Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

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MIDDLEBROOK, Mo. – More than a billion gallons of water rushing – unexpectedly – through a state park early one winter morning is nothing short of a disaster.

And, yet, after the dam of a hydroelectric-plant reservoir broke in December 2005 and sent its load through one of Missouri’s most-popular state parks, thoughts and actions quickly turned to renewal.

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The massive wall of water wrecked havoc with the facilities of the Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, although – luckily – there were no fatalities. A subsequent multi-million-dollar settlement between the state of Missouri and the hydro plant’s owner allowed restoration of the park’s facilities to meet 21st-century needs.

That includes new interpretive installations that utilize waterjet-cut materials – mainly natural stone – to explain the site’s geology, flora and fauna in new ways.


The Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park didn’t need a boost to make it more attractive in the minds of users. Located in the Ozark Mountains of southeastern Missouri, the area was originally populated by people seeking to escape the ravages of the Civil War – including a family named Johnston, whose name is believed to have lost its “t” due to a recording error.

Too rocky to farm, area residents turned to timbering. Finally, recognizing it was too pretty to mine, Joseph Desloge, scion of a prominent Missouri mining family, donated the land for the park to the state in 1955.

The term “shut-ins” refers to an area where the Black River travels through a bed of hard-to-erode igneous rock, shutting it into a narrow canyon and creating a natural water park in the process.

Jane Lale, director of planning with the division of state parks for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in Jefferson City, Mo., says the age of the park and its subsequent stages of development had her agency looking at its future even before the disaster.

“Right before this event happened, we had gone through a long-range planning process for the park to update it,” Lale says. “One of the things that was real important to people was interpretation. It has wonderful natural resources, but we didn’t have great facilities and we wanted to enhance that.”

The breach of the dam for the Taum Sauk Pumped Storage plant sent the massive rush of water into the river and washed away literally everything man-made in the park. It also damaged the natural environment, uprooting trees and dropping sediment in the shut-ins.
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However, within days, AmerenUE – the power plant’s owner – responded to the situation by sending in a team from the St. Louis office of MACTEC, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based engineering, environmental and construction services consultant.

“We were there to help with the cleanup,” says Ron Huffman, a senior design group principal with MACTEC’s Kennesaw, Ga., office. “The Missouri Department of Natural Resources looked at Ameren to determine how they were going to put the park back in place, and Ameren brought in our firm to help.”

Lale says it’s hard to formalize a policy for an event of this nature, but basically the state argued it was Ameren’s responsibility to repair and rebuild the park. Through a settlement after litigation, Ameren agreed to pay for all the consultants needed to repair the park, as well as the contractors for construction.

“MACTEC worked with us on the whole thing, and together we rebuilt the entire park,” Lale says.


Although the park was completely closed in 2006, parts of it gradually reopened to public use since then. Work on rebuilding the park began long before Ameren’s settlement with the state.

Lale hesitates to use the term “golden opportunity” to describe the post-disaster situation, but she calls the subsequent process “really good.”

“Especially early on, we had a lot of public input into our planning process,” she says. “It’s amazing how much that park meant to so many people. Of course, many of them wanted it just like it was, or the way they remember it. But, it was really good to hear what they wanted to see built back at the park.”

MACTEC’s Huffman also speaks positively of the planning process. Huffman was contacted shortly after the disaster occurred when Ameren was already looking for a park designer.

“Our group in the Atlanta area is the one group in MACTEC that does park design,” he explains. “Ameren was already working with our St. Louis office cleaning up the damage from the breach and the company reached out to us and we said, ‘Sure; we can help design the reconstruction of the park.’”

Huffman adds that during his 25-year career he’s designed everything from athletic fields to nature walks. As with Lale, he was surprised at the level of public interest in the rebuilding process.

“It was fun to go out there and master plan the park,” he says. “It was an old park and showing its age, and people wanted it to be done a new way.”

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Given the destruction caused by the water rushing along the river course, one change made for safety’s sake was to move the park’s campground away from the river to a new site outside the park borders.

The decision was also made – with Ameren’s blessing -- to look at green and sustainable technologies.

“We didn’t do as much as we wanted,” says Huffman. “But the visitors’ center – which is the showpiece of the park – uses geothermal heating and cooling, and all the paving was done with porous paving, so there’s no storm runoff into the river. We also used plenty of native materials.”

That includes stone, a great deal of which was harvested from the debris deposited in the park and incorporated into its new facilities.

“The visitors’ center is about 14,000 ft² and uses a variety of different stones,” Huffman explains. “Then, we repeated that stone in every structure – and there are 17 of them. We also have seat walls and seating areas and all our storm drain headwalls and our bridge crossings were done in stone.”

However, the use of stone as an interpretive material wouldn’t have happened without the vision of Therese McKee of St. Louis-based Signature Design, who added her expertise to that of Huffman and St. Louis architect Sutton Studio Inc. in what Huffman calls a truly collaborative effort.


McKee explains that her job is often providing an interface between scientists or historians or curators, who have interesting information to share with the public, and the people designing their facilities.

And, she likes to do it with new ideas.

“We can come in and build into their plan experiences where otherwise they might have put in some sort of little sculpture or a sign,” she says. “There are definitely times when you need text and language, but what we want to be focusing on is making something aesthetic that provides an intersection between information and something that’s sculptural or artistic.”

In the case of the Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, McKee says the idea of using natural stone for some of the interpretive pieces seemed, well, natural.

“The story of the park is really about geology, stone and bedrock,” she says. “It’s all about dolomite and limestone. The shut-ins are stone, and the use of stone just spoke to sensitivity to the material. It’s just keeping with the intrinsic nature of the park.”

She explains that ultimately, working with Huffman and the project’s architect, they came up with 10 story lines for the park, which are interpreted in stone and metal in one of the park’s plazas. The other waterjet-cut features fill equally important spaces, but the focus there is strictly stone.

“We did three large mosaic plazas,” McKee explains. “One is called ‘Nature’s Mosaic,’ and it tells an entire story about how all nature is intertwined. It keys on some of the main species that represent the flora and fauna of Johnson’s Shut-Ins.”

That mosaic measures 1,150 ft² and is a key point of the drop-off plaza outside the visitors’ center. A second one is under the roof of the park’s Boulder pavilion.

“’Earth’s Time’ is an interpretive storyline that puts the 1.4 billion year age of the park into the context of all Earth’s time,” McKee says. “Earth’s Time is in the shape of a spiral that starts at a post in the middle of the pavilion, and people can go around the path kind of like following the Yellow Brick Road.”

The third space – in the park’s Scour pavilion -- has a large mosaic map which is an interpretive map of the geology of the Scour, rich with newly exposed geologic wonders now visible due to the washing away of the land caused by the flooding waters of the dam collapse.”

To do the waterjet cutting and installation, McKee hired Creative Edge Master Shop of Fairfield, Iowa.

“We started identifying our suppliers very early on because we had to create budgets, and as our designs use specialized processes, we had to identify the people we wanted to work with and who we felt were going to produce quality and stay within the budget,” she says. “It’s a very critical relationship.”

Although McKee had never worked with Creative Edge until the Johnson’s Shut-Ins project, they came highly recommended by fellow design associates.

“We looked at them, and interviewed them and then we kept them in the loop from the time we had early design concepts on through as we developed them,” says McKee. “We needed to maintain the budget, as well as the scope of what we were planning.”


Creative Edge’s owner, Jim Belilove, calls the whole process of taking McKee’s designs from paper to installed stone a “very interactive” one, and says the designing, cutting and installing phases took more than nine months.

“One of the things I think we tried to do was understand her artistic vision,” Belilove says. “We also needed to interact enough with her so that we could fairly represent what she was trying to do in the materials we work with.”

Because you can’t get the details in stone that are possible in paper, he says it required a lot of thinking on the part of his team – including on-staff designers – to get the best interpretations of features, whether in stone or metal.

That was aided by face-to-face meetings as McKee, Belilove and project manager Ron Blair of Creative Edge worked out what stones would work best for each design.
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“We have a large materials library here, but we traveled up to them and looked through their materials library,” says McKee. “For instance, the 10’ tall icon slabs were locally quarried stone, and we wanted to use indigenous materials where possible; Creative Edge knows what works well and also kept the budget in mind. In some cases I think they had some extra inventory that made it more-affordable for us.”

Belilove agrees that it would have been nice to have used all native stone for the project. As it was, much of it was cut from 3cm slate, with granite and marble used when colors required it.

“Because it’s outdoors and rustic, we used the slate, which gave us a natural cleft,” says Belilove. “That way, we were able to get a pretty rough surface. It’s all installed with a thick-bed heavy mortar.”

The larger pieces of the other stones were thermal-finished, and a regular sealer was applied. For some cobblestone borders, the company used a pebbles-on-mesh product.

“We did that to set it off, and it’s really pretty exotic looking,” says Belilove.

Belilove is also pleased with the metal-over-stone icons the company cut from layered pieces of COR-TEN™ Weathering Steel.

“There are like six or seven layers on them so the pieces have depth,” he says. “We had never made anything like that before.”

McKee says there was a problem initially with the installation of the Nature’s Mosaic piece, which was the first installed at the site. The state was very concerned about the unevenness of the stone and parts of it had to be reset.

“We ended up with some pretty major clefts, and the client really picked it apart,” the interpretive designer says. “Our feeling was you’re already in a park where the ground is not even, but that’s not how the state approached the issue of accessibility.”

McKee says she’s very pleased with the work of Creative Edge, and she’s since hired the company to do cut stone for an architectural tower in Hartford, Ill., that will help tell the story of explorers Lewis and Clark.

“They’re beautiful pieces, and how they took our artwork and interpreted it was very satisfactory,” she says.

MACTEC’s Huffman and the state’s Lale agree.

“Therese did a remarkable job, but I give a lot of credit to Ameren and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for agreeing to the expenditure to create the cut stone plazas,” says Huffman.

Lale is particularly pleased with the cut stone.

“It was something new to us; we’d seen it but we’d never used it,” she says. “It ended up bringing forth everybody’s vision and enhanced things more than we thought it would. It turned out to be very nice.”

Client: Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Jefferson City, Mo.
Landscape Architect: MACTEC Engineering and Consulting, Kennesaw, Ga.
Interpretive Designer: Signature Design, St. Louis
Stone and Metal Fabricator/Installer: Creative Edge Master Shop, Fairfield, Iowa

©2010 Western Business Media Inc.