Granite Creates a Serene Space at the Spring Creek Nature Area
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of Building Stone Magazine. Photos courtesy of Shands Photographics.
Until recently, over 180 acres of virgin old-growth hardwood forest dating back to the time of the city’s founding families sat largely undisturbed in Richardson, Texas. The Spring Creek Nature Area, located 18 miles north of Dallas, is surrounded by a growing and dynamic area of some of the world’s largest telecommunications, insurance, and networking companies including AT&T, Cisco Systems, State Farm Insurance, and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Texas.
City of Richardson leaders, including the mayor and city manager, were keen to call attention to the two main entrances of the Spring Creek Nature Area, a unique open space filled with Blackland Prairie forest. The area includes multi-use trails, a river, and opportunities for visitors to see and hear urban wildlife in its natural habitat.
The goal was to honor this natural sanctuary while providing a visually engaging entrance experience. Dallas-based artist Brad J. Goldberg and DCBA Landscape Architects responded to the Request for Proposal (RFP) and were chosen for the project. Goldberg knew he wanted to use granite for the design, which he showed in a 3D computerized model on a map within the space to the team approving the final design. He included details regarding the texture and character of the stone so the city leaders could get a better sense of how it would look once everything was in place.
“Granite is a much more impervious stone,” Goldberg explains, especially compared to other commonly used outdoor materials such as limestone. “After 100 years, it’ll still be like a teenager. It will last and last.”
Granite will develop its own patina over time, but Goldberg believes it gets better as opposed to worse with exposure to the elements. It’s durable and relatively maintenance-free, making it an attractive natural stone to use in such an environment.
Creating the final project would require working with a company that had the skill sets, talent, and equipment to help make his design a reality. He didn’t hesitate to reach out to a company he’s worked with over decades on various projects: Coldspring, a primary natural stone manufacturing facility and bronze foundry located in Cold Spring, Minnesota.
“I looked at a stone called Kenoran Sage from Coldspring, which has kind of a greenish sage color,” Goldberg says. “I just thought it would be perfect under the trees.”
Goldberg showed his design sketches to the Coldspring team and asked them, “‘What do you think is possible?’ They said they could do it and weren’t afraid of big work.”
With Coldspring on board, they made big plans. Their next stop: a nine-hour road trip from Cold Spring, MN to the Kenoran Sage quarry in Ontario, Canada.
Selecting the blocks
Visiting the quarry and looking at the Kenoran Sage blocks gave Goldberg ideas and helped him understand the capabilities of this stone. “I get really, really involved,” he adds. “I’m not the kind of artist who comes up with an idea and lets others just do it.”
Goldberg met with the stone cutters at the quarry and looked at the design requirements together. If they noticed something needed to change or work through a problem, they resolved it as a team.
One thing Goldberg was inspired by was the drill marks that occur during the quarrying process. He thought they could make for a visually intriguing texture and would allow him to show how the stone was the byproduct of the quarry. Those drill marks made it into the final design and would prove to be yet another challenge come installation time.
Transporting and fabricating granite blocks
The final entrance design, called Sylvan Portals, consists of two entry elements—one at each access point— fabricated out of Kenoran Sage granite, as well as an adjacent seating area to help “ground” it into the space. Cut-outs in the general shape of a leaf create the massive portals and those leaf designs carry through past the entrance in the form of seats for visitors.
According to Coldspring, over 8,250 cubic feet of Kenoran Sage granite in natural and thermal finishes were used to create the two entry portals, standing at 16 feet tall and 20 feet tall respectively. The largest blocks measured 4 x 4 x 14 feet.
“They are pretty big stones,” Goldberg shares. “Big stones to quarry, big stones to handle, certainly big stones to set.” In fact, it would take about 30 truckloads to transport the material from Canada to Coldspring in Minnesota, which then needed to be fabricated.
“They had to be fabricated based on the pieces at the bottom first, moving on to the top because you obviously have to set the pieces on the bottom first and then stack as you go up,” Goldberg notes, and that’s how they were shipped. Because of the extreme size and weight, some trucks could only handle one block. “There’s only so much the trucks can withstand and there are road weight limits,” he adds.
The next challenge was with the fabrication, and this is where Goldberg says Coldspring excels. He finds that there aren’t a lot of companies with their vast experience and skills to do this kind of work.
“They’re on the cutting edge of this kind of mixture of technology and hand working and also just old-fashioned techniques,” says Goldberg. “It’s really interesting and it’s really exciting. I challenged them by bringing a project to them like this and they’re always up for the challenge.”
Goldberg was inspired to use large blocks so the extraction process of the granite in the quarry could really come through. Goldberg opted to use a thermal texture on the inside of the leaf shapes and along the edges. This high temperature flame process makes these areas of the pieces look very refined in contrast to the drill marks and rough texture on the faces of the quarry blocks.
After quarrying, the blocks were cut and prepared for a mock-up review by Goldberg at the Coldspring facility. Once accepted, the fabrication proceeded with Coldspring’s typical, high-quality attention to detail. During the fabrication process, the site was also being prepared for the installation.
Installing Sylvan Portals
Dee Brown Inc., a Richardson, Texas-based company Goldberg has used in the past to install projects, was tasked to offload the blocks at the site with three masons and a 160-ton crane to help set the pieces into place within a tolerance of 1/8 of an inch. Ken Bownds, the stone structural engineer with Curtainwall Design Consulting (CDC), devised a system of hoisting the blocks into place using stainless steel all-thread pins set in a high strength Hilti epoxy and shackles. In addition to the stainless-steel pins functioning to lift the blocks, the same pins became the dowels between the stones.
There were no staging areas to hold the stone, according to Robert Barnes, III, president and CEO of Dee Brown, Inc., which meant stone shipments were carefully orchestrated to allow for elements to be picked from the truck and directly placed into position upon arrival, since it also took a fair amount of time to unload them.
It took a tremendous amount of planning and scheduling between Coldspring and Dee Brown to coordinate deliveries since it also took a couple of days for the stone to arrive from Coldspring’s headquarters in Minnesota. Setting had to be done by crane and the heaviest stone was roughly 40,000 pounds.
“Logistics was probably the most challenging part of this project,” says Barnes, who noted there were several things that needed to be addressed throughout the process. “There was the existing landscape and there was the location of the project with the roads. With the crane and pieces that big, you have to have multiple lifting locations to be able to spread the load evenly so that the crane operator can bring that thing down as level as humanly possible.” Maneuvering and setting such large and heavy stones in their place without a crane would have been impossible. “I think if you hit the piece with a truck, you couldn’t move the stone,” he adds.
Goldberg was onsite every day, often as early as 6:30 a.m. until mid-afternoon, working alongside the experienced setting crew.
“You epoxy these pins in at the end of the day and by the morning, they are hardened. These threaded, stainless-steel pins are the lifting device for the blocks. We would start out in the morning and set as many blocks as we could,” Goldberg explains. The team would usually set one row, or one course, and not more than that because they’d need to set the row in a full bed of mortar. “It’s not like they’re just setting on shims and the space in between is hollow. You have to set the shims on the foundation, place a full bed of mortar and then set the block and make sure it’s perfectly level and perfectly aligned to the shape of the piece. It’s a tricky process with 1/8” tolerances on the large granite blocks. You don’t make a huge amount of progress every day, but you make progress.”
Barnes and his team love working with artists like Goldberg since it’s outside their daily routine and stretches their problem-solving abilities. In this case, they needed to figure out how to make this installation look as seamless as possible once constructed and to do so, everything had to be exact. Even one tiny chip in a corner would be an issue because it wouldn’t be perfect.
“We had to be very patient. We had to be very cautious. And to do something like that, you’ve got to have a very good crane operator and communicate well with them in order to keep everybody safe,” adds Barnes.
By November 2019, after five weeks of erecting the pieces without any breakage, the installation was complete.
An Artist’s Vision Comes to Life
“A lot of people don’t pay attention to the world around them,” Goldberg says. He realizes some people will probably look at Sylvan Portals and say, “wow, that’s cool” and go about their business as usual. That’s fine with him. There are others, he says, who will stop and really notice the details. They might notice the dynamic shape and the cutout that looks like a leaf.
They will analyze it and notice the natural stone. That’s fine with him, too. The piece will connect with those who want to connect with it. Even those driving 40 miles per hour can notice and appreciate them, he says, due to their size.
Each portal includes a quote by two prominent nature advocates: John Muir and Rachel Carson. Goldberg says he wanted to highlight nature as much as possible in his piece and including these quotes is part of the overall design and feeling.
“I really want people to feel a sense of grace,” he adds. Before people enter, he recognizes there is a sense of chaos from the world around them. As they walk through the portal, they’re permitted to leave that chaos behind in outside world, Goldberg explains. Today’s environment isn’t built for people to just walk around and ride their bikes, he says. The portals allow people to transition from a busy street.
“You enter the world of a forest,” he adds. “Once inside the forest, there aren’t buildings or a lot of things. There is that sense of forest bathing and a sense of peace and calm and people can bike through it and or walk through it.”
Stone as Stone
Goldberg’s son is an architect and while he saw the concept during the design phase, it was when he saw the piece in person that he really appreciated the use of natural stone as part of the design.
Natural stone inspires people to become more creative and while Goldberg recognizes it’s hard for architects to make the visit to stone supplier operations like Coldspring, he says the trek is worth it.
“The hardest thing is to get an architect to travel up to Coldspring,” says Goldberg, who insists it’s just not that hard since it’s easy to get there by air or driving and the payoff is unmatched. Once they arrive and see the natural stone in person, experience what is involved in extracting and fabricating it, and then realizing the capabilities for doing creative things with the material, it opens up so many possibilities.
Today and for years to come, residents and visitors of Richardson, Texas, will be able to leave the chaos of the world behind and enjoy some calm and serenity as they pass through Sylvan Portals at Spring Creek Nature Area.
Spring Creek Nature Area and Sylvan Portals earned a 2020 Pinnacle Award of Excellence from the Natural Stone Institute. “There is something romantic, and with some difficulty, to cull out and keep the remains of stone cuts,” jurors said. “Playing up the drill holes is a nice touch as a use of texture. It softens the face of the stone. We like the massive scale of the stone sculptures and the simplicity of the project as a highly appropriate gateway, marking the entrance to a nature preserve.”