Carol Johnson, who transformed derelict sites into striking civic parks as the founder of what would become one of the country’s largest landscape architecture firms owned by a woman, died on Dec. 11 at her home in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. She was 91.
A niece, Virginia Johnson, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Johnson was known for her large-scale public projects, which often involved environmental remediation. For the Mystic River State Reservation, a nature preserve in eastern Massachusetts, a commission she received in the 1970s, she transformed a toxic landfill into a public park. The John F. Kennedy Park along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had once been an oil-soaked storage site for train cars before Johnson’s firm took it on in the early ‘80s. (The park opened on May 17, 1987, on what would have been the president’s 70th birthday.)
At the Kennedy park’s center is a granite fountain with water spilling over its sides, a design inspired by New England streams, Johnson once said. For an energy company in New York state that was expanding, she directed the company to a larger, less visually-imposing site and was then given the job of restoring the power plant’s original site to meadow land.
The John Marshall Park in Washington was in a neglected area originally planned for a parking lot. Johnson’s firm won a national competition to turn it into a terraced landscape in honor of the chief justice, who had lived in a boardinghouse nearby.
Carol Roxane Johnson was born on Sept. 6, 1929, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her mother, Edith Rosalie (Otto) Johnson, was an educator and later principal of a school. Her father, Harrison Brymer Johnson, was a lawyer with his own practice.
Carol grew up nearby in Union, New Jersey, and had an early career as a newspaper publisher of sorts. Her older brother, Clark, had started a neighborhood newsletter, The Boulevard Bugle (motto: “May the Bugle Never Play Taps”), for which she and his friends were reporters and deliverers. When Clark was in high school, Carol took it over, increasing its circulation to 400 from about 40 and eventually selling it to a local newspaper.
She earned a degree in English from Wellesley College in Massachusetts; as she often said, its campus was the first designed landscape she had ever lived in. (The campus was conceived, in part, by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose father was a designer of Central Park.)
After college, Johnson biked through Europe with a friend, an unusual trip for a young woman in the early 1950s, soaking up not just celebrated landscapes like those at Versailles in France and Hampton Court in England but also fields in Ireland. She worked as a tour guide at a wax museum in Florida and then at New England Nurseries, a century-old business in Bedford, Massachusetts. She lived in a shack on its grounds and met a number of landscape architecture students from Harvard there; they encouraged her to join their field.
Johnson earned her master’s in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and taught there for nearly a decade. She received numerous awards, including the American Society of Landscape Architects’ gold medal, the first woman to do so. Her partner John V. Werme, an engineer, died in 1993. She leaves no immediate survivors.