Chuck Brown Memorial Park honors D.C.’s go-go godfather

The District's latest tribute to the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, is perhaps less conspicuous than the block near the Howard Theatre dubbed Chuck Brown Way. But it is certainly splashier. Chuck Brown Memorial Park, a 42,000-square-foot public space carved out of Northeast's Langdon Park, will be dedicated by city officials, designers and members of Brown's family on Friday, Aug. 22. Located at 20th and Franklin streets NE, the park will open on what would have been Brown's 78th birthday.


A rendering of the new Chuck Brown Memorial Park, a 42,000-square-foot public space in Northeast Washington's Langdon Park, opens Aug. 22, 2014, two years after it was announced. (Rendering courtesy of Marshall Moya Design)

First announced at Brown's funeral in 2012, the site -- lined with crepe myrtle (not quite in bloom yet), benches and features intended to recall Brown's influence on music -- was to have included an amphitheater for musical performances, but the plan was scrapped after neighbors protested for a variety of reasons. But even without a 900-seat music venue, the $1.8 million Chuck Brown Memorial Park is a looker, with one remarkable feature, as far as public parks go: A lengthy mosaic wall featuring 10 large-scale photo-realistic images of Brown, along with two images of Globe-style go-go posters, seen in the rendering above. If you're paying close attention, you'll also notice that the heart of the park, including the wall and cool patch of grass on which the public can spread out, form the shape of a guitar pick.

Behind the modern look of the park is the firm Marshall Moya Design, whose previous projects include the $29 million restoration of the Howard Theatre. This week, before the opening of the park, we talked with architect Michael Marshall about the design, which changed dramatically over the nearly two years of planning and several months of build-out this spring and summer, at the site near where Marshall spent part of his own childhood.

Tell us about the process for designing the park.

Michael Marshall: It was January a year ago that we won the competition for the design. It was a design competition, and it was originally for an amphitheater. We had to go through public outreach, and the adjacent community, meaning literally, the houses within 200, 300 feet of the site, they really felt that it would be more related to their community by having something that was not an amphitheater but related to Chuck Brown. They were concerned about the noise and the control of it. What we've come up with is a plaza that can also handle having Showmobile, a portable stage that Parks and Recreation uses at various sites around the city.

[District officials] didn't really have a program, other than that they had a location in Langdon Park. For me, growing up a few blocks away from the park itself, and being a fan of Chuck Brown's music, and being a D.C. resident, it was a great opportunity. Basically, we came up with something we thought was contemporary, very modern in its shape, and it's something we thought would reflect Chuck Brown and his music.

What needed to be there logistically? What needed to be there as part of the tribute?

Marshall: The existing little band shell that was there had some wooden seats, and it was in a grassy area -- but the problem is, that part of the park is pretty much a valley within the park, so it wasn't good as far as rainwater and runoff. It would pool into a marshy sort of area. So we knew we needed to make a plaza out of this, and the landscape would be very important, in addition to the architectural features that would highlight Chuck Brown's life. Because it's in a valley, we have several areas that capture rain runoff so instead of it just pooling, we have landscaped and shaped topography to really thrive in that sort of an area.

Similar to what we did at the Howard Theatre, we knew that to use imagery of the actual person would be very important. Over time, you'd see, 'Yeah, this is Chuck Brown, this is what he looked like, this is what his band looked like.'


The new Chuck Brown Memorial Park was built around mosaic-style images of Brown, taken from images provided by his family and from professional photos taken of Brown through the years. (Photo courtesy of Marshall Moya Design)

Is that unusual in public spaces, in the design world?

Marshall: You know what Maya Lin did with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, using the names of every person affected by that war as part of the memorial, instead of a big generic wreath, for example -- really making it personal? That's what we tried to do with Chuck Brown. A lot of people know him through the music, but they might not know him artistically, so we have a listing of all of his music; we have a timeline about his life, about him coming to D.C. and being a major part of the Howard Theatre. We even have advertisements for some of the shows.

Tell us about where these images came from.

Marshall: Some images came from Chuck Brown's family; his kids had some things, personal pictures. Others, we literally just had to look on the Internet, find the photographers, buy the rights, and they're displayed on the memorial wall. The tiles themselves were produced in Italy, and we had to have them shipped over. They're 12-by-12-inch tiles, and in some cases, [they make up photos] probably 12 feet high, and maybe 14 feet wide. It's as if the wall is made of the images. We wanted to really merge the art and the landscape together.

At the Howard Theatre, you were inspired by the shape of a grand piano [in remaking the curves of the walls]. I'm seeing the shape of almost a guitar pick here.

Yes, that is right. When you're at the site, you can start to pick that shape up. It was a gesture to make it in the shape of a pick, but also to give entry into the park. There are two dimensions to it.


Another rendering of the new Chuck Brown Memorial Park shows the overall site plan, which includes, yes, a feature in the shape of a guitar pick. (Rendering courtesy of Marshall Moya Design)
Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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