Carol R. Johnson, who founded pioneering female-led landscape architect firm, dies at 91

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“What hadn’t occurred to me was how many people should be touching it,” she told The Globe in 1989. “You can put your whole hand in it. foot, and people are doing it, all the time.At all hours of the day and night, there seem to be people in the fountain area.

Ms Johnson said the fountain will become a focal point and a gathering place at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park.Carol Johnson / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Ms Johnson, who founded Carol R. Johnson Associates, a pioneering woman-run landscape architecture firm, was 91 when she died Dec. 11 in her Boothbay Harbor, Maine, home to complications from the disease Alzheimer’s.

She had been the only woman in the landscape architecture program when she started at Harvard Graduate School of Design in the mid-1950s.

While starting her own business and designing an array of projects were revolutionary for women in Greater Boston, Ms. Johnson also later became a role model at a time when women were starting to hold top design positions. and planning in the public and private sectors of the late 1970s and 1980s.

“I think she paved the way for women in cities, and in particular I think her impact on Boston isn’t just built work,” said Charles Birnbaum, managing director of the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington. , DC “It’s that ability to see women in leadership positions.

Being a woman in a male dominated field has always posed challenges for Ms Johnson and the women she has hired.

“She called me into the office and she said, ‘Marion, you know we’re women, and it’s important to realize that we have to be twice as good as men at everything we do.’ , “Marion Pressley, who worked for Ms Johnson from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, spoke about one of their first meetings in a video interview posted online.

Besides Kennedy Park in Cambridge, notable works of Ms Johnson locally include Lechmere Canal Park in East Cambridge, the Mystic River Preserve, and a linear park that connects South Boston to the Kennedy Library. Distant projects included the United States Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and John Marshall Park in Washington, DC

His work is also prominent on many campuses, including Wellesley, Williams, and Bowdoin Colleges, and Harvard and Boston Universities.

And although her company sometimes had dozens of employees, she quickly discovered that finding the right people could be a challenge.

“As a woman, it was very difficult for me to hire top notch landscape architects,” she said in an oral history interview for the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “Why work for an unknown woman when you could work for famous landscape architects? “

But as her work and reputation as a leader grew, she was approached by landscape architects.

John Amodeo had admired her designs even before she spoke to one of his classes at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“Her name was indelibly imprinted on my mind, even as an undergraduate student,” said Amodeo, now director at IBI Placemaking, the name of Carol R. Johnson Associates’ successor company, after a merger. “I made a point of touring Boston and Cambridge to see the sites she had made.”

Ms. Johnson was a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and in 1998 became the first woman to receive the organization’s highest honor, the ASLA Medal. She also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Born in Elizabeth, NJ on September 6, 1929, Mrs. Johnson grew up in Union, NJ

Her father, Harrison B. Johnson, was a lawyer and her mother, Edith Otto, was a high school teacher and principal.

“My parents were great gardeners and, like many children, I wrote poems,” Ms. Johnson said in oral history. “Mine was about the physical characteristics of the landscape. “

When his older brother, C. Clark Johnson, was a boy, he started a neighborhood newspaper. After working as a reporter for a few years, Ms Johnson took over, “increased the circulation from 20 to 400 and actually made money on the ad,” she recalls. “It was kind of a taste of an entrepreneurial bent, which I later developed.”

Ms Johnson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Wellesley College in 1951, then cycled and camped across Europe with a friend. Sleeping in the countryside “and riding a bike and finding your own path has been very instructive for my perception of the landscape,” she said.

A job at a Bedford business incubator in the years following her return led her to study at Harvard Graduate School of Design, from which she graduated in 1957.

After working in a few companies, she was hired by The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, headed by famous architect Walter Gropius. The experience was educational, but she found that the company focused more on buildings than on the landscape.

“I was moonlighting on projects for various friends and moonlighting took up my evenings and weekends,” she said in the oral history, “and I thought,“ My God, can you? -being that I can just stop and do my own thing, “which I did.”

Ms Johnson, who leaves no immediate survivors, was known for her vigorous travels, including with her late partner, John V. Werme, with whom she hiked the 4,000-foot mountains of New Hampshire.

Pressley, who is chairman of Pressley Associates at Newton Center, recalled in the video interview that in her first year in Ms Johnson’s cabinet, “she went on a raft on the Amazon. One of the last trips she took while I was there was rock climbing in Tibet. She was truly an adventurous person.

Ms Johnson’s niece, Ginna Johnson, a landscape architect who lives in Lexington, said her aunt was also ahead of her time outside of work – grinding her coffee beans at home and making meals from the produce which she herself cultivated long before such activities were in vogue. She also took her nieces and nephew on trips.

“She opened our eyes to all these parallel universes,” said Ginna, who previously worked for her aunt.

At a memorial service, former colleagues spoke of Ms Johnson’s “ability to read a landscape and understand its character and insist that whatever we do would be done to serve the existing character of the landscape , instead of erasing it and imposing a new character, ”Amodeo said.

In oral history, Ms Johnson said her work “has been said to possess simplicity, elegance, quiet surprises and clarity”.

As for her most memorable accomplishments, she said her “favorite project is where something gets done and I haven’t just dreamed about it. I dream, I think, and it happens.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]

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