Murchison Rogers Park is a small overlook park on a unique outcropping at the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains. The park offers El Pasoans and visitors stunning panoramic views across El Paso, Texas and over the Rio Grande to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. The park was named for El Paso pioneer and businessman Samuel Macintosh Murchison in 1963 when it was opened to the public. His wife, Louise Murchison, along with members of the Women’s Department of the Chamber of Commerce, carried out the development of the original park over a short span of two months. Grass roots fundraising efforts garnered numerous small donations from El Paso citizens that helped to make the overlook park possible. In 2017, Mr. Murchison’s granddaughter, Isha Rogers, began a similar mission with the goal of redeveloping the park into a fully accessible, 21st century overlook. In honor of her family’s on-going efforts to garner support and funding from a new generation of involved citizens, and for their civic contributions, the City of El Paso renamed the park to include their name along side their grandfather’s.
Getting to the park is an exhilarating, yet challenging experience. One either drives up to it along a windy, steep, and narrow mountain road named Scenic Drive, or pedestrians can walk, run, or bike up during limited road closings on weekends. Visitors arrive at the highest point of the road at a small parking lot, which is currently the only accessible area of the park. It also happens to be where all of the interpretive signage sits along a castle-like wall, making for an awkward and uncomfortable regional history lesson around cars. The park itself is barely visible from the parking lot, as it drops about ten feet vertically below. This is a major conflict with accessibility standards, and creates a hidden place for vandalism, out of sight from passers-by. Once down the stairs below the parking lot, the park visitor experience out on the overlook is not only about the almost 360 degree of panoramic views, but the unique geologic rock outcroppings filled with 480m year old fossils popping up out of the ground makes visitors feel like they are walking on the moon.
Surroundings was engaged by the client with the goal of creating a visionary new overlook at Murchison Rogers Park. The scope was twofold: First, conduct detailed documentation, analysis and feasibility, then create an initial design vision that was deeply informed by their research. The first task involved visiting the site and recording observations, photographing, and flying a drone to generate a high resolution aerial of the park and surrounding mountains. A 3D digital site model was also created through photogrammetry from the drone. Geology was also examined, along with the flora and fauna of the Franklin Mountains. To honor those who founded the park, Surroundings documented every historic feature, such as the collection of bronze point of interest plaques and donor monuments. The most important aspects of their research clearly pointed toward the lack of accessibility and safety as it relates to Scenic Drive, parking, and park visibility from the road.
Creatively integrating accessibility into the design, and not appending it as an afterthought, was crucial to the concept. The solution was to create a ‘wedge’ that connected to the front of the parking lot, and sloped down to the overlook, while still preserving the unique rock outcroppings. There are three major benefits of this ‘wedge’ for the overlook. The surface allows for the development of an under 5% path to provide full accessibility to the park. By eliminating the vertical drop to the park, complete visibility from the road and parking lot are achieved, keeping eyes on the park with the goal of reducing vandalism. And by creating this lifted surface, a significant area of fill is created, which allows for a shade grove and other plantings to thrive, rather than be planted in solid rock.
The path network was not just a random series of switchbacks to get visitors down to the park. The detailed analysis phase informed the layout. By using the geographic locations provided by the historic points of interest plaques, Surroundings overlaid their view axes onto the ‘wedge’ to create a meaningful path network that provides much needed ADA accessibility, and also weaves the historic sites beyond onto the overlook. This creates a stronger connection to the rich cultural history across this region for the park visitor. Each view axes leads to a cantilevered perch, where an interpretive panel provides additional insight into the history of the feature in the distance.
Currently there is one living Desert Willow, one Mesquite, and one Palo Verde tree at the park in the challenging conditions of harsh wind, hard rock, and intense sun. In order to achieve a respite of shade for park visitors, the design team tested multiple solutions from built structures to trees. An allée of trees along the paths was selected not only because they provide softness to the surrounding rocky landscape, but they also partially veil the stunning views from the parking lot. Instead of sitting in a car for a few minutes to take in the views and then leave, park visitors will be compelled to descend through the shade of trees to the overlook, where it opens to the sky and almost 360 degree views across the El Paso region.
Once the path network, perches, and shade grove were established, the remaining areas of the stone plated ‘wedge’ were manipulated to create social pockets, seating, and picnic areas under the shade grove for park visitors. These spaces for sitting, socializing, and soaking up views, along with additional amphitheater seating at the edge of the overlook, allow for an array of events to now occur at the park. Weddings, small concerts, poetry readings, and plays will now be able to be accommodated, expanding Murchison-Rogers Park use beyond just an amazing event space for watching city lights, stunning sunsets, and starry skies.
The project has been the recipient of the Jeff Harnar Award, and took the highest award for Design Excellence at Texas ASLA this year.
Landscape Architect | Surroundings (Santa Fe, NM)
Principal-in-Charge | Kenneth Francis
Project Manager | Will Iadevaia
Project Assistant | Carly Piccarello
Client | Isha Rogers – El Paso Community Foundation