BY TIMOTHY A. SCHULER
“It’s so incredibly simple, you almost wouldn’t recognize it as landscape architecture,” Tanya Olson, ASLA, a cofounder of Tallgrass Landscape Architecture, says of her firm’s latest project, the Custer Beacon. “And that’s why it’s kind of interesting, because we were involved for years before it got built.”
The Beacon, as it’s known, is a concert hall and “canteen” in Custer, South Dakota, a town of approximately 1,900 people situated in the far west part of the state in the scenic Black Hills. Opened in 2019, the venue occupies a pair of converted metal warehouses located a block off Custer’s main street, Mt. Rushmore Road. Custer is also Tallgrass’s home base, which gives the firm a unique understanding of the culture and rhythms of a small town that is dependent on summer tourism.
“Someone from Minneapolis or Denver, they forget how few people there are [in a place like Custer] in the winter, and what that really means,” says Julie Oswald, who owns the Custer Beacon with her sons, Charley and Louis. “We don’t have the population to make something ‘over the top’ make it.”
Before the Beacon’s metal buildings hosted live music and film festivals, they stored mining equipment and Custer’s ambulances. One warehouse was owned by the city, the other by the Pacer Corporation, which operates a nearby feldspar mine. Oswald, the former CEO of the Pacer Corporation and chairperson of the Oswald Family Foundation, saw an opportunity for the Pacer warehouse to better serve the community. But she and her sons weren’t sure what it should be. “We needed guidance,” Oswald says. She called Olson.
“We just went through a brainstorming [session] with them,” Olson recalls. “It’s right across the street from a 100-mile regional hiking and bicycling trail. Should it be a bike shop? What should it be?” To answer these questions, Olson and her partner, Matt Fridell, ASLA, used the standard tools of landscape architecture as well as strategies borrowed from the world of business consulting. They mapped the parcel’s connectivity to nearby recreational nodes, including the aforementioned Mickelson Trail, but also facilitated discussions with the family about branding and marketing, a process that helped Oswald and her sons “think about the whole,” she says.
Ultimately, the family settled on a music venue and restaurant that would cater to local residents. When it came to the landscape, improvements were intentionally minimal. “[Julie] wanted the gnarly, old, mountain-man, mining-company guys to feel as comfortable as the climbing and biking people. She didn’t want it to be fancy,” Olson says. The property was regraded to create a wraparound patio, along with a postage stamp-sized lawn and, in the northeast corner of the site, to screen the adjacent parking lot, a wildflower-strewn copse of aspens and Black Hills spruce.
Since it opened, the Custer Beacon has hosted concerts, air guitar competitions, bluegrass jams, and even memorial services. Oswald attributes the venue’s success, in part, to the involvement of local design talent, which she describes as a “wonderful, rich resource.” In a rural community like Custer, where even the mayor has a second job, designers often must work behind the scenes. But in doing so, they wield outsized influence. As Olson recently told a group of design students: “Don’t overlook these rural areas, because design thinking is a type of thinking that, no matter how you apply it, whether it’s landscape architecture or just helping facilitate a community process, is enormously helpful.”