A site-specific sculptural installation by artist Mary Miss, "Staged Gates" was installed on a forested hillside in the Olmsted Brothers-designed Hills & Dales Park in Dayton, Ohio, in 1979. The 294-acre park, now part of the Five Rivers MetroPark system, was established in 1918 on land amassed by National Cash Register (NCR) founder and President John Patterson over several years. “Staged Gates” was created as part of the Alternative Spaces Residency Program (1977-83) that engaged 30 artists to create artwork in public spaces throughout Dayton. “Staged Gates” was one of twelve permanent installations; today its condition is greatly compromised, and the installation needs to be removed or relocated to protect the surrounding ecology of the wooded hillside.
Hills & Dales Park, now part of the Five Rivers MetroPark system, was established in 1918 on land amassed by National Cash Register (NCR) founder and President John Patterson over several years, but planning for the park began in 1903. Patterson, who had engaged the Olmsted Brothers firm to work with him on platting land for subdivisions and parkways as well as a landscape plan for the NCR campus, began working with the firm on the design for the park. John Olmsted prepared plans for the Picturesque park, featuring woods, meadows, parkways, water features, and bridges. Hills & Dales Park opened first as a private park and club for NCR officers and their families in 1907. It consisted of bridle paths, drives, play areas for children, a golf course, and an Adirondack-style shelter area. The Olmsted Brothers firm resisted Patterson’s requests to build a rail line through the park to provide access for visitors without cars; instead, the railway station was built on the edge of the park.
After the 294-acre Hills & Dales Park was gifted in 1918 to the City of Dayton for use by the general public, improvements were made including construction of additional roads and widening of existing roads, a dance pavilion, and the expansion of the golf course and clubhouse facilities, which required a membership fee. In 1922, NCR employees presented a monument to Patterson’s memory, erected after the business owner and philanthropist’s death in 1922.
Over a seven-year period beginning in 1977, the Alternative Spaces Residency Program engaged 30 artists from around the country to create artwork in public spaces throughout Dayton. This innovative public arts project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Ohio Arts Council and managed through Wright State University. Its purpose was to provide opportunities for city residents to experience art outside the formal spaces of a museum or gallery. One of the early managers of the program, Paul Wick, proudly explained that “the entire cityscape became an alternate space” to display art.
The artists were given $1,000 plus a stipend for supplies to construct a site-specific art piece, and each artist chose the location for their work; most of the installations were temporary. The pieces were sourced from donated materials and constructed with the help of the local community, with volunteers including students and local business employee groups.
Mary Miss was one of five artists chosen in 1979 for Dayton’s community arts program. Miss, trained as a sculptor, began her long career in the early 1970s, producing work that blurs the distinction between art and landscape architecture and reimagines the work of the sculptor in the public realm. Of her piece in Dayton, Miss wrote in Quintessence, the program’s journal, that her inspiration came from “looking at structures in the area,” including canal locks, barns, and covered bridges. Her work enhances cultural landscapes all over the nation, including South Cove at Battery Park City in New York.
Hills & Dales and “Staged Gates” is based on the same design principle - choreographed passages of scenery. The Olmsted Brothers created Picturesque-style parks that appeared to be “natural,” but were in fact carefully planned so that visitors had predetermined interactions with the landscape. “Staged Gates” functions similarly. Miss created a series of four wooden gates linked by an upward sloping dirt footpath in a forested section of the park. As visitors ascend the pathway the opening between each successive set of gates narrows.
In addition to canal locks, the gates recall the wings of a stage set. The framing of the woods beyond the sculpture echoes the relationship between theater-goers and the stage; in this case the performance is the park itself. “Staged Gates” reminds park visitors that the views they see at Hills & Dales are not “natural” but rather were carefully composed to look the way they do.
The artist wrote of the installation:
“The first element is an elaborate gateway in a wooden wall. The gateway which is also a sitting pavilion frames a view up the hill. This operation of framing makes something visible – in this case the woods – by setting it apart … The fixed perspective of the initial view is contrasted with the experience of walking through the gates. The temporal/duration of the work enables the viewer to luxuriate in the view, hold it in place, become part of it.”
When “Staged Gates” opened in 1979, Second Lady Joan Mondale visited the park to support the work of the NEA in funding the artist residency program. Over the past 40 years, the park has gone through many changes including a major renovation by Five Rivers MetroParks completed in 2009. The park is well used by area residents for enjoying nature, walking, birdwatching and celebrations.
Five Rivers MetroParks, which counts Hills & Dales as one of its eighteen MetroParks in and around the city, is a conservation-based park district that maintains about 16,000 acres from urban to naturalistic spaces. There are plans to remove “Staged Gates” due to deterioration of the structures and eroding trail conditions throughout the installation. The organization's Strategic Trails Initiative works throughout the district to design sustainable trails, which includes relocating, realigning, or removing fall line trails that run directly down slopes that cause erosion, are not environmentally friendly, and are difficult to maintain. There is no way to remove the fall line trail through Staged Gates without destroying the artwork’s intent of the view-line axis path.
Currently, the initiative does not include continued maintenance of “Staged Gates” at its original location near the Paw-Paw Shelter site. Due to property tax cuts and other funding issues and priorities, MetroParks cannot use its limited funds to repair “Staged Gates.” However, the master planning team, working with Mary Miss, is supporting a plan to relocate the sculpture to a suitable and more prominent location in the park. Five Rivers MetroParks is fully supportive of relocating and revitalizing “Staged Gates,” but is completely dependent on outside funds to be raised to support the project. Using “Staged Gates” as an example may also work as a springboard to raise awareness about other public art in the region and highlight Dayton’s long history and significant commitment to civic art in its parks and public spaces.
What You Can Do to Help
Visit Staged Gates. Mary Miss’ work is still in situ at Hills & Dales Park in Dayton. Go soon and appreciate the work of this artist in its original setting.
Support the arts at Five Rivers MetroParks. If you are local to Dayton, visit the parks and make a connection to nature and history while enjoying the various art installations found in many of the MetroParks. This will help ensure support for the arts at the eighteen MetroParks in the area. Wherever you are, support the arts in your local parks system.
Donate to the Dayton Foundation. Your tax-deductible donation will help support programs and public art installations in the parks, ensuring that Dayton continues its century of pride in supporting both public parks and public art and that “Staged Gates” remains a part of Hills & Dales MetroPark system well into the future.