Restoring Middle PathGAMBIER, Ohio (July 26, 2012)
Research into the restoration of Middle Path to improve universal accessibility takes a step forward this summer with the construction of four 25-foot trial walkways near Old Kenyon and Olin and Chalmers libraries.
The trial paths are not part of Middle Path, but they are examples of stabilized gravel, achieved through the use of an organic, plant-based product that is water-permeable. The trial paths will feature different combinations of types of gravel.
"We're just trying to see which blend will match most closely the colors and textures of the existing path and then test the materials over a year," Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman said. "We want to see how they weather and perform with regular use." The College is eager to hear feedback from alumni and community members about the look, feel, and sound of the trial paths.
Problems with universal accessibility and maintenance triggered interest in the restoration of Middle Path, which was established in 1842 from Wiggin Street to Old Kenyon and extended to Bexley Hall in 1860. In March 2009, fifty-seven faculty members sent a resolution to the Kenyon College Board of Trustees, urging that Middle Path be made more accessible.
The Building and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees decided to take a comprehensive look at College landscape issues, including Middle Path, and hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Landscape Architects of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They developed the Kenyon College Landscape Master Plan with the help of a steering committee that includes thirteen people representing the administration, alumni, faculty, staff, and the village of Gambier. "We've been working on this for fourteen months," Kohlman said, noting that the process has been deliberate and thorough.
The architects have worked on the Harvard Yard restoration, redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House, and renovation of North Grant Park in Chicago, among many other projects.
Improvements to Middle Path are necessary, said Thomas R. Sant '65, emeritus trustee and a member of the steering committee. "The state of the Path is pretty bad," he said. His initial concern that the consultants might not fully realize the significance of the path has been allayed. "I've been really impressed with them. I think they've come up with a viable solution. I think they're going to get it right."
Middle Path, Sant said, "defines the College. It connects both ends of the campus and the lines of sight from it are those that are most familiar. Every time I'm in Gambier, I walk at least from Marriott Park to Old Kenyon. It's just something I do."
In their report, the consultants said, "The goal for Middle Path surfacing is to find a formula or blend of aggregate that can be stabilized and is accessible for wheelchairs but that also maintains the textural, aural, and visual qualities of the existing path."
Local gravel now in use on the path does not have the right shape to mesh with the stabilizing product, so gravel from elsewhere in Ohio and from Wisconsin is being considered, Kohlman said. A 6-inch base layer of compacted gravel will be topped by a 4-inch layer of the stabilized gravel. Surface gravel will gradually loosen and the edges will not be framed, but the path should maintain a level plane.
If restoration is approved, care will be taken not to harm the trees that create the fetching canopy over the path. The consultants have emphasized the importance of the tree canopy, and trench work and core samples indicate that tree roots have avoided the hard-packed depths of the path. "The experience of the path includes these trees," Kohlman said, and the College intends to preserve and enhance that experience.
Many trees, particularly along the section of the path between Brooklyn Street and Bexley Hall, are in fair or poor condition, according to the landscape architects. Swales that collect water in that area are a hazard to the Norway maples there, and the consultants recommend a gradual transition to a different species and improved drainage. The soil along the path in the village center should be improved for tree health and the failing hackberry trees there should gradually be replaced. According to the report from the consultants, the advanced age of many trees along the full length of the path indicates the need for a comprehensive management plan and careful selection of species "to maintain and strengthen the essential character of Middle Path."
The full restoration of the path, if approved, is a three-year project.
"The accessibility is the main problem," Kohlman said. "For anybody with any sort of mobility issue whether chronic or temporary, it's difficult. In the winter months, it's often impassable for anyone. The maintenance is difficult, and we have lots of spots where it's low or high. The gravel gets compacted. When we put more on top of it, it drifts away or gets scooped up."
A number of Kenyon employees hope for improvements. Sharon K. Franz, a grounds worker whose responsibility includes tending the flower beds along the path in the village center, is a member of the steering committee. Franz sees the need for improvements to the path and better snow removal."It's really not accessible," she said. "But I know alumni want to keep Middle Path the way it is."
The condition of Middle Path has been mentioned "repeatedly" in faculty meetings over the last three years when Jeffrey Bowman, professor of history, was chair of the faculty. "Some faculty have been concerned about accessibility, and they've been very vocal about it," Bowman said.
Keeping Middle Path functional for everyone is the priority, said Erin F. Salva '79, coordinator of disability services. "Middle Path is obviously the symbolic center of the campus," she said. "We connect with each other there." And it's unfair and discouraging for those people who use wheelchairs or motorized scooters if the condition of the Path makes moving around the campus difficult, she said.
Most people, she said, will find a more stable surface to be "a great improvement."
As the research project to sustain the historic integrity of Middle Path moves forward, members of the Kenyon community are encouraged to send questions and comments to email@example.com.