Floridians are rallying to restore a rare Dan Kiley landscape, starting with 800 trees.
By Timothy A. Schuler
On June 17, 1988, life changed for Laurie Potier-Brown, ASLA. She was living in Tampa, Florida, and working in marketing while also pursuing an MBA. Her company’s offices were located downtown, near the new NationsBank tower, Harry Wolf’s now-iconic concrete silo of an office building. That Friday, during her lunch break, Potier-Brown ventured down to the park that had just opened in conjunction with the building. She walked under the plexiglass-bottomed canal and up into the cool, leafy garden, and as she wandered through the grove of flowering crape myrtles and listened to the “gurgling of water running in the rills,” Potier-Brown says she decided to abandon everything—her job in marketing, her MBA—and become a landscape architect.
Thirty years later, Potier-Brown is part of a group working to help restore the park that so profoundly altered her career. Today it is known as Kiley Garden after its lead designer, the renowned modernist Dan Kiley—though for those who remember it, the garden is barely recognizable. Its 800 crape myrtles are gone, as are its allées of sabal palms. The clear-bottomed canal has been removed, and the reflecting pools one once crossed have been paved over. “They’re literally parking cars where the reflecting pools were,” says Christian Leon, the director of a local nonprofit and a supporter of the garden’s restoration. “There’s an entire parking garage underneath!”
The space was initially designed as a modern leisure garden inspired by the Persian architecture of the university across the river and Wolf’s use of the Fibonacci sequence in the adjacent tower. Leading the push to rehabilitate the space are Friends of Kiley Garden and the Tampa Bay Foundation for Architecture and Design, which have launched a multipronged campaign aimed at raising two things: one, awareness of the garden’s historic significance—Kiley himself thought it would be one of his most lasting works—and two, money for a $2 million endowment to help pay for ongoing maintenance. The actual restoration work, they argue, falls at least partially to the city, since it was the city that removed the trees and water features after discovering several leaks in the garage below.
“In two or three days, the city came in and cut down 800 trees,” recalls Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa city council member and a founding member of Friends of Kiley Garden. “I wept. We called it the tree massacre. But the city said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to fix the leaks and then we’ll put the trees back.’ But they never put the trees back.”
To educate Tampa residents about the garden’s pedigree, Friends of Kiley Garden plans to bring the Cultural Landscape Foundation exhibition The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, located in one of Wolf’s jewel-box buildings next to the garden, in spring 2022. The most pressing challenge, says Shaun Drinkard, the director of public programming and operations for the Tampa Downtown Partnership and a landscape architect by training, is the garage, which still leaks, and the nature of the ownership agreement between the city and the building’s owner. “When you have two owners that own two undefined areas in a garage, when you get to maintenance, there’s going to be an undefined line as to how the maintenance is completed,” he says.
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, the president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, points to Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, designed by John Ormsbee Simonds in 1955 and restored in 2014, as precedent for the successful rehabilitation of a modern garden amid complex legal and structural challenges. It too sits on top of a parking structure, but was rehabilitated through a partnership between the city, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “That’s a perfect example of a multijurisdictional space that was in need of a primary steward, and the conservancy stepped in,” Birnbaum says. “Tampa needs that kind of leadership here.”