Pvt. James H. Quinn Memorial Square

Central Falls, Rhode Island

Site History and Context
Quinn Square was originally dedicated in 1933 to honor the service of Private James H. Quinn, a young Central Falls resident killed in action during the Great World War on November 7, 1918, just four days before Armistice Day.  It is located at the gateway to downtown Central Falls, at the intersection of West Hunt and Dexter Streets, directly across from St. Matthews Church.  The site was chosen for its proximity to the church- a National Register of Historic Places landmark designed in 1929 by the famed Rhode Island architect Walter F. Fontaine- for Veterans Day (then still referred to as Armistice Day) and Memorial Day (then referred to as Decoration Day) observances and celebrations.  Originally a revered destination for war veterans and their families, Quinn Square subsequently suffered from decades of benign neglect and lack of maintenance, as Central Falls slipped from prominence as an industrial and manufacturing hub.  An urban renewal intervention in the early 1980’s attempted to restore the Square, but again the area slowly receded into disrepair.

Project Initiation
Already reeling from the decades-long departure of manufacturing jobs, Central Falls was one of the hardest hit cities of the recent Great Recession. In August 2011, it became only the second US city to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.  The city was no longer able to fund its own pension system, much less fund a parks maintenance budget.  Quinn Square’s location at the gateway to the downtown area became a symbol of the decay of its host community.  To act on this, the city engaged in a unique program of public/private partnership, offering business leaders in the area the opportunity to “lease” public open space in exchange for maintenance and upkeep.  At Quinn Square, the bar was raised for the entire community: a complete renovation of the Square was proposed and funded by a prominent adjacent business. Its goal: restore the gateway to the city to its former status, and in turn act as a catalyst for the rebirth of the downtown area.

Program Development and Sustainability Initiatives
Working closely with project stakeholders, the landscape architect developed a Master Plan for Quinn Square that satisfied the programmatic goals and requirements of the client, the city, and the Central Falls Veterans Council.  Upon approval of the Master Plan, the landscape architect was the lead consultant in charge of the renovation of the Square, from Schematic Design through Post Construction Occupancy.

Creating a more sustainable landscape was a large part of the program.  The new site design was organized around a series of sustainability measures that minimized impervious surfaces and diverted runoff from entering the local municipal combined sewer system.  Pre-renovation, Quinn Square was comprised of 74% impervious surface, all of which fed into the combined city system, which discharges directly into Narragansett Bay.  The redesign reduced impervious area to 19%, all of which are high albedo surfaces.  The on-site infiltration strategies included the introduction of a series of drywells that capture 100% of stormwater runoff and infiltrate it in-situ.  In addition, traditional sustainability benefits were realized through carbon reduction and generation of oxygen (by reintroducing healthy, large caliper deciduous trees to the landscape) and heat-island reduction (through the aforementioned introduction of greatly decreased impervious areas and high albedo pavements).  Native, locally sourced large caliper deciduous shade trees and large shrub/ornamental grass/perennial beds were planted, which increased shade and reduced water loss from transpiration and evapotranspiration, thus greatly improving water use efficiency.  Finally, site lighting was specifically designed to reduce light pollution and maximize
energy efficiency.

Design Intent
The single most important program requirement of the city and the Veterans Council was the need to maintain the memorial monument in its current location.  Seizing upon this requirement and viewing it as an opportunity rather than a constraint, the landscape architect developed a design solution that highlighted the monument at the center of the space, allowing it to assume its rightful place of prominence.

The overall landscape design was greatly influenced by discussions with members of the Veterans Council.  The Great World War, as with all wars, is noted for its brutality.  Veterans recalled stories from their fathers and uncles describing the unfathomable destruction of cities and their surrounding
landscape, and told stories of their own encounters in subsequent wars.  Most tellingly, the landscape architect noted that phrases such as “scarred” and “torn apart” were recurrent.  These terms ultimately formed the foundation of the design solution.  Scars heal, as do landscapes that are torn apart.  They regenerate and ultimately bring new life to their locations. The physical form of the landscape design solution at Quinn Square was an allegory for this phenomenon.  Alternating bands of lawn and low profile planters containing undulating swaths of native shrubs, ornamental grasses and perennials created the coordinating geometry for the site, forming a tapestry of color that covers the square in four season interest.  The bands of planters “regenerate” each year- bringing new life to the park with each passing season.  In the spring and summer, blooms from perennials specifically chosen and located for their color and bloom time, such as Yarrow, Sages, Goldenrod, Globe Thistle, Coneflower, Milkweed, and Gay feather intertwine with the blooming ornamental grasses.  The strong scent of the swaths of Mountain Mint attracts butterflies by the hundreds.   Red twig and yellow twig dogwood create a visually striking scene in the winter while combined with dormant Heavy Metal Switch Grass, Feather Reed Grass, Purple Love Grass and Silver Grass, among others.  The planter beds are surrounded by low profile poured-in-place white concrete bands.  The height of the bands (3”) is set to match the mowed grass height, creating a consistent horizontal datum across the pervious ground plane while creating a frame for the plantings that does not compete with nor detract from them.  The subtle height difference between the lawn/planters and the pavement areas creates sufficient separation while still welcoming users into the green areas of the park.  Large caliper Commendation Elms and Pin Oaks dot the lawn areas, creating shaded refuge in the summer, striking color in the fall, and a unique silhouette in the winter.  The trees were specifically placed only in lawn areas to maximize program flexibility, allowing park users the opportunity to sit on the lawn under a tree rather than on a bench.

Pedestrian circulation is accommodated through a simple set of linear walkways that bisect the site and create a fully ADA accessible series of paths- a critical element at a gathering space for veterans.  The east-west walkway passes in front of the monument, its width sufficient to allow for seating.  The north-south walkway is set on an axis with the monument to emphasize its prominence, and also includes areas for seating.  The dark charcoal concrete color was selected to create contrast with the striking greens of the lawn and planters.  The walkways are constructed with sawcut control joints set in diagonal patterns to subtly reflect the wedge shape of the planter bands. The walkways also act as a gathering space for events and services.

Local Significance
The landscape architect integrated traditional materials into a contemporary aesthetic, creating a clear hierarchy of spaces while maintaining flexibility in its use.  The incorporation of these new features highlight the role of the Quinn Square landscape as a medium that can simultaneously address complex site engineering and sustainability issues while still developing a destination landscape that creates a unique sense of place and acts as a focal element for the community.  Quinn Square has once again become the site of the annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, and plans for streetscape improvements for Dexter Street are now underway to further enhance the rebirth of the downtown area.