Tiny Charleston park gets huge makeover

Edward Stella takes his dog for a walk in Theodora Park downtown. The park will be dedicated at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

For two decades, David Rawle thought about improving the overgrown and under-used tot lot at George and Anson streets, just around the corner from his Ansonborough home.

After he retired from the public relations and marketing firm that bears his name, Rawle Murdy, he did more than just thinking. The city will hold a small ceremony Saturday to celebrate the result.

Theodora Park — newly renamed to honor Rawle’s mother — is one of Charleston’s most unique pocket parks. If it’s not the first to feature art alongside nature, it’s certainly the first to have its own website, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Mayor Joe Riley called the park “another beautiful small public space in our city, and we have many.”

Rawle, who lived and worked in New York before moving to Charleston 40 years ago, said Paley Park on 53rd Street in Manhattan served as a sort of inspiration. And several of Theodora Park’s details echo his former home, from the “River Benches” first designed for New York’s Battery Park to its trash receptacles, which resemble those along that city’s High Line.

But the park’s makeover is also rooted in Charleston, from the prominent gate made by the late, legendary blacksmith Philip Simmons to its unique basket-weave brick pattern.

Landscape architect Sheila Wertimer of Wertimer & Associates said the goal was to create an elegant little space, one where a person would feel comfortable stopping for five minutes or five hours.

The small park had housed a children’s playground, but new equipment at Gadsdenborough Park —and the relatively few tots left in the neighborhood — opened the door for a more quiet, passive park.

Wertimer’s design included some addition by subtraction. Several large magnolia trees were removed, and the remaining oaks were pruned —all to let in more light and make it a more airy space.

“It’s really hard to grow anything under a bunch of mature magnolias,” she said, and the new camellias, sasanquas and three different redbuds will be calm and easy to care for.“They’ll all bloom at slightly different times and in slightly different ways.”

The main challenge has been dealing with a nuisance that’s no stranger to Charleston, or New York, for that matter. Skateboarders marred the ceramic tiles around the reflecting pool — tiles handmade by Maine artist Paul Heroux. The pool recently was fenced off while new brass guards were installed to prevent a recurrence.

While Wertimer designed the space, Rawle’s fingerprints are all over it. He acquired Simmons’ gate, Heroux is a longtime friend, and Rawle also got permission to copy the design of the Battery Park benches.

“I have been very intimately involved in it because it meant so much to me,” he said, “and people have been just great. It’s been so heartening.”

Rawle raised $442,000 privately for the project through the Charleston Parks Conservancy, and the city kicked in $100,000 — about what it would have spent on a routine upgrade.

Even with half a million dollars, Rawle said many others donated their time and talents, including Charleston architect Jim Thomas, who designed a simple base for Simmons’ gate. Rawle said if all the work were paid for through arm’s-length transaction, its total cost would be closer to seven figures.

The Charleston Parks Conservancy will help maintain the park, which will be a nice complement to the emerging Gaillard Center across George Street.

“It’s a really nice gesture by David to put the amount of time and energy into it,” conservancy Director Harry Lesesne said. “It will exist forever.”

Rawle’s mother passed away years ago, but all five of her grandchildren are expected to attend Saturday’s dedication.

And Rawle hopes the park’s ultimately legacy will be as grand as inspiring others to improve public spaces near where they live — and as modest as simply giving people a relax for a spell.

“You just have to catch your breath in life,” he said. “You have to take a moment for yourself.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.