Nov 1, 2015

The Get-A-Way Skateboard Park...

Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project

Last Sunday I got on a plane in Huntsville to go to Texas as part of my job.  A gentleman sat next to me and we began to chat.  He was headed to Kwajalein for his job.  He indicated that he works for the Army Corps of Engineers and he lives in Kwaj with his wife and one son while he is supporting an Air Force construction job.  He asked how I happened to come to Huntsville and I explained that I originally came to Huntsville to manage a teen recreation center and skateboard park.  He shocked me by saying, "You're Bob Mead."  Therein lies a great story.

In the nineteen seventies, I worked for a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  One of my colleagues was a fellow named Bill Gibbons.  He and his wife, Claire, had five kids.  I often visited the Gibbons family, and on occasion, I had babysat the children.  Eventually, the Gibbons family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where Bill got involved in making films and videos for the Army at Redstone Arsenal.

One day, Bill called and asked me if I might be interested in moving to Huntsville to take over the general managership of a project that he and his business partner, Mr. David Jacobsen, were undertaking -- a teen recreation center involving a state-of-the-art skateboard park.  My fiancee and I flew to Huntsville for a visit, liked what we saw, and decided to take the opportunity.  That's how I ended up in Huntsville, Alabama.

When I arrived, the park was under construction under the management of a general contractor named Paul DeMent.  Paul was very competent, was a graduate of Auburn's construction technology program, and had previously built a skate park in Columbus, Georgia.  However, within a few weeks of my arrival, Mr. DeMent and Mr. Gibbons got into a disagreement and Paul's business agreement became history.  I was left with a lot of dirt, a design for a park developed by prominent local architect Lloyd Kranert, and not much else.  Bill asked me if I thought I could get a contractor's license.  Within a couple weeks of studying, I felt I was ready to take the test.  Soon, I had a certificate saying I could legally build things in Madison County, Alabama.

Bill had shared the details of the budget with me.  When I looked at Mr. Kranert's design, I was convinced it couldn't be built for anywhere near the initial estimate.  But Bill didn't have any confidence in my cost estimating skills.  So I suggested that he get a prominent local contractor to work up an estimate for the building, even if he had to pay for the estimate.  He did so, and the result shocked him.  It exceeded even my estimate.

I offered my employer, Unicorn Enterprises, an alternative.  It was now too late to pour concrete before Spring.  We had time to change course.  How about letting me come up with some suggested design concepts and build foamcore models of them to present to Bill and David for their consideration?  I knew the general requirements.  The building would have to contain a skateboard pro shop, some office space, a pinball gallery, snack bar, rest rooms, and a teen discotheque with a DJ's booth, lighted dance floor, and built-in light show.  I would include those features in the designs I would suggest.  They agreed and I was on my way to designing a building.

In the meantime, we hired a professional skateboarding champion (national freestyle champion, 1977) named Bill Underwood to reexamine the design of the skating area of the park that Mr. Kranert had designed.  Bill moved from Atlanta to Huntsville and became my assistant for design issues.  He recommended sweeping changes to the design.  He knew what skaters want in a skating venue.  One of the most important contributions Bill made was the recommendation that each of the "bowls" have a different wall angle and therefore degree-of-difficulty.  We ended up with 30-, 60-, and 90-degree bowls that became standards of excellence in skatepark design.  Bill also recommended changes to the allocation of space to the various features of the park.  In addition, as the design and construction advanced, Bill Underwood became kind of my quality assurance assistant, bringing to bear his experience and technical knowledge to evaluate the surfaces and concrete finishes of the park's features.

The original building contained the
four round modules and their "connectors."
More recently, the extension on the
upper left was built to serve the needs
of Huntsville's Chinese Christian Church.

I presented my building design concepts and the corporate leadership selected a design involving four circular 13-sided buildings tied together with broad connecting walls.  All the "pods" were free-standing and required no internal structural supports, so I had complete freedom in the interior design.  Each pod was about 38 feet in diameter, or a little over 1,100 square feet.  I made sure that the design met all requirements under the Southern Building Code for a "commercial" building.  It took about a month to complete all the detailed drawings -- structural details, plans and elevations, roof design, cross-sections, electrical, plumbing, foundation/footings, grading plan, etc.  The next challenge was to get a licensed, state-registered architect to bless and "stamp" the drawings, a requirement due to the commercial nature of the planned use.  Fortunately, I was able to find an architect willing to work with me.  He told me it "broke his heart" to take my name off the signature block and replace it with his.  I was humbled by his comment.  He made no changes to my design.

On about March 16th, 1979, we began pouring the foundations.  The foundation for the discotheque module included a large recessed area in which I would construct a lighted dance floor to be controlled by the DJ in his booth.  Soon, we were erecting walls and placing the roof structure.  The roof beams extended from the wall to a "compression ring" at the top center of the conical roof.  A steel cable ran around the top circumference of each of the circular modules, pulling the entire structure together.

One interesting challenge arose with regard to the lighting of the pro shop area.  The owners wanted a chandelier-style lighting fixture to illuminate this large open space.  I researched the commercial standards to determine the light requirements for retail space and wrote a requirements document for the desired lighting fixture.  We invited a representative of a prominent commercial lighting manufacturer to meet with us to review the requirements.  A few days after that meeting took place, we were informed that the custom-built lighting fixture would set us back about $18,000!  I informed Bill and David that I could light the shop with a perfectly fine hanging light for less than $1,000.

The pro shop.  At the top of the picture, you can see part
of the rough-finished cedar "troughs" in which I placed
fluorescent light fixtures to illuminate the area. (Photo
courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project)

They really had little choice but to let me give it a shot, since we were stretching the budget already.  I suspended an inverted turned porch column from the center point of the cone-shaped ceiling.  From this post, I extended rough cedar "troughs" in which I installed 4' fluorescent tube commercial fixtures.  The troughs were lined with reflective aluminum foil to focus the light toward the ceiling.  There were two layers of these spokes, the top layer being 8' in overall length, and the bottom layer 16' long.  Each layer had 8 of these "light troughs" and the outer ends were supported by chains which I painted flat black.  It ended up costing around $900 and maintained the overall casual atmosphere of the pro shop.  And my lighting calculations worked -- the light levels at the floor were exactly as predicted and because all the light was reflected off the white ceiling, it was an even, glare-free environment.

Excavation and rebar placement for the feature known as the 3/4 pipe.
All the features were hand dug by a crew of college students.
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project)
When we started sculpting the dirt (We had brought in hundreds of truckloads to elevate the park above the local flood plain.), we hired several college students and they were supervised by Bill Underwood.  We attempted to use local concrete finishers but the quality of the finishing was not up to the standards required for a top-notch skatepark.  Some research led us to a company out of the Tucson area that built swimming pools and enormous storm drainage systems.  The owner, Dwayne Bigelow, had developed a reputation for creating the finest skating surfaces on earth.  We brought him to Huntsville to look at the features we had already sculpted and to give us an estimate on completing the
The completed park.  It included carefully planned walkways
with safety railings, abundant lighting, and an extensive
sound system placed strategically in the landscaping.
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Old School Skate Project)
park's skating surfaces.  Mr. Bigelow and his crew, combined with Bill Underwood's design acumen, would result in what many believed at the time was the finest skateboard park in the world.  Probably the three contenders for that title would the Cherry Hill, New Jersey park, the Get-A-Way in Huntsville, and the Apple park in Columbus, Ohio.  Dwayne Bigelow and his team did the concrete work in all three parks.

All these activities were proceeding somewhat in parallel -- sculpting dirt, shooting or pouring concrete and finishing it, in addition to installing lighting and sound systems, creating walkways and landscaping, and all the other myriad details of creating and opening a new business.  It was a very exciting time.  We were granted our Certificate of Occupancy in time for a Grand Opening on the Fourth of July weekend of 1979.

Buddy Rawls gets vertical
in the 90-degree bowl
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville
 Old School Skate Project)

The local skateboard community had visited the park from the very first day.  There was an abundance of talent in the Huntsville area in 1978-79.  A glance through the skateboarding magazines of the time would often reveal names like Buddy Rawls, Kurt Jose, Dave Cobb, Pat Wachter (we hired Pat as our resident pro), Tyler Ledbetter, Greg Williams, Todd McDonald, Scott Zekanis, Robert and Kevin McMahan, Ed and Ralph DeSanctis, Paul Gierow, DeLourdes McCoy (a very skilled young lady), and many others too numerous to mention.  When the park opened, we had plenty of talent to fill its many features.  In 1981, Thrasher Magazine stated, "The Get-A-Way has fostered some of Alabama's best vert skaters. Buddy Rawls (SIMS), Paul Gierow and Kurt Jose are just a few whose skate talent has excelled since the park opened its doors in '79."

An article in Thrasher magazine
featured this image of Pat Wachter
going past vertical in the park's
amazing 3/4 pipe.
(Photo courtesy of the
Huntsville Old School
Skate Project)
The park contained an amazing variety of features -- a cloverleaf bowl, keyhole bowl, 30-, 60-, and 90-degree bowls, a slalom course, free-style area, the so-called "snake run," a sinuating course that sloped for its entire length, a half pipe, and an amazing 3/4 pipe that had surfaces beyond vertical.  This was a park of remarkable flexibility and quality.

There's a remarkable archive of words and pictures of this period in Huntsville's skateboarding legacy at a Website called "
The Huntsville Old School Skate Project."  It includes over 350 images of the fabulous skaters of the time.

I stayed until the grand opening but had decided to move on to become a self-employed general contractor.  The park operated for a couple of years, but that skateboarding period drew to a close and the park became a victim of the times.  It closed and all those beautiful sculpted concrete features were filled in and covered over.  The building which I had so much fun designing and erecting is still serving, however.  It is currently the
Today, the choir of the Huntsville
Chinese Christian Church practices
in the building that I had the privilege
to design and construct.
(Photo courtesy of the Huntsville Chinese
Christian Church Website)
Huntsville Chinese Christian Church.  I'm happy with that.

So my airplane ride to Texas, sitting next to Robert McMahan, one of those talented skateboarders, brought back a flood of wonderful memories and reestablished a friendship that I hope will take new root.  Thanks, Robert.

An interesting footnote:  As Robert and I went our separate ways at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I suggested he look at my blog, where he "might find some interesting material about the Get-A-Way."  I've written over 300 entries on this blog over several years and I felt sure that I had included some information about the skateboard park.  I was absolutely wrong!  I've searched on several key words, but I think that this entry is the first on this subject that dominated my life for more than a year, is the reason I came to Huntsville, and was one of the most fulfilling creative enterprises I ever enjoyed.  I wonder what other experiences I've overlooked???


Robert M said...

Excellent read Robert. Brought back many of the best memories of my youth and friendships that I experienced in my lifetime. I cannot wait until we meet again take care of your self, very respectfully Robert McMahan.

Wyatt Akins said...

That was a great read. Glad I found this!! I hope all is well, Bob

Bill Underwood said...

Someone just sent me this, Bob! Awesome to hear the entire story behind the Get-A-Away beyond my role. It was indeed a labor of love holding a special place in my life. You were amazing to work with. Thanks so much for opportunity. Blessings to you!