The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Monday, September 16, 2013

Freedom Plaza 30 Years Later: Nothing Left to Lose

I've made the pilgrimage to see the work of the late Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden at the Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC three times in the last ten years. Each time, I have been sadly disappointed. The last time, about a week ago, it hit me: the plantings that van Sweden considered the birthplace of "The New American Garden" no longer exist--at least not how they were intended. From what I have read in his book Gardening with Nature, the pair began working on the Freedom Plaza, a modernist plaza located a few blocks from the White House, in 1981. They were first asked to plant a dozen huge aluminum containers, designed by landscape architect George E. Patton, on the perimeter of the plaza. The architect, Robert Venturi, requesated that the urns "be planted to look like Edwardian women's hats". There is an iconic photograph of Oehme and van Sweden planting a prototype container in the book Bold Romantic Gardens that has always stuck in my mind as that moment van Sweden was referring to. Today, all that is left in the urns seen in the 1982 photograph of the duo, are the original yuccas surrounded by dead, dried-out plants and trash.

In 1984, Oehme and van Sweden were permitted to remove the solid blocks of yews planted in the twenty-one alcoves along the sidewalk that van Sweden felt looked like "boring concrete". They planted, in their place, a lush mixture of perennials, shrubs and grasses using their newly evolving style. Sadly, many of the alcoves are now empty, several had overgrown shrubs and a handful had the ornamental grasses that were the hallmark of their revolutionary design approach. None of the alcoves were maintained well.

The large fountain at the western end of the plaza was not operating and...

...the proud statue of Kazimierz Pułaski, a Polish soldier who saved the life of George Washington and became a general in the Continental Army looks very sad at the eastern end of the plaza. 

The buzz word of contemporary landscape design is sustainability. But whether it is the High Line in Manhattan or a modest public park in New Hampshire, gardens need to be maintained no matter how low-mainatinance they claim to be. For even a ground-breaking public space designed by masters in their field will be a fleeting achievement without proper maintenance. Lynden B. Miller, the famed public garden designer, states in her book Parks, Plants and People, "Make it gorgeous and they will come. Keep it that way and they will help." We must remember that the "making" may be just as difficult as the "keeping."

More than any other city, more than any other region, the Nation's Capital should represent the finest environment which America can plan and build.

John F. Kennedy, 1961, Freedom Plaza, Washington, DC


  1. Michael, hi. I know only too well what you mean, about the discrepancy between intention/plan and follow-through. It's such a disappointment to see it in Washington - not that I've ever been there or am likely to - in America's capital, where it shouldn't be happening. It goes to show that promises are frequently not kept.
    Thank you for showing here a situation that is NOT attractive. Too often, I fear, we concentrate on the glory of what we hope is real, forgetting that there are many spaces where intention has stalled.
    It's almost sadder to see that no follow through has been made, almost sadder than if nothing had ever been done.
    It's a warning too that public authorities really need to get real and stop their pretending.

  2. Faisal. I'm glad this happened originally. Hopefully it will be brought back to its original glory sometime in the future. It was a time capsule for a change in aesthetic. The revitalized park should be on our historic place registry in my opinion.

  3. This is sad & it happens all too often in public parks & gardens. Sometimes they go through periods of neglect & rehabilitation. But many just continue to degenerate. There is a new address for my blog: I had to give up the old domain.

    1. Hi Jordan,
      It is sad. Gardens are only as good as the gardener, I suppose. It is also makes me realize that the public gardens I work on will probably end when I am done gardening. I'm not sure I can expect then next group to care for them the way our current volunteers have. And so it goes....

  4. This is pathetic, it almost make one wish for a boring planting of yew. At least they were green and filled the space. I find it odd that DC is in such a mixed state when it comes to landscaping. I guess it depends on which agency is responsible for the work. Given the sad state of affairs in general with our country's government, I should not be surprised with this.

    1. It is especially sad after the passing of James van Sweden last week. I wonder when they lost control of the maintenance of this garden. I think it must have been many years ago. I was hoping it might get renovated in honor of van Sweden and Oehme now that they both are gone.



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