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A Forgotten Treasure: The Raleigh Water Garden

I started out with only a Facebook status update and the vague directions “across from the Carmax on Glenwood” to go on. An hour and a half later, I found the Water Garden.

Walking along Glenwood Avenue after it leaves downtown Raleigh, one feels beyond doubt that this is not a place intended for human traffic. Furniture warehouses and car lots sit in misanthropic isolation off of a busy road with no sidewalk. You’re not supposed to walk around here, and if you do, you feel small and lost in a blinding, concrete commercial desert. On foot, you realize how far apart everything is, how much space there is that possibly no one has walked in years.

When I finally found the entrance to the Water Garden, I was surprised I had missed it. It looks like a sign for some vintage funland. Walking down the gravel path from the treeless light on the road, the light gains compassion, becomes photosynthetic, happily leafy. It was surreal, walking off of the hell of Glenwood into a place with such spiritual resonance. I had no idea what any of it meant. It was only after poking around for a while that I discovered:

  • It was the home base of Richard Bell for over 50 years
  • Richard Bell is one of Raleigh’s iconic landscape architects

I was able to meet with Kim Weiss, Bell’s biographer and close personal friend, and later with Bell himself, and this is what I learned.

Dick Bell in Pullen Park in the 1960s

Richard Bell is perhaps Raleigh’s most beloved landscape architect, although fewer and fewer people know who he is. Bell created landmarks like the Meredith Ampitheater, Pullen Park, and NCSU’s Brickyard, and the beautiful gardens surrounding the Legislative Building. In a real sense, Bell has shaped the ethos of Raleigh in a way all of its inhabitants experience. Bell, or Dick as he’s known to friends, left Manteo in the late 40’s to come to what was about to become Henry Kamphoefner‘s newly established School of Design. Kamphoefner’s vision was to not simply create a talented body of graduates versed in philosophy and the practice of design, but for those graduates to set up shop in North Carolina. Essentially, Kamphoefner dreamed of creating an infrastructure of modern design in North Carolina, not just a school of design in Raleigh. “We were orchestrated to work in North Carolina,” Bell told me. “Eighty-five percent of our graduates went on to work in North Carolina.” Bell told me that Kamphoefner insisted that his faculty not only lecture, but also practice their disciplines, and had distinguished individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright come and talk to the students. Bell chuckled as he told me that Wright refused to lecture in the Design buildings because he thought they were so ugly. Bell met Wright under a tree near Holladay Hall. “It was an open ended school,” Bell reflected. “Kamphoefner had a master plan for development.”

Kamphoefner’s intense program of training worked, and in 1951, Bell won the Prix de Rome at the age of twenty. “It was- How would you say it?- totally weird,” remarked Bell. He was the youngest individual to ever receive the prize, and in a bold move, asked the committee to delay his acceptance of the prize until he was twenty-one. Surprisingly, they agreed, in part because they appreciated his desire to apprentice in a working landscape architecture office before going to Europe to study. He traveled to Italy and toured thirty countries in Europe, and remarkably for someone raised in the pre-civil rights South, often travelled on a Lambretta scooter with a black sculptor. He cited this experience as a major influence on all of his later work: “It gave me a broader perspective, and that was incredibly valuable.” He came home inspired, ready to start designing in North Carolina.

Image credit: Dick Bell

The Water Garden began when Dick stopped along a then-rural stretch of Highway 70, helped his new bride Mary Jo out of the car, and told her, “If we ever have a place, I want it to be like this.” He told me about showing the site to her that day: “It was so beautiful. The sky reflected in the water. It was way out in the boonies at that time… but there were wetlands, pines- It was a mini-environment of bog and plants.”

Image credit: Dick Bell

There was already a foundation for a building on the property, and with the help of architect John Evans of Florida, the Bells designed and built their modern home over it. The first building became known as the “Chicken Coop”. It was rough going. The Bells did much of the work themselves, and by that time the couple had two young children. “It was rough,” said Bell. “We had two kids, $7000, a plywood floor, and newspapers over the windows for insulation.” But gradually the buildings were completed. It took about 14 years to build the Water Garden, from their first house there to the ultimate office park, gallery, residence and gardens that spread over 11 acres. Finally, in 1963, the Bells held the first art show at their Garden Gallery. Even more than just being a breathtaking piece of modernist design, the Water Garden was crucial for Bells’ career and mission on two levels.

Image credit: Dick Bell

First, Bell used the Water Garden as a laboratory, constantly trying out new ideas and combinations of plants. “I didn’t feel like my clients ought to be guinea pigs,” Bell told me. Bell had inherited a love of plants from his father, Albert Bell, who helped design and build the Lost Colony Amphitheater. Bell grew up in his father’s and grandfather’s nurseries on Roanoke Island, and his green thumb combined with a creative mind produced some innovative ideas for gardening. It was Bell’s idea to create berms around pine trees up to eight feet high- previously, gardeners had assumed that a berm that high would kill pines. Nurseries would send Bell plants to experiment with, and Bell was the first person to take many local plants out of the forest and use them in residential design.

Image credit: Dick Bell

Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, Water Garden was critical in establishing the profession of landscape architecture in Raleigh. Bell built the Water Garden, not only as his home, but as a place that he could point to and say “There. That is landscape architecture.” In a real sense, the construction of the Water Garden was the foundation of Landscape Architecture in North Carolina as a whole. It was a showpiece that opened the door for Bell’s other projects, projects which have helped define Raleigh and the idea of landscape architecture.

It was so interesting to come as an unrecognized pracitioner of an unrecognized profession and say ‘This is what we should do for our city.’ It all came about as a kind of mystical relationship between me and my clients.

Bell’s goal in all of his projects was not simply to create beauty, but to establish landmarks to show what Landscape Architecture could do. ‘Water Garden’ was the first landmark.

Image credit: Dick Bell

Bell’s vision for the Water Garden was that it would be a mixed-use building, in which work, play, and the fabric of living were integrated through the beauty of its design. He saw it as a place not only for living, but in which living and art and design were side by side. The Coop housed a gallery, and the first art opening was held there in 1963. “Mary Jo was in charge of the gallery,” he told me. “We had a sculptor and a painter for the first exhibit.” The Water Garden soon became the cultural center of Raleigh. I work with an older lady who has lived in Raleigh for over fifty years, and she told me that she used to go out to the Water Garden on occasion. Kim Weiss told me how Raleigh’s arts scene in the 60’s and 70’s had its epicenter in Water Garden: “People would tramp out there in the rain. It didn’t matter- they just wore boots.”

As the decades passed, Bell remained prolific in his work but the arts scene moved downtown and development along Glenwood Avenue/Highway 70 West began  to encroach on his and his wife’s oasis. Water Garden was no longer the haven it had been before Raleigh began its spastic sprawl: Cookie-cutter housing developments were being slapped together around the property, and at night, you could see the neon signs of a car dealership through the trees.

Bell knew it was time to leave. He assumed that the property would be passed to his children. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Although his daughter and son-in-law were able to take over the design firm, taking over the care of the 11-acre property was simply too much.

“It was rough leaving,” Bell told me, staring into his cup of coffee. “We hadn’t created the proper background for our family to take over. It wasn’t a happy time.” Bell had thought that perhaps the city would buy the property, but Water Garden wasn’t old enough to attain historic status, and Bell ended up selling the property and buildings to developers. “On one hand, he was glad to have [the hassle of taking care of the property] off of his back,” Kim told me. “On the other hand, he spent his life there. It was- and is- a huge loss.”

Unfulfilled Water Garden redevelopment plans, courtesy of Dick Bell

At the moment, no one is sure what will happen to Water Garden. Bell worked tirelessly, and on his own dime, to design beautiful building plans that would allow the developers to preserve the original buildings while incorporating them into larger development schemes, such as a shopping center and a senior care facility, to name a few.

Unfulfilled Water Garden redevelopment plans, courtesy of Dick Bell

“The senior living one was the best one,” said Bell. “I tried to present a plan of adaptive reuse.” The developers didn’t even thank him for his efforts.

Since the property was sold and vacated in 2007, the state of the buildings has grown steadily worse. The place looks like it’s been sacked by Vikings. Scrappers have gutted the walls, most of the windows have been shattered, and traces of paintball wars splatter the walls.

Since I began work on this article, gates have been put up to discourage local vandals from inflicting further damage, but much of the mutilation was a result of the sherriff’s office using the property for training. After a group of high-school students vandalized the property last year, Habitat for Humanity was allowed to salvage what they could.

No one is sure now what will happen to the property, but whether or not the buildings stand, Water Garden will remain a beautiful and central part of Raleigh’s history. “Dick always envisioned Water Garden as a place where people could live, work, play, and interact,” said Kim. “And for a while, it was. It does make me sad, but I know Dick has many monuments. They will live on.” On all of the occasions I talked with her, she didn’t seem to be at a point of resignation, but then neither am I. And perhaps for those who have experienced Water Garden, in any capacity, that resignation will be a long time coming. “OK, Water Garden will disappear. But all the other landmarks Dick designed… Those are still there.”

Many thanks to Kim Weiss for all of her help. Dick Bell’s first book “The Bridge Builders”, edited by Kim, comes out soon.

Unless otherwise noted, all images credit John Morris

More photos from the Water Garden

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