THE GREAT WALL OF FLOYDS FORK BY BOB HILL
We’ll call it The Great Wall of Floyds Fork until something better comes up. A Parklands of Floyds Fork postcard icon in the making – a Louisville architectural landmark for the ages – the wall’s more than 4,000 carefully-laid blocks rise up more than 40 feet above the Floyds Fork lowlands and stretch about 500 sloping feet into the distance.
There is nothing else like it anywhere in Louisville – and it may be the largest in the world built with this type of manufactured stone; this Great Wall invites that level of hype; seeing is believing.
The wall’s two-track, parallel mission is to carry trucks, cars, hikers, bikers, joggers and gawkers up the same long slope on separate, not quite parallel paths; the automobile road is 22 feet wide, the hiking path 12 feet.
Created with a 1900s look in mind – the stone bridge in Louisville’s Tyler Park served as inspiration – the cement-colored wall flows up almost mysteriously out of the landscape; a fascinating sight in an unexpected place if you know where to look; the wooded, still mostly rural intersection of Echo Trail and English Station Road.
It will serve as an entrance and exit to Beckley Creek Park, a multi-purpose area with a separate, sloping graveled road alongside the wall that can be used for those riding horses from the nearby English Station Road stable to the lowlands of Distillery Bend.
Designed with that geography in mind, the walking path includes areas at the top of the wall where hikers can look back at where they have been – or where they are going.
Given that area’s lowland geography and archeological history – along with federally-funded roadway and archeological guidelines – the trials and tribulations in the planning and construction of all that required vision of another sort.
Ask Jim Walters, president of Louisville’s Bravura, one of the many people and companies involved over almost five years to plan and create the wall.
“We got it done,” said Walters of the wall’s planning phase, “then we had to redo it and move it over….so it’s been through a lot of iterations.
“I had a lot to do with convincing everybody to “Let’s stick this out” and “let’s do this” rather than take a shortcut out of the park because we think it’s going to be worthwhile and cool, and people, at some point, will think it’s an event in itself.”
The reality, of course, is that the finished product will look so seamless that those same people will never quite understand what it took to make such an event possible.
Walters said the process began about 2008 with rough sketches incorporating the practical need to bring the park’s road and walking trail up from the very picturesque lowland area to the level of Echo Trail and English Station Road – and to meet the federal ADA guidelines to make it handicapped accessible; a five percent walking grade.
Dealing with the often flooded areas at the wall’s base would be a continual issue. One of the early plans was to create a path and road that tunneled beneath Echo Trail and English Station Road and gradually sloped up to higher ground, but the land to do that wasn’t available.
Another plan included a longer tunnel through the base of the wall that the horses could use – until it was pointed out horses would balk at that possibility; that problem was eventually solved with the graveled road alongside the wall.
About 2010 the sketches turned into the preliminary plans for the first working model: the automobile road and the hiker paths rising side-by-side up toward Echo Trail, but with the pedestrian path looping around and through a tunnel under the automobile road, then rising in switchbacks to English Station Road.
Along the way, Walters said, the internal debate among the designers, engineers and 21st Century Parks officials centered on melding the 21,000 square feet of exposed, manufactured stone with the natural Floyds Fork landscape.
The worry, he said, was: “Is this thing going to be too intrusive and too big and scary, and will people think it looks kind of crazy.
“Then we had to agree that it was worth the extra investment to do this as opposed to taking the road out of the park.”
All parties eventually agreed on the plan, with the understanding that trumpet creeper, bittersweet and trumpet honeysuckle would eventually flow up and across the walls, and native trees and shrubs would be planted nearby, helping to meld man-made stone with the landscape.
Adding to that look, an old log corn crib found near the site had already been moved and rebuilt near the wall.
“So, OK we’re done,” said Walters. “We’re going to do this. We got our plan. Here’s our road.
“Then there was one more thing, as always happens on a project. The archeology people said, “Oh, no, you can’t go there…that’s a big archeology site.”
Walters said the site was apparently an old farm whose remnants remained in the landscape. Under federal guidelines – and federal money was used in road construction in the parks – the plans had to be modified.
“We had to move the wall over,” said Walters of the planning. “We got it done.”
Combining modern, manufactured-block construction with a century-old look was always the intent of Bravura architect Ed Krueger, who also worked on the project.
Krueger lives close to Tyler Park in Louisville, a neighborhood featuring the Tyler Park Bridge, a Louisville landmark built of Indiana limestone in 1904 to allow Baxter Avenue to span what was then a valley north of Eastern Parkway.
Its design is attributed to John Olmsted, the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, and includes a large arch allowing pedestrians to walk from one side of the park to the other without crossing Baxter Avenue.
“I remember in 2009 going out with a tape measure and measuring Tyler Park’s stone,” said Krueger, “and I knew that it was close to the dimensions of those in the park.”
“And so we had the scale kind of picked out early for this.”
As he and other Bravura employees researched what material would work best to duplicate the Tyler Park Bridge they came up with “Redi-Rock,” a retaining wall system that features wet-cast concrete blocks with the physical look of natural rock.
Eventually, Krueger, Redi-Rock of Kentuckiana and others would come up with three types of blocks that would be used in the project – the largest of them four-feet long and 18 inches thick and weighing about 1,500-pounds each; stair-stepping capstones that visually preserves the Great Wall’s incremental flow up the slope.
“It’s a concrete sort of manmade material, “said Krueger, “but the nice thing was that, scale-wise, it matched the late 1880s, early 1900s stonework pretty closely. We were sort of shocked to know that was possible.”
Also heavily engaged in the design process was landscape architect Charlie Neer, of Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), a Philadelphia firm that’s been working with The Parklands of Floyds Fork since the beginning.
Neer said the emphasis in all the design work in the 20-mile, almost 4,000-acre park along Floyds Fork has been “continuity and connectivity” – a particular problem at the wall site where the bend of the river was so far below the road.
“With that site it’s been a constant battle,” he said. “It’s like a plate of spaghetti that falls off the table and lands on the floor.”
The people and companies very involved in turning spilled spaghetti into continuity and connectivity at the wall site eventually included Eric Tamulonis, another WRT architect, Joe Daley, architect and project manager for 21st Century Parks, the Louisville engineering firm Qk4, the Louisville-based MAC Construction, the Minneapolis-based HNTB engineering, the Cincinnati-based JC Hines & Associates, the Bloomington, Minnesota-based Civil Design Professionals, and the Mount-Washington, KY., based Redi-Rock of Kentuckiana – whose WEB site would call the project “the tallest Redi-Rock PC wall in the world to date.”
Their collaboration and planning of the wall included the years of meetings, conference calls, discussions, debate, preliminary sketches, revisions, governmental input and final plans – and then somebody had to build it.
Much of that worry went to Jonathon Gerald, a general foreman for Louisville Paving Co., which managed the wall’s overall construction.
Gerald previously worked for MAC Construction, which also did work on the wall. He is a self-taught professional; literally learning the business from the ground up.
The first step in any construction of the wall’s magnitude, he said, is to look at the big picture:
“What I do is study the plans tremendously on that type of work. I built it over several times in my head first because you are going to run into things that are insane, and I try to get every phase of the construction right.”
Due to the wet bottomland below the wall, Gerald said, the first step was to dig an “undercut” two to seven feet deep below the wall and fill it with alternating layers of crushed rock and fabric to solidify the base.
Big drainage pipes also had to be worked through the crushed rock to keep the water flowing.
“We had to set that first row of stones dead level for 500 feet,” he said. “That’s the most critical part; getting that first run exactly right.”
The stones were set in place by a long-necked “grapple,” a machine with finger-like hooks that would pick up the immense stones and set them in alignment; men with long metal bars inching them into final place; all the work checked with a laser level.
On a good day – as the wall rose to its four-story height – four or five layers of manufactured stone could be added, with crushed and packed rock added to bring the road and pathways up to grade.
Smaller manufactured stone was laid by hand at the top of the wall to create the switchback paths, with protective iron railings placed at each flat spot and turn. The rain-delayed work began in November, 2012 and is to be done in the spring of 2013; weather permitting.
On a cold, wet, rainy leafless day in March the new and still naked wall does dwarf the neighborhood a little bit – but as a one-of-a-kind stopping point along Floyds Fork that is also its appeal; hikers, bikers and sightseers will be drawn back to its looming presence.
And time – the added vines and restorative landscaping – will bring it all more into the balance its designers wanted.
“Everything went fine,” said Gerald, in a brief summation of a large chunk of work by a lot of people.
Seeing is believing.
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.