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Landscape artist Wolfgang Oehme dies

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Towson resident Wolfgang Oehme, an internationally renowned landscape architect whose designs revolutionized American — and Towson — landscaping died from cancer Dec. 15 at his home in Aigburth Vale. He was 80.

County police became accustomed to seeing Oehme lurking around the Old Courthouse in downtown Towson at midnight or 2 a.m. while other people slept. Oehme designed Courthouse Gardens with county landscape architect Avery Harden in 1988.

"He couldn't stand to see a garden abused by weeds," former county planning director Les Graef said. "He was so dedicated, he couldn't help himself.

"Wolfgang used to drive Rec and Parks crazy because he was always planting new flowers willy-nilly and they were required to maintain them. But there is beauty in Towson because of Wolfgang. I think he was pretty much of a genius — and he knew it."

By all accounts, those who have anything to do with gardening in the greater Towson area speak of him simply as "Wolfgang."

Born in Chemnitz, Germany in 1930, Oehme earned a landscape architecture degree at the University of Berlin before coming to the United States in 1957 and eventually joining Baltimore County's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Avery Harden was fairly new at his job 23 years ago when he convinced the the administration of Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen to convert the courthouse lawn into a garden.

Naturally, he was offended when Oehme sketched an alternative on the back of his original preliminary planting design, Harden said.

"But after studying it obsessively, I realized I was looking at something revolutionary. ... I began to feel the relationships between the nuanced, wildly varying and contrasting plants. This was no static evergreen design I understood, but a daily changing kaleidoscope. I was transformed as a landscape architect. Today, one can travel all over the U.S., and the world for that matter, and find Wolfgang's influence."

"He leaves a huge legacy," said Stevenson resident Carol Oppenheimer, Oehme's best friend and colleague. In recent years "we did fantastic work and a lot of it" as partners in WOCO Organic Gardens, she said. He was the "WO" and she was the" CO."

"His work was innovative, daring and unique," Oppenheimer said. "He viewed himself as an artist: Painting with plants was his medium. His style was very powerful and dramatic. His aesthetic was contemporary, very modernist. His ebullient planting plans of ornamental grasses and perennials contrasted with his almost severe hardscaping designs and helped to soften them."

Oehme was fascinated with the natural world and had enormous respect and love for it before it became fashionable, she said.

"He was very observant and very gentle with small creatures, really with all things and people, too. But he was confident and passionate about his work and did not suffer fools gladly. Poor garden maintenance drove him to distraction as did what he called 'silly' design."

Although he was a landscape architect of international stature, Oehme loved Towson and tenderly maintained his gardens in the area, Oppenheimer said.

The operative word was "his" gardens, noted Dorrie Wilfong, a long term chairman of Towson Gardens Day and a friend.

"What I loved about Wolfgang was that every garden he did — and there were thousands of them, private and public — became his," Wilfong said.

Longtime Murray Hill Garden Club member Pauline Vollmer, a close friend, can attest to that. In 1963, Oehme designed a garden for the Vollmers that was "innovative and full of wonderful ideas," she said.

When it was done, he was never done, she said. "He would show up and put something new in. He did that to me more than anybody, but I don't think that is a bad quality. Gardens were his life. He was studying and we were learning."

A garden by Oehme also came with visitors, she said. She hosted garden people from Japan, South America, England, Canada, from all over the world, she said. "They came to see his designs because they were different."

Oehme was known to plant perennials, ornamental grasses and trees completely on his own, for the love of it.

His grasses and flowers line the median strip of North Charles Street between Bellona Avenue and Kenilworth Drive.

"When you look at the county today and see all the three season grasses, that all came from Wolfgang," Wilfong said.

But he didn't plant azaleas. Years ago the azalea was voted Towson's official flower, even though it was a shrub, she said.

"Wolfgang hated that. He used to say the azalea gives you only two weeks of flowers and then all you've got is a green bush."

He had a following of young people who were inspired by him and will see his legacy is not forgotten, Oppenheimer said.

"Working with him was an experience no one ever forgot. We all have stories of working soaked to the skin or deep in mud or trying to break through freezing ground."

Now he is gone.

"Seeing this powerful, energetic man decline has been very painful," she said. "But he kept his dignity to the end and I think he died in peace. He was certainly surrounded by loving and caring friends, and he loved that."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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