Restoring the Cleveland Cascade

Bringing a Grande Dame Back to Life

By James Castle
Images Courtesy of Emmanuel Donval

    Though this project was nearly lost in this past summer’s tree-cutting controversy in the parklands surrounding Lake Merritt, a small group of individuals has been hard at work on designs for the restoration of the adjacent Cleveland Cascade. There are more than 200 stairways and walkways in Oakland, built to connect neighborhoods to streetcar lines or as supplemental fire escape routes, and the Cleveland Cascade is the grand dame of them all.
    It was built in 1923, after the roadway descending to Lakeshore Avenue on Lake Merritt was found too steep, ordered closed and turned into a park. Designed by Howard Gilkey, possibly while working for the city of Oakland, the Cascade was modeled after similar cascades in Italy. It featured 20 concrete bowls in which water, illuminated at night by colored lights, flowed down, alongside plantings and two sets of stairs, their runs interrupted by several landings.
    In 2004, a few dedicated volunteers began excavation work on the Cascade, inspired by a historic photograph of the working cascade found by volunteer Barbara Newcombe. In 2005, $300,000 of Measure DD funds were allocated for use by the Friends of the Cleveland Cascade for restoration. With the Measure DD allocation assuring at least some level of restoration, private funds were solicited to fund initial design work. In November, American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Partners in Preservation program awarded a $50,000 grant to the project. Preliminary estimates put the cost of the restoration at nearly $2 million, and the project’s timeline was completely dependent on raising this money.
    Schematic designs were presented by landscape architects Chris Patillo of PGA Design and Emmanuel Donval of Green Cherries at the Lakeview Library in August 2006 and, later, at a few committees and organizations. These presentations were intended to both garner public input and build support for the restoration. In these meetings, lively debate over specific design ideas ensued, with both Patillo and Donval encouraging discussion.
    In general, the aim is for a full restoration of the Cascade as originally built. The concrete bowls will be recast in their original forms, and new lights will mimic the originals, complete with a rainbow of colors marching up the Cascade. Other materials will be simple as well, in keeping with the original designs. Plantings will be kept low for ease of maintenance and to preserve views of the lake from the top of the Cascade. Concrete will be used extensively, to recast curbs and walls, and as the primary paving material, which makes sense from both an economic and aesthetic perspective.
    Gilkey’s original design used modest materials. The major new design element is a handrail running up both sides of each stairway. The current handrails, added well after original construction, are standard-issue steel pipe common to public projects built on the cheap, meaning, of course, that they grace many of Oakland’s stairways and walkways. These will be replaced with a new handrail fit with LEDs on the underside to provide navigational lighting.
    Because the handrail will illuminate the stairways, be seen tracing the path up the Cascade and be touched as well, the success of this restoration may very well hinge on the handrail. How will it fit in the hand? How will it connect itself with the stairway? What shape will the illuminated posts be? All these questions will need to be thought through thoroughly. The rail needs to be sturdy, yet unassuming; be so comfortable to use that you forget it is there; and be beautiful but modest, so as not to call undue attention to itself.
    For cost reasons, the designers have selected a standard model illuminated handrail. Though these are better than most—incorporating the lighting directly into the handrail rather than in a separate assembly, a custom design should be considered. Perhaps to defray costs, the landscape architects could work with the handrail fabricators to develop an improved design that could be standardized and named. From the looks of it, this manufacturer could use a little design and marketing help. The handrail selected is called the “LR5,” sounding like it was made by the Soviets in 1974, which is what handrails LR1 through LR4 look like.
    Other new elements include a steel grate just below the waterline of the restored lower pool and fixed-in-place Barcelona-style chairs at the landings. The grate was added because the amount of water needed to facilitate the Cascade’s operation makes the pool’s depth hazardous. With a better solution, the pool could attract young children as a splash area, or tired walkers and joggers could use it to cool their feet. This won’t happen with grates as a bottom for the pool. The Barcelona-style chairs are the same ones used in the recent development of nearby Splashpad Park. They are to be located near the restored seat walls, to appear as if recently moved there to create an informal gathering. It is an admirable effort to tie the design to the neighborhood. But it has a feeling of forced informality, as the chairs are placed obliquely to the pools, interrupting the regular simplicity of the Cascade. Because the landings are so small, these chairs, set askew, will dominate the space. A far better model would be the restoration of Bryant Park near Times Square in New York, where actual moveable cafe chairs were provided for users to accommodate the park to their needs. This may seem naïve, given the recent theft of city-owned trashcans, but Bryant Park had similar concerns in the late ’80’s, and the reality has been that very few have been stolen.
    The other major new element will be the Lakeshore Avenue entry stair to the Cascade. Two designs were presented for public review and comment. One keeps the footprint of the original entry stairs and the same basic shape of the lower plaza. Unfortunately, this forces a handrail to be kept down the center of the entry, to accommodate current codes. An alternate design narrows the stair run slightly and reshapes the plaza, making for an elegant entry more in keeping with the spirit of the original design, but ironically a less faithful actual restoration.
    Here opens up a fissure between preservationists and others, echoing discussions taking place elsewhere in Oakland on new development in general. In the presentation of the designs, Donval talked about this restoration being another layer placed upon the Cleveland Cascade. It is a beautiful way to think about design. Because we must add elements that weren’t desired or required back in 1931, there is an obligation to rethink the space. In the early ’30s, it is unlikely many athletes used the stairs for training. We can certainly restore the parts that were original. But we needn’t be shy about reshaping the parts that no longer work today. And these new elements should reflect our time, conceived and detailed in modern materials so that 75 years from now, our grandchildren will have a richer experience for it.
    This idea of palimpsest, the accumulated iterations of a design on a site and in a city, is one that Oaklanders should consider, not only when evaluating the new designs for the Cleveland Cascade, but all new building across the developing city.

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