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Carol R. Johnson, who founded a pioneering women-led landscape architecture firm, dies at 91

Ms. Johnson, in her garden in Cambridge.
Ms. Johnson, in her garden in Cambridge.RYAN, David L Globe Staff

While working on what would become one of her favorite landscape architecture projects, John F. Kennedy Park in Cambridge, Carol R. Johnson faced a challenge. The late president’s family wanted her to incorporate excerpts from his speeches into the design.

One day while hiking along the Flume Gorge in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch, Ms. Johnson realized that if words were inscribed on boulders under the cascading sheets of water, she could easily read them. She didn’t anticipate, however, that by placing Kennedy’s words under flowing water in the Cambridge park, she would turn his speeches into an interactive experience.

“What had not occurred to me was how many people would have to touch it,” she told the Globe in 1989. “You can put your whole hand in it. You can put your foot in it, and people do, all the time. At all times of the day and night there seem to be people in the fountain area.”

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

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

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

Although founding her own firm and designing a spectrum of projects was groundbreaking for women in Greater Boston, Ms. Johnson also later became a role model at a time when women were beginning to fill top design and planning jobs in the public and private sectors in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

“I think she led the way for women in cities, and in particular I think her impact on Boston is not just the built work,” said Charles Birnbaum, chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C. “It is this ability to see women in leadership positions.”

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Being a woman in a field dominated by men always brought challenges for Ms. Johnson and the women she 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 anything that we do,’ " Marion Pressley, who worked for Ms. Johnson from the end of the 1960s through the early 1980s, said of one of their early meetings in a video interview that is posted online.

Along with the Kennedy Park in Cambridge, Ms. Johnson’s notable works locally include the Lechmere Canal Park in East Cambridge, the Mystic River Reservation, and a linear park that connects South Boston to the Kennedy Library. Far-flung projects included the US Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and John Marshall Park in Washington, D.C.

Her work also is prominent on many campuses, including Wellesley, Williams, and Bowdoin colleges, and Harvard and Boston universities.

And while her firm at times included dozens of employees, early on she found that finding the right people could be a challenge.

“It was very hard for me as a woman 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 her reputation as a leader became well-known, landscape architects sought her out.

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

“Her name was indelibly printed on my mind even as an undergraduate,” said Amodeo, now a principal at IBI Placemaking, the name of the successor firm to Carol R. Johnson Associates, after a merger. “I made a point of going around Boston and Cambridge to see sites she had done.”

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

Born in Elizabeth, N.J., on Sept. 6, 1929, Ms. Johnson grew up in Union, N.J.

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

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

When her older brother, C. Clark Johnson, was a boy, he launched 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 advertising,” she recalled. “This was a sort of foretaste of an entrepreneurial bent, which I developed later.”

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Ms. Johnson graduated in 1951 from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in English, and then bicycled and camped through Europe with a friend. Sleeping out in the countryside “and bicycling and finding your own way was very informative for my feeling about landscape,” she said.

A job at a Bedford commercial nursery in the years after she returned led her to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, from which she graduated in 1957.

After stints at a couple of firms, she was hired by The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, led by renowned architect Walter Gropius. The experience was formative, but she found that the firm was focused more on buildings than landscape.

“I was moonlighting for projects for various friends and the moonlighting was taking up my evenings and weekends,” she said in the oral history, “and I thought, ‘Gosh, maybe I can just quit 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 New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains.

Pressley, who is president of Pressley Associates in Newton Centre, recalled in the video interview that during the first year she was at Ms. Johnson’s firm, “she went on a raft down the Amazon. One of the last trips she did while I was there was climbing in Tibet. She was very much of an adventurous person.”

Ms. Johnson’s niece Ginna Johnson, a landscape architect who lives in Lexington, said her aunt was ahead of her time outside of work, too — grinding her coffee beans at home and preparing meals from produce she grew herself long before such pursuits were fashionable. She also took her nieces and nephew along on travels.

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“She opened our eyes to all these parallel universes,” said Ginna, who formerly 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 anything we did would be done to serve the existing character of the landscape, as opposed to obliterating it and imposing some new character,” Amodeo said.

In the 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 been just daydreaming. I dream, I think, and it happens.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.