Hermann Park may not be the heart or soul of the giant Houston area, but it is the lungs. The green space offers residents and visitors alike a chance to relax and recharge with a multitude of recreational activities.
Like Central Park in New York City, Hermann Park acts as an island in a sea of concrete. Although at 407 acres it is less than half the size of the New York park, the Houston cousin owes its existence to the famed Manhattan preserve.
In the early part of the 20th century, George Hermann owned a vast amount of oil-rich land north of the city where the Bush Intercontinental Airport is today. After an illness forced the millionaire to go to New York City for treatment, he returned to his hometown and built a hospital and a park like he had seen in the Northeast.
Four miles south of the skyscraper canyons of downtown, the park is bordered on the north by Houston's internationally recognized museum district. What was once a deteriorating residential neighborhood now contains the Museum of Fine Art, Children's Museum, Holocaust Museum, Contemporary Arts Museum, and more. Rice University sits to the west of the park, and on the southwest is the hospital district that has been on the forefront of medical research and treatment.
Begin any visit to Hermann Park at the entrance off the traffic circle that combines Main, Fannin, Montrose, and Hermann streets. A statue of Sam Houston pointing toward the San Jacinto Battleground welcomes visitors to the tree-lined lanes, green fields, and parks within a park.
The biggest draw in the park is the nationally ranked Houston Zoological Park. The 79-year-old zoo is one of the nation's 10 most visited animal parks, and is good enough to attract return visits. Over the years it has improved the children's area, added a koala exhibit, and has become a world leader in creating lush habitats for gorillas and other primates. Covering more than 57 acres, the zoo is home to nearly 5,500 animals representing more than 800 species. Admission ranges from 50 cents to $2.50 and is waived on all city holidays. For more information, call 713/525-3300 or www.houstonzoo.org.
Probably the second-best attraction in the park is the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The museum covers the world from dinosaurs to butterflies. Inside the complex are the Cockrell Butterfly Center, The Burke Baker Planetarium, and the Wortham IMAX Theater. The parking garage at the museum charges a fee while the surface lots in the park are free. For information call, 713/639-4629 or www.hmns.org. Ask about admission discounts if you plan to visit more than one of the museum's attractions.
One of the most beautiful areas of the park is the Japanese Garden near the Sam Houston statue. This garden was done in the daimyo style. Texas pink granite quarried in Marble Falls is used throughout the design adding a native touch. Stone paths meander through the living art displays, offering an ever-changing view. Buddhists believe that evil travels in straight lines, and curving paths make it more difficult for evil to follow.
The copper-roofed teahouse in the garden was donated by Japan after the World Economic Summit in 1990. Made in Japan, it was reassembled on the site without the use of nails. It is part of a landscape using water, rocks, and plants to create feelings and pictures in one's imagination. There is a small admission fee to the Japanese Gardens, which are open daily 10am-6pm. For more information, call 713/284-1300.
The Houston Garden Center adjacent to the Natural Science Museum offers a different, but no less beautiful, floral environment. Within its confines are 90 varieties of roses, a Bulb Garden, Fragrant Garden, Perennial Garden, Friendship Pavilion, and the International Sculpture Garden. More than a tree museum, the garden center is a journey of sight, smell, and touch. For information, call 713/284-1989.
Other attractions in the park include a huge playscape, small lake, and reflecting pool. Old Locomotive 982, a Southern Pacific steam engine, stands next to the children's train that winds through the park. The 18-hole golf course in the park is one of the oldest and nicest of the city's maintained courses. It claims the distinction of being the first public course open to all races in America. Miller Outdoor Theater offers free shows from March to October. For a season schedule, send a SASE to Box 1562, Houston 77251. 713/520-3290.
One of the newest sections of Hermann Park is the Bayou Parkland on the Alameda Road side of the park. The Friends of Hermann Park took 80 acres of underutilized land along Brays Bayou and turned it into an outdoor learning center with hike and bike trails through the forested area. This is a nice area if you are looking for a total escape from the city.
Every city of every size needs to have a central park. As cities become increasingly homogenized it is becoming more important to provide opportunities to escape the man-made environment. Hermann Park serves the purpose admirably.
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