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Leading landscape architect Carol Johnson dies at 91

Carol Johnson, who turned abandoned sites into striking city parks as the founder of what would become one of the country’s largest female-owned landscape architecture firms, died on December 11 at her home in Boothbay Harbor, Me. She was 91 years old.

A niece, Virginia Johnson, said the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Ms Johnson was known for her large-scale public projects, which often involved environmental remediation work. For the Mystic River State Reservation, a nature reserve in eastern Massachusetts, an order she received in the 1970s, she turned a toxic landfill into a public park. John F. Kennedy Park along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts was once an oil-soaked storage site for train cars before Ms Johnson’s company took it over in the early 1980s (The park opened on May 17, 1987, the President’s 70th birthday.)

In the center of Kennedy Park is a granite fountain with water flowing down its sides, a design inspired by New England streams, Ms Johnson said. For a growing New York state energy company, she steered the business to a larger, less visually imposing site, then was given the task of restoring the original powerhouse site. in the meadow.

John Marshall Park in Washington was in a neglected area originally intended for parking. Ms Johnson’s business won a nationwide competition to make it a terraced landscape in honor of the Chief Justice, who had lived in a guesthouse nearby.

And at Expo 67, the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, she collaborated with Buckminster Fuller and others who created the United States Pavilion, a huge geodesic dome lined with trees. To find mature specimens, she traveled across rural Canada in a small plane, landing when she saw the ones she loved and outright buying them from farmers and landowners.

Ms Johnson was also known for her work in public housing, including three Boston area projects in the 1980s, and on college campuses including Williams, Harvard, Bowdoin and Wellesley, her alma mater.

“Contextualism was the guiding principle of much of Carol’s work,” Jennifer Jones, Ms. Johnson’s chief of staff for over 30 years, said in a telephone interview. By the 1990s, Carol R. Johnson & Associates had a staff of over 100 people and projects all over the world.

“She was respectful of the history of a place and the meaning of a place,” Ms. Jones said. “Many projects aimed to heal the earth. When working on social housing, she listened to what tenants wanted, not just bureaucrats. While historically women landscape architects had worked primarily on residential and park projects in small offices, or as sole practitioners, she really pushed the door for acceptance for a larger, privately owned company. women carrying out prestigious and complex projects in the public, institutional and corporate sectors. field.”

Few women were practicing landscape architecture when Ms Johnson opened her business – with just a drawing board in her Cambridge apartment – in 1959. Most men at the time didn’t want to work for a woman, recalls -she, so she ended up hiring sculptors. Bidding for a first job, Cambridge Common, she had the idea of ​​bringing two male employees with her. When the ploy failed and she lost to another business, as she recalled in an oral history from the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a member of the committee who made the decision said: “We have given two good men instead of one good. women.”

Ms Johnson once told Ms Jones that she founded her business to stop people yelling at her. (Architectural firms can be difficult.) His own technique for attracting attention was to lower your voice – you had to bend down to hear it.

Ms. Johnson was collaborative, but quite The Boss. In a Zoom memorial to her, Ms Johnson said: “You knew you were having problems if her response to your presentation began with, ‘Well, my dear. What if you’d hear two “Well, ladies,” well, you knew you had some real trouble.

Carol Roxane Johnson was born on September 6, 1929 in Elizabeth, NJ. His mother, Edith Rosalie (Otto) Johnson, was an educator and later a school principal. His father, Harrison Brymer Johnson, was a lawyer with his own firm.

Carol grew up nearby in Union, NJ, and had an early career as a newspaper editor. Her older brother, Clark, had started a neighborhood newsletter, The Boulevard Bugle (motto: “May the Bugle Never Play Taps”), for which she and her friends were journalists and delivery people. When Clark was in high school, Carol took it over, increasing its circulation from around 40 to 400 and eventually selling it to a local newspaper.

She received a degree in English from Wellesley College in Massachusetts; as she often said, her campus was the first designed landscape she had ever lived in. (The campus was designed, in part, by Frederick Law Olmsted, a designer from Central Park.)

After college, Ms Johnson cycled around Europe with a friend, an unusual trip for a young woman in the early 1950s, not only soaking up famous landscapes like Versailles in France and Hampton Court in England, but also fields in Ireland. She worked as a tour guide at a wax museum in Florida, then at New England Nurseries, a century-old business in Bedford, Massachusetts. She lived in a cabin on her land and met a number of Harvard landscape architecture students there; they encouraged her to join their domain.

Ms. Johnson received her Masters in Landscape Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design and taught there for almost a decade. She has received numerous awards, including the Gold Medal from the American Society of Landscape Architects, the first woman to do so. Her partner, John V. Werme, engineer, died in 1993. She leaves no immediate survivors.

Ms. Johnson retired in 2016. Last year her company, which had merged with a Canadian company, changed its name to IBI Placemaking.

She was often asked what her favorite project was and she often responded by describing Kennedy Park, her hometown project. But if she was in a hurry, as she told the Cultural Landscape Foundation, she would say, “My favorite project is when something gets done.”