In Memoriam: Carol R. Johnson, 1929-2020

A look back into the LAM archives at Johnson, who built one of the largest woman-owned landscape architecture firms in the United States.

By Jane Roy Brown

Carol R. Johnson, 1929–2020. Photo courtesy IBI Group, formerly Carol R. Johnson Associates.

When the landscape architect Carol R. Johnson died last December, at age 91, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, tributes to her extraordinary career quickly appeared. Within days, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which had conducted an oral history with Johnson in 2006 and included her work at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park in its most recent Landslide campaign, published a remembrance detailing her long and influential career. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Architect’s Newspaper followed shortly afterward, a mark of her pioneer stature outside the profession.

Johnson is remembered both for the breadth and scope of her practice, which encompassed many significant public landscapes including the Mystic River Reservation, John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, and John Marshall Park in Washington, D.C., and for her leadership of Carol R. Johnson Associates (CRJA). At a time when women were rare in landscape architecture, Johnson built one of the largest woman-owned landscape architecture firms in the United States.

Educated at Wellesley and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Johnson founded her eponymous firm just two years after graduating. An inveterate traveler and hiker, Johnson’s approach to practice was informed by her deep understanding of the link between nature and culture, but also by a strong entrepreneurial drive, which resulted in a global portfolio of projects for her firm. Over the course of her nearly 60-year career of teaching and practice, Johnson also served on the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Commission for Small Businesses and the Committee on Development Options during the Carter administration.

In 1982, Johnson was made a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. In 1998, she received the ASLA Medal, “the highest honor the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) can bestow upon a landscape architect whose lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession have had a unique and lasting impact on the welfare of the public and the environment.” She was the first American woman to receive that honor.

In 2010, Johnson gave the interview that follows to Jane Roy Brown and looked back over her career. A year later, she would announce the acquisition of CRJA by the IBI Group. She retired in June 2016, 57 years after founding her firm in her apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After receiving your MLA from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1957, you worked at an engineering firm and at the Architects Collaborative before starting your own practice in your apartment in Cambridge in 1959. Only in 1965 did you hire other full-time landscape architects and move into a larger space. Were you being cautious, or was it hard to get the practice off the ground?

I had a hard time getting even part-time employees. I was an unknown woman and there were plenty of jobs with famous men.

Did you encounter any other barriers related to being female?

Oh, yes, there was a lot of prejudice. I could get work as a subconsultant for architects, but not as a lead consultant. So I started taking male employees with me when I interviewed for jobs, and sometimes even that did not work.

What did you learn as a solo practitioner that carried over as the firm grew?

I learned to listen carefully to the client, to ask questions and pay attention to every detail. I also learned more about what Harvard had drummed into me, which is that there are many solutions to a design problem.

What do you look for when you hire a landscape architect?

I haven’t hired any for many years because I’m not very good at it. I went for the ones who dazzled me with their talent, but [they were not always the most reliable employees]. So I let other people do the hiring.

Is there any set of experience, principles, or characteristics that consistently wins clients?

I believe in addressing each project on its own terms. Each has its own environment and identity, and I try to approach it in that way.

The firm you founded prides itself on collaborating with clients. Can you offer an example of how client involvement resulted in a superior design?

I’m working on a project now for Stetson University in Deland, Florida, that includes one of the campus’s iconic spaces, the Palm Court. One of the clients suggested paving the paths in brick, which gives the design a richer, warmer character.

Since you’ve been in practice, the country has experienced numerous recessions. How have you kept the firm going through tight times?

I kept the firm very lean. It was more than 10 years before I paid myself a salary. People worked nights and weekends. I also had wonderful bankers. Once, in the 1960s, when I couldn’t pay the staff because my clients hadn’t paid me, a banker loaned me the money. Without him we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Is the current recession different than past slumps?

I’ve never seen people get seriously nervous before this.

Do you pour more resources into marketing during lean times, or cut back?

It’s best to keep a high level of resources in marketing at all times, because when times are slow, you have to create what you will need for the busy times.

You are no longer president of the firm you founded. How did that happen?

About 30 years after I founded Carol R. Johnson Associates, my financial adviser suggested that I sell shares in the company to key people in the firm. Later, as I began to reach retirement age, he suggested that I choose someone to replace me as president. I chose Harry Fuller, FASLA, who has been president since 1993. I still work for the firm on projects for clients who ask to work with me.

What about the profession has surprised you?

I am surprised at the increasing interest in landscape architecture among all types of people I run into—it has become a much more visible profession than it used to be.

What have you not liked about being a landscape architect?

There’s really nothing that I have not liked. I’ve liked some projects more than others, but all have been enjoyable problems worth solving.

The firm has designed a large number of public spaces—why is that?

It was easier for women to get government jobs in the early days of the firm, because private clients didn’t hire women much. Also, I taught graphic communications in the planning department at Harvard for a few years, and some of my former students came back and hired me.

What do you most enjoy about your work now? Has that changed over time?

I still enjoy imagining all the possible uses for public spaces, developing options, and trying to understand all the opportunities. I like meeting and discussing the options with the users, which sometimes gives me an idea that I hadn’t thought of. I particularly like going to the place to be designed and getting the feel of it. I will often visit places I have designed, sometimes 40 or 50 years later. Some have been very disappointing, and some—such as Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia—have given me great pleasure.

What are the professional trends that concern you the most? Which give you hope for the future of the profession?

I’m concerned about the balkanization of landscape and conservation planning. There are so many groups, public and private, and they need to get together so their energy and resources can be put to the most valuable use. I think the profession’s future is bright, in part because those Olmstedian ideals have held, and the public still embraces them—in fact, now more than ever before.

One thought on “In Memoriam: Carol R. Johnson, 1929-2020”

  1. I’m very sad to hear of Carol R. Johnson’s passing. I was a summer-time employee of Carol’s while a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1965. I chose to work for her because she had a small practice (I was her only staff landscape architect) which meant I’d be doing meaningful work, as compared to doing less important work for a big name firm. I knew I’d learn more from her, and I certainly did…especially about perseverance. During that summer I saw how she struggled under the arrogance of male clients, especially city engineers. Carol would come back fuming from meetings! Then, the next morning, she’d arrive to work on her bicycle with her big black poodle, ready to start again. Much later, when I had my own firm, we ensured we had good gender balance in our professional staff and at one time all three of our senior associates were highly qualified and productive female architects and landscape architects. Carol was an inspirational example of overcoming obstacles by staying with first principles, always doing good work, and gaining ground one step at a time. Landscape architecture is a far better profession today because of Carol’s courage and persistence.

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