Pocket Protectors | Architecture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Home + Design » Architecture

Pocket Protectors

A phalanx of sphinxes guards an urban sanctuary


Published June 7, 2000 at 5:14 p.m.

Not far from where I-189 collides with Shelburne Road, something odd has happened. In an intersection largely noted for its traffic lights, sign clutter, fumes and impatient drivers, it looks like something has dropped from the sky and set up housekeeping, serene and confident. I am pretending I am a bus stop, it seems to say to the noisy road. You decide for yourself what I really am.

Lance Richbourg, professor of fine art at St. Michael's College, has decided that this little “pocket park” is the most successful piece of public art he has ever seen. “Public art is very difficult,” he says. “The selection and creation process is in the hands of committees, and frankly the usual result is something innocuous, vacuous, maybe decorative at best. The individuality gets squeezed out. But this work is different — it's filled with expression and personality. It's sensuous and demanding. I love it.”

The park — at the corner of Home Avenue and Shelburne Road, a.k.a. the Price Chopper parking lot — at first glance is about columns, strange hybrid creatures perching, a low wall for seating and a central stand of trees. On closer inspection it offers up two concentric circles of sphinxes, some high, some low, which turn their calm and ancient-looking faces toward each other so that they seem to catch the visitor in a kind of artistic crossfire. These hybrid beings with human faces, folded wings and cat bodies sit on tall pillars and gaze down, while on the benches another array of hybrids gazes up. Some have two faces with two slightly different expressions; others have long ropes of braided, bread-like hair; all have an excess of toes ranked neatly in feline rows.

Whatever these creatures are, they are not familiar or ordinary, and they look back at the viewer with faces full of gentle inquiry. It's a little disconcerting — the sphinx, after all, is a creature that asks hard questions but never answers them. Sculptor Leslie Fry points out that the sphinx is also a protective image: “She's a guardian, and a keeper of a female mystery. We wanted to create a sanctuary and evoke the classical world, and to weave the sculptures and the architecture together so that being in the park would be ‘a seamless experience.’”

The “we” on this project is Fry and Burlington architect Steven Schenker. The two collaborated on the park design in a kind of shotgun wedding that worked out extremely well: Both had submitted designs in response to a call from Burlington City Arts and were asked by the jury if they would consider combining their ideas. Schenker describes the park project as a true collaboration. “We both wanted many of the same things — something very urban, something that would be memorable from an automobile as well as being a good place to sit, and something completely integrated. We didn't think the world needed another park with another bit of sculpture in it, and the site is very challenging. What we needed was a moment of cohesion, a place that looked like it had always been there.”

This evocation of the classical world really shouldn't work on what is arguably the least evocative corner in Burlington. This section of road, as many of us know to our sorrow, has devolved into generica — that new word for a new place that looks like every other place. Generica springs up on the edges of cities and feeds our demand for new stuff at low prices, but also strips places of their distinction; parts of Shelburne Road have become indistinguishable from roads ... say, outside Teaneck, N.J.. We could be anywhere, which leaves us exactly nowhere. The developer is behind this depressing phenomenon of paving over paradise.

Yet a developer is an angel in this story. Ernie Pomerleau, president of Pomerleau Estate, not only initiated the creation of the pocket park but formulated what he hopes will be a working paradigm for how other public and private partnerships can function. Pomerleau had seen other small urban parks and noticed how they enhanced and anchored nearby commercial and residential uses. “I wanted one.” he says, “and I wanted a local artist to do it.”

He turned for help to Burlington City Arts, which had the energy and infrastructure to pull together the neighbors, artists, city offices and a selection jury. “Ernie wanted something different, something new, something artistic,” says BCA Director Doreen Kraft. “He wanted something that recognized that there is a cohesive neighborhood there, even though you don't always sense its presence from the road. He's a visionary developer. He’s also willing to work hard and attend a lot of meetings. It's a rare combination.”

The folks at City Arts are quick to concede that the park is a tad risky, and that it's not offered as a traditional, stand alone bit of prettification. The residents and the jury seemed to see that the park was using a different vocabulary — a fine thing in a challenging spot — and the developer understood that something ordinary wouldn’t do. “He trusted the process,” Kraft explains. “He was willing to invest in it, and he was never just along for the ride.”

If you asked Ernie Pomerleau if he’s a visionary, he’d probably find the idea entertaining. “I won’t pretend that the park didn’t serve my interests,” he said. “It did. We own the shopping center, which we were rebuilding, and the site is in a neighborhood-planning zone. I had an obligation to consult with the neighbors and the city, and I liked the idea of having a partnership in place.”

Pomerleau adds that the partnership helped in the planning and permitting process. “But what was great was the synergy,” he says. “We had artists, neighbors, planners, city leaders and contractors all converging on this project, everyone talking and working together. I have to say it was an awful lot of fun.”

Caught up with the richness of the design concept, Pomerleau boosted the $15,000 budget up to about $70,000 to make sure the execution wouldn't suffer. He drew on family foundation funds and, when the park was complete, he dedicated it to the memory of his two sisters, Ellen and Anne Marie, who died in 1983 and 1997, respectively. “Its a signature piece,” he says. “It offers a template for the future, and it proves that public-private ventures like this can have a good outcome.

“I know that not everybody likes it,” says Pomerleau. “Someone once told me they thought it was satanic, but I think it’s interactive and warm. The original idea of just having some landscaping and some benches and some art really lost its appeal when I saw this integrated, interesting design.”

The pocket-park design is challenging, Pomerleau concedes. He admits some detractors were surprised to learn he approved the plan. “But … I got good bang for my buck, and it couldn't possibly have worked out better,” he says. “If I can get other developers to follow this template and try this, they'll see for themselves that it's a good use of their time and money.”

The park is, finally, an act of reclamation, offering resistance to the rising tide of sameness that is trying hard to swallow the outskirts of Burlington. As sculptor Fry puts it, “Most public art gets compromised. It's often very site-specific, and is put there to mark something that happened in the past, or it’s there to decorate. Those things just don't interest me.”

What does interest Fry is what Kraft calls “the urge to heal, transform and educate.” Fry talks about the imagery in the park with affection, as if the sphinxes were her wayward, beautiful children. And in a way, they are. “After I finished the first clay models, someone remarked how much the sphinxes looked like me,” she says.

Shortly after the park was completed, Fry accepted a faculty position in faraway Florida, which was both an opportunity and a burden for this native Vermonter. “I think of it as my going-away present,” she says. “I'll come home in the summers, but that's how creating this park felt to me.”

Whether the park is haunting, serene, disturbing or inviting is largely a function of individual temperament — evidence that this is art of a fairly high order. Someone has already given in to the urge to fold up a few newspaper hats and adorn the sphinxes, rather the way the neighbors in the Fremont district of Seattle like to doll up the bronze statues at the old bus stop with cast-off mittens and scarves. Like the varied reaction to the park, the paper hats were a good sign that the park speaks to its users, which is the first bar that any art must clear on the road to success. Who would have thought that road would be Route 7?