DOWNTOWN — For landscape architect Ron Sill, getting an opportunity to restore the all-but-forgotten park near Hillsborough River is like an artist having a chance to refresh a lost masterpiece.
That's because the place in question, the one next to the new Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, was designed by noted landscape architect Dan Kiley.
"Not everybody realizes the value of Kiley," said Sill, 46, who first encountered Kiley's work as a student at Penn State. "He is in textbooks everywhere."
Not to mention Kiley is one of two landscape architects to receive the National Medal of Arts.
Now Sill has completed a from-the-ground-up $4.7 million restoration of what is known as Kiley Gardens and the parking garage beneath it.
Many locals pass by the 2-acre checkerboard garden with patches of concrete and grass without a second look. But the techniques used to create it are so highly regarded in architectural circles that one national group began listing the abandoned park among "landscapes lost."
After years of planning and research, Sill's company, RS&H, finally finished the complex project early this year.
The transformation, however, was far from easy.
Built in 1988, the plaza generated some initial buzz with its unique mix of concrete and grass atop a parking garage. But over the years it fell into disrepair. With an out-of-the-way location in the shadow of downtown's "beer can" building, it grew more shabby and less beloved.
That's a shame, says Charles Birnbaum, president of the nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., which keeps a national database of landscape architecture and architects. The foundation had listed Kiley's plaza among the country's lost landscapes and cited it as an endangered garden in 2006.
"I would put (Kiley Gardens) in that elite group," said Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which lists the park by the name NationsBank Plaza.
Next month, the City Council is expected to officially rename it "Kiley Garden" (note the singular spelling). A lighted sign with that name has already been placed at the Ashley Drive park.
"In Kiley's career it is truly considered one of his seminal projects."
In the 1980s, Kiley designed the park to complement the design of architect Harry Wolf's nearby 31-story cylinder office tower and cube pavilion. The pair worked closely together. Kiley used a precise mathematical formula to design the placement of the pieces that make up the park. The radius of the tower is 78 feet — the same distance between the park's rows of palm trees. The walkways are 13 feet wide, the height of the building's rooms.
But soon after the $2.5 million park was unveiled in 1988, the concrete crumbled and water dripped through the cracks onto cars in the parking garage below. The trees did too well, eventually breaking the concrete and overturning the well-placed pavers.
In 2006, workers armed with chain saws chopped down and removed more than 100 of the crape myrtles that dotted the park, beginning the restoration process.
Without the tree removal, "There would have been no way to repair the leaks in the garage and the other engineering upgrades," Sill said.
What started as a modest roof repair turned into a complete reconstruction of the garden. Sill wanted to be exact in mimicking the original design, right down to Kiley's mathematical formulas. His company hired a historian who helped locate Kiley's concept drawings at a library in Harvard University. The drawings complemented other plans provided by the city.
Each brick was cataloged and carefully handled. Broken pieces were replicated to Kiley's specifications. Then they were put back together using the original plan. Every grain of dirt was lifted and replaced with a special engineered soil, and a new irrigation system was installed. Workers were able to fix the leaky parking garage.
The city will continue to maintain the garden — mowing, edging and picking up trash — at a cost of $11,375 a year.
There are fountains, but they do not work because the plumbing has not been installed. Although the city has not budgeted money for future Kiley renovations, Sill hopes the crape myrtles and other parts of the landscape design will one day be replaced.
Meanwhile, Birnbaum said the landscape foundation may remove the park from its endangered list. "I'm really jazzed," he said.
Said Sill: "We're really anxious to get the word out about how we've brought it back to life."
And these days, park strollers might even catch a glimpse of Sill there. He often finds respite, he says, on the oblong benches he helped revive.
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or email@example.com.