- To remain a stark, hollowed-out landscape of trash tossed across an abandoned clay quarry, where industrial sludge, piles of tires, and derelict, bullet-ridden or burned out cars all set a perfect scene for murder and drugs.
- To become a road-clogging, infrastructure-stressing development of 700 houses with a chain-link fence around the former clay quarry (dismissed as unusable land).
As it turned out, Philadelphian Hank McNeil was seeking training grounds for his Labrador retriever field trial dogs. He first came across the property in 1989 when the site was about to be developed for tract housing. Despite the barren, otherworldly condition of the trash-strewn landscape, McNeil, an aesthetic connoisseur and one of the country’s leading collectors of contemporary art, was able to recognize its potential. However, he had to wait several years for a purchase opportunity to present itself, all the while considering the feasibility of reclaiming the quarry site. By 1992, the developer’s project had fallen through, efforts to sell the property had failed, and the price had dropped from approximately $5 million to less than $200,000.
Today the site has been transformed, with imagination and ingenuity, into a preserve with restored wildlife habitat, a certified organic farm, and turquoise-blue pools of water where champion retrievers gather to claim ribbons and titles. In fact, Winslow Farms Conservancy is now one of the best-known and highly-regarded American Kennel Club field trial locations in the country.
The acreage, challenging as it was, offered Hank McNeil an inexpensive opportunity to combine his interests in art, design, landscape architecture, environmental issues, and dog trials in a massive project to reclaim the industrial wasteland. He notes that the project succeeded in large part because he had no idea what he was doing and was free to imagine the impossible.
McNeil brought on his friend — and world-famous landscape-architect — Martha Schwartz and together they developed the requisite master plan. The core of Schwartz’s design philosophy is “a single idea based on the site’s history (human and ecological), its context and its intended use, that is extrapolated to inform every aspect of the design.” (From The Vanguard Landscapes of Martha Schwartz, Thames & Hudson, 2004). The design challenge at Winslow was multi-dimensional — to create spaces for a variety of uses, to reclaim the former quarry site, and to restore viability to the depleted and compacted clay soil that was incompatible with any plant life.
The art of the sustainable landscape: reclaiming a former industrial site
McNeil’s project serves as a model for potential reclamation of the over 239,000 acres of clay, sand, and gravel quarries that remain in New Jersey alone and the millions of others that exist throughout the world.
This New Jersey landscape was once primarily agricultural; the clay quarry established in Winslow in the middle of the 19th century would have been surrounded by farms. Clay was extracted from the quarry site, made into bricks nearby, and transported to Philadelphia to construct residential and commercial buildings.
Unoccupied since the 1950s, the land had become a dumping ground, a de facto public park where dirt bikes were raced, drugs used, raging parties held, and even a murder site. Once McNeil acquired the property, the area was cleared of 50 junked cars, several abandoned dump trucks, thousands of old tires, and tons of trash and debris. “No Trespassing” signs were resented by those who once used the land as a dump or dirt bike track. Bullet holes appeared in the signs, and rumors swirled that the project underway was going to be condominiums or a Disney amusement park. Emphasizing the importance of public communication in projects that alter the community’s status quo, as the project’s real goal became known, rumors and trespassing somewhat subsided and public support soared.
Reclaiming the quarry space by removing the huge amount of non-degradable dumped refuse was only the first step in an involved undertaking. The quarry pit had been abandoned as a wasteland of compact clay and burnt remnants dumped from the firings of the interiors of the brick kilns. Formerly active farmland had been left fallow, allowing nature to take its course and invasive plant species to take hold.
Together, Hank McNeil and Martha Schwartz defined the core structural elements of the site. “Hank understood the value of art and design to re-characterize a degraded site through both an environmental change, but also a change in perception. We created value out of something that people thought was nothing.” Martha Schwartz, Recycling Spaces, ORO Imprint, November 2011
As with so many challenging, yet ultimately successful projects deemed impossible by others, it’s often the passion of a novice that carries the day. With each subsequent phase, Hank McNeil’s enthusiasm led to innovative solutions that can be an example for others engaged in land reclamation projects, whether in an urban setting or rural area.
The concept “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is exemplified by the Winslow Farms project. Using ingenuity and good bartering skills, the team was able to acquire surplus industrial materials, keeping them out of landfills, and instead using them in creative ways that helped keep costs down.
As 120 acres of pine and oak forests were selectively cleared or thinned, felled trees were chipped on site. The large machine used by road crews to strip old asphalt from roadways was used at Winslow to break up the surface of hardened clay and crush it, allowing it to be mixed with the woodchips to create a new surface layer of organic material. In all, McNeil’s project shifted 300,000 tons of cubic earth for $150,000 in just two and a half months.
Roads were constructed using free ground up concrete removed from a major New Jersey highway improvement project. Mulch was made from the county’s fall leaf collection. The distinctive wooden running fence along the property boundary was designed by McNeil; the wood sourced for free from a telephone company that was discarding hundreds of old telephone poles. Non-toxic junk refrigerators, stoves, and tires from the site (an unlooked-for free “resource”) form the base of an artificial berm that provides height and offers a topographical feature from which to overlook the site.
Designing the Site
The master plan established the overall vision for the landscape and defined form and function. In a close creative collaboration, McNeil and Schwartz defined four principle goals for the new design: to define spaces for separate functions, establish roads and corridors to connect spaces via physical movement and visual sight-lines, create a new topography, and overcome the physical limitations of the site by reclaiming the clay quarry.
Schwartz was inspired by the great parks of old English estates, with a choreographed series of connected spaces or “rooms” each capable of hosting its individual function. Using forest edges to create walls and corridors, Schwartz carved rooms to contain the quarry and agricultural fields, and still others that focused the eye on the visual character of the landscape.
Punctuating the landscape, evenly spaced rows of cedar trees were distributed across the entire property. Not only do they provide continuity across the site, but they also reference the alternative fate of the property – each tree standing in for the house that might have stood on that lot.
While reclaiming the quarry portion of the site, the refuse from the old clay-firing kilns was isolated and capped according to industry and environmental safety standards.
Special consultant David Smart, an ecologist with an expertise in plant root systems, soil fertility and global climate change suggested plantings that would thrive in challenging soil conditions, hot weather, be sustainable with minimal intervention, and attract wildlife. Plant selection favored native species that would grow no taller than twelve inches and would feature plentiful seed heads.
Viewing the site from the air, the design emphasizes the cultural overlay and sharpens the point that this landscape is not quite a forest, and not quite an agricultural landscape.
Today, Winslow Farms Conservancy is home to the largest organic farm east of the Mississippi. Wildlife is abundant and includes wild turkeys and quail, purple martins, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, varieties of hawks, owls, osprey, many swans and numerous varieties of ducks and even a pair of bald eagles. The ponds and wetlands are an important natural resource along the Atlantic Flyway. McNeil said “the first time I saw an osprey over the quarry, I knew we were on the way.”
McNeil allows the use of the land to various retriever field trial clubs for their competitions each year. While the sportsmen deem Winslow Farms one of the best trial field and training grounds in the country, the local community benefits from booked motels and restaurants.
Instead of a huge subdivision with a substantial carbon footprint, the Winslow Farms Conservancy has remediated a former mining site, preserved over 600 acres of open space within the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, created wildlife habitat, and returned agricultural practice to a portion of the land.
The local township praised the project and its transformation of the site. “It’s beautiful what Mr. McNeil has done with that land. Before it was an eyesore. Now it is unbelievable,” said Winslow Mayor Sue Ann Metzner in a Philadelphia Inquirer article (7-19-1999).
“ The site hadn’t been occupied since the 1950s, so all hell had broken loose. The crime situation was really bad: People had been murdered in the quarry, there was a motorcycle gang—bad things happened. I’d go over on Sundays and it was terrifying; we received threats. A dirt bike racing team used it for their practices, and the rest of the site was basically a dump. We uncovered about 50 cars, two dump trucks, thousands of tires, millions of broken beer bottles, beer cans, people’s refrigerators…It was an unattractive scene.
The first time I saw an osprey over the quarry, it was great, and now there are swans back in the lake and we have hundreds of wild turkeys and quail. The criminal activity is gone, the national field competitions we have here every year fill up the motels and restaurants in the area, and we have now preserved over 600 acres of open space that would have otherwise been developed into a subdivision. It is an incredibly fulfilling project because people said it couldn’t be done.”
— Hank McNeil, Recycling Spaces, November 2011
AKC Field Trials
Over the years, Winslow Farms Conservancy has hosted numerous champion retrievers and their handlers for training and field trials. Hank McNeil was the first handler to win the National Amateur Retriever Championship twice in the modern history of the sport. McNeil and his black Labrador, Babe (NAFC-FC Candlewoods Bit o’ Bunny), made a legendary team. Babe was a national finalist 11 times and had three double-header wins, was high point open bitch, and won an unequaled seven Amateur stakes in a row.