Oh we had fun! Jim van Sweden was one of the most delightful of collaborators, and an extremely talented and successful landscape architect.
I met Jim at a party in Washington in the 1970’s. He had recently started a landscape firm with Wolfgang Oehme. Wolfgang had been a successful Baltimore landscape architect with a unique naturalistic style, partly an influence from his native Germany. Jim actually had been in the city planning field, but realized he loved landscape design. At the outset of their partnership, Jim worked out of a bedroom, then the basement of his Georgetown house.
One day Jim received a phone call from David Lilly, a board member of the Federal Reserve, saying he wanted them to design a garden for the facility. Jim said to Wolfgang, “This is our big break”. After a tough winter which killed magnolias, Jim and Wolfgang created a series of varied areas that included benches and pergolas, so that people in the neighborhood could use the garden. When the project was finished I happened to pick up a copy of The New Yorker, which reviewed the garden as “being touched by the hand of God.” Well, that was something, from the urbane New Yorker. Soon I helped design Oehme van Sweden’s office in a Georgetown commercial building. Eventually they “bought the bank”… purchasing a bank building for their offices on Capitol Hill. They would go on to design other major projects such as Battery Park City, the World War II Memorial, and the National Gallery. They obtained numerous important residential clients, such as Oprah Winfrey.
The name of their style was “the new American garden” or sometimes termed “the low maintenance garden” . Jim said he hated “ditsy” landscape design, and mentioned “anyone can do spring.” They disliked neat lawns with clipped borders. Instead they created gardens that were more like meadows, big scale and colorful throughout the year. The wind was an important factor, as were water features. They had a wide palette of perennials, and made bold use of grasses…. unusual at the time. The essence of the gardens was an exuberant lushness throughout the year. However, when the gardens were first planted, clients had to be lectured (usually by the heavily accented Wolfgang) that patience was a virtue.
Jim was generous in giving architect friends such as myself interesting jobs with which to collaborate. He might suggest a type of window, or a placement in the landscape that was unusual, and made your work better. He also laughed and said some architects asked him to “cover up their mistakes!” I remodeled his home, and did several projects for one of Jim’s best friends, Jerry Littlefield. The Littlefield house and garden is shown in this article. Jim and I worked on a number of other projects together, including Evelyn Nef’s Georgetown house, known for its two story high Chagall mural in the rear garden. A particularly fun project was a pool house I designed with a curved outdoor shower covered with a trellis festooned with Jim’s choice of vine, silver lace. I always thought it would be fun to shower out of doors under plants, a la Mary Martin in South Pacific.
I put a picture of the kitchen I designed for Jim in a recent book of mine on kitchen design. Jim and I had many happy hours sitting at that table, laughing, and looking at his spectacular garden. When I met Carl Widell, a man I considered marrying, I took him over to Jim’s house one night to meet my friend, sit at that table and observe the garden with dramatic uplighting. That of course was not the only reason Carl married me. But, it didn’t hurt.
Jim passed away a few years ago. His firm carries on with capable and talented stewards. For me he is ever reaching forward, planting a delicate shoot,….and laughing.
Pamela Heyne is an architect and owner of Heyne Design on the Eastern Shore. She is author of the recent book “In Julia’s Kitchen, Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-714-9040
Pamela Heyne, AIA
a Saint Michaels and Wash.,DC architect and
head of Heyne Design
is author of In Julia’s Kitchen, Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child