle’s Gas Works Park, at 2101 North Northlake Way on the shores of Lake Union. A coal-to-gas conversion plant operated there from 1906 until 1956, when it was shuttered and abandoned. The City of Seattle purchased the site in 1962, then reopened it as a 19-acre public park in 1975. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 2013.
Because gasification had contaminated much of the site, the 1971 park plan included bio-phytoremediation of soil and plant life, among other measures. Landscape architect Richard Haag was responsible for the design, initially with the understanding that the gasification structures would be razed, according to The New York Times. Said Haag of the project, “the ground was very polluted. The buildings were boarded up, the place was fenced off. It was a desperate, desolate place.”
Eventually, however, Haag changed his mind about removing the structures. “I started hanging around there and I suddenly realized that the city’s intention to raze the site was all wrong. So I decided to launch a campaign to save the gas works.” Initial public responses ranged from skeptical to vehemently opposed. But as the park neared its grand opening, it quickly became a “source of pride” for Seattle: “the composition of tanks, towers, and pipes, some time before its official opening, has already become Seattle’s pre-eminent piece of public sculpture,” reported Paul Goldberger of The New York Times.
The former exhauster-compressor building was converted into an indoor play space for children, and other on-site buildings are now used as picnic shelters. The outdoor Great Mound has become a popular gathering and performance space, atop which wind speeds are ideal for kite flying, and the area offers some of the best views of downtown Seattle from across the water. The space appears to have been successful: as of April 23, 2013, Yelp.com’s 269 reviewers gave the park an average 4.5 out of 5.0 stars, and TripAdvisor’s reviewers rank the park number 34 of 186 attractions in Seattle.
Gas Works Park is arguably a work of art in and of itself, but nonetheless, additional public art features were installed throughout the park. Atop the Great Mound is a 28-foot-diameter sundial, designed and installed by Chuck Greening and Kim Lazare in 1978, made of inlaid and cast bronze, shells, ceramic, and found objects embedded in multicolored concrete, according to the Seattle Arts Commission. A cast-bronze moon and sun are inlaid at opposite ends, which enable the viewer to tell the time by standing on a central oval, becoming the “gnomon,” or timepiece.
Because Sundial was installed more than thirty-five years ago, staff at the Seattle Arts Commission does not have a substantial amount of detail on file or any first-hand institutional memory of the process of the piece’s installation. Attempts to reach artist Chuck Greening have been fruitless. That said, given the era, it is unlikely that a community engagement process was used to generate feedback on the park’s or artwork’s designs. Financing for Sundial was through a private donor.