CONNECTICUT TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION
An Interview with Patricia O'Donnell
Widely recognized as an expert in the field of landscape preservation, Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, is principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, a professional firm dedicated to a vibrant future for cultural landscapes of public parks, historic sites, communities, campuses, public buildings, estates, museums, cemeteries, battlefields, parkways, botanical gardens and conservatories. The firm has completed more than 400 projects and received 59 professional awards in the past 25 years.
Educated in landscape architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ms. O’Donnell has served in ASLA Historic Preservation Committee leadership, was a founding board member of The Cultural Landscape Foundation and currently is the International Federation of Landscape Architects Cultural Landscapes Committee Global Chair, encouraging communication among landscape architects world-wide to enhance recognition and expertise in the preservation of cultural and historic landscapes. She is an active ICOMOS expert member and engages in the UNESCO World Heritage process and expert meetings.
You were one of the first practitioners in landscape architecture to focus on historic landscape preservation. How did you become interested in this work?
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and our family had gardens. I became interested in landscape through the parks and parkways as Buffalo was shaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in their first park system planning. I directed the Youth Conservation Corps programs in Buffalo, for underprivileged teenagers, and participated as a citizen volunteer on park task forces. Historic public parks have always been core resources for me as democratic grounds and a shared commonwealth.
After graduating from the State University of New York in Buffalo with a concentration in Environmental Design, I made a choice to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and to concentrate my landscape architecture masters work in applied behavioral research, studying under Professor Sue Weidemann. Through my studies I sought to gain a greater understanding of people and their uses of places we already value. I also pursued a Master of Urban Planning, concentrating in historic preservation. My purpose in this customized curriculum was to learn skills to address historic places, and my first position out of graduate school in 1983 was working with Anthony Walmsley, FASLA, as the project manager for Prospect Park planning.
How does working with historic landscapes differ from working with contemporary landscapes? Are there differences and similarities in the research, planning and design process?
When I was a young professional I placed historic significance above other values in my work. Over time I have embraced incorporating multiple values. These values spring from history, environment, society, community, financial capacity, and today increasing sustainability and resilience. The primary difference in working with historic places, rather than considering a landscape as a blank slate, is respecting what we inherit and bringing that forward. Today Heritage Landscapes pursues our projects as an integration of these multiple values finding balanced solutions.
Your firm, Heritage Landscapes, does work all over the world. What have been some of your most memorable global projects? What have been some of the most memorable historic landscape projects in CT?
Our global work has been professional volunteer engagement with the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), International Council on Monuments & Sites (ICOMOS) and UNESCO World Heritage. This professional volunteer work is a cornerstone of my belief system. Landscape architecture is a “missionary profession” and our "tribe" provides tools and skills that are needed globally. We must be advocates and contributors to the stewardship of the global landscape. I serve as the IFLA Cultural Landscapes Committee global chair and International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes for ICOMOS-IFLA and participate in UNESCO World Heritage to reach out, share skills and make a contribution.
We work widely in the United States and our most memorable work has been with long enduring client relationships, where we can initiate a project with planning and then work towards project completion through successive years of planning, design, implementation and management for places of heritage. For several cities, we had had long term relationships that have improved public parks and urban life. For example, our work with the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy has extended over a period of fourteen years and has included two comprehensive regional parks master plans and more than thirty implementation and management projects. In our work at the Oldfields, Lilly house and gardens in Indianapolis, we had a nine-year relationship with the Indianapolis Museum of Art that led them to view the landscape as art, and their largest curatorial object. The projects have made a difference, transforming the character and features of that historic estate to reflect the Olmsted Brothers’ genius, and we helped list the property as a National Historic Landmark. It is very rewarding to work with able partners over many years implementing improvements in the public realm.
Closer to our office in Norwalk Connecticut, we worked on improvements for Greenmanville Avenue at Mystic Seaport. This project was completed in 1999 under the first round of Transportation Enhancement funding. We designed: a streetscape that reflects the documented 19th century Greenmanville street; two parking lots; lighting; relocated power supply, and two cleansing wetlands. This work was ahead of its time in addressing issues of pedestrian safety and access, ecological restoration and sustainability alongside historic preservation.
We also worked at the Greenwich Historical Society’s Bush-Holley Historic Site, a site associated with Impressionist painters, between 1996 and 2008. Initially completing a Historic Landscape Report, we followed with four phases of implementation to restore the landscape and meet contemporary needs. This work involved the design and implementation of a series of projects including pedestrian access; landscape restoration around the historic store house; fruit trees, shrubs, historic perennials, vegetable garden, bird houses, trellis, stone terrace, drive and grape arbor around the Bush-Holley house; and a parking lot under the nearby I-95 overpass. In 2009 we completed a Landscape Management Report addressing the care and staffing needs of these landscapes so that the landscape could be appropriately funded and maintained.
In looking at the wealth of historic landscapes in the state of CT, what are the challenges that must be met to ensure their continued preservation?
In Connecticut, there are many significant historic places with important landscapes. We do not yet know all the historic landscapes that exist in our state nor do we know their current stewardship and condition. Other historic landscapes are known but degraded or neglected. One route toward a better capture is through the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS), where we have an easy-to-use format that is an opportunity to record the history, current condition and significance of these landscapes. If there are no funds to preserve and restore, at a minimum individuals and organizations should document.
Whether a designed garden, an historic vernacular landscape, an historic park or roadway,-- what should local historic organizations be focusing on to help to preserve their historic landscapes?
Organizations should understand their site first, through research and current site documentation. Those steps form the basis for sound planning and implementation and management. Documentation can be as simple as taking a set of labeled archived digital photos with the date stamp “on” in the digital camera and naming the digital files with the site and relevant details. If this was accompanied by a map or aerial photo with photos locations, all the better. Another step in documenting would be to list and describe the character defining features. All of this information should be burned on a CD-ROM and stored securely
I believe that the landscape architecture profession has a duty and a role to document and record our historic landscapes. An example would be a Delaware Water Gap project, where Heritage Landscapes included a HALS option in its scope of work so that the client could choose to add these services to the project tasks and the project would have a complete HALS form deposited with National Park Service and online at the Library of Congress.
In closing, I would just like to say that cultural landscapes matter as places we have inherited and value, we must safeguard and steward them to preserve and enhance these places to enrich contemporary life as they provide our shared roots in a rapidly changing world.
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