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No garden-variety project Towson courthouse lawn blossoms into tourist stop


Once the target of jokes and criticism as wasteful spending, the undulating garden built outside Towson's old courthouse in 1989 is drawing praise -- and gardening tours from outside Maryland.

"This is one of the little treasure gardens of Baltimore," said Anthony Avent, a Raleigh, N.C., nursery owner who brought a 27-member group through on a bus tour Aug. 30. It was the third out-of-state tour through the Washington Avenue garden this summer.

"It's one of the best examples of public horticulture on a large scale that can be seen in this area," he said, noting that there were people on his six-day tour from as far away as Alabama and Ohio.

"Plant nuts will go anywhere for plants," explained Norris Post of Creedmoor, N.C., outfitted in bush vest, camera, and wide-brimmed khaki hat.

Those sentiments are a long way from the snide jokes and criticism about the expense of the garden's construction voiced by more than a few county employees when it was built during the administration of former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen.

Retired Circuit Judge Leonard S. Jacobson, for example, joked that anyone who ran against Mr. Rasmussen should campaign on a platform of "flattening out the courthouse lawn."

The joke seemed almost prophetic when Mr. Rasmussen, thought to be unbeatable, lost his 1990 re-election bid in a landslide to Republican political novice Roger B. Hayden. The $313,819 garden, along with a number of other Rasmussen administration projects, became fodder for accusations of extravagant spending.

It was a ready target for county workers, angry at Mr. Rasmussen's decision to delay by six months their 4 percent pay increase. (It proved to be their last raise until July 1994, near the end of the Hayden administration.)

Others who disliked former county administrative officer Frank C. Robey's hard-charging style derisively called the project "Robey's Garden."

The garden was a small part of a project to rebuild the Washington Avenue portico of the 1855 portion of the stone courthouse, renovate the interior of the building housing quarters of the County Council and executive, and upgrade most of the public land and aging buildings in the county seat's government hub.

The flat lawn was transformed into an elliptical series of knolls, adorned with more than 40,000 plants and trees -- many of them donated -- designed to provide a variety of colors, sizes, shapes and textures throughout the year. An underground sprinkler system was installed to protect against summer drought and heat.

E. Avery Harden, the county's landscape architect who designed the garden, said it was done in a style called New American Garden -- less formal and less clipped than older, European-style gardens.

Wolfgang Oehme, a Towson resident and a Washington-based landscape architect who designed the garden for Oprah Winfrey's Chicago home, helped select the plants.

"There's a lot of emphasis on movement, on textural contrasts," said Sharon Cochran of Bethesda, one of those on the tour, and not particularly upset by the presence of a few large weeds.

Mr. Harden said he's no fan of weeds, but that maintenance has been a problem because of county budget constraints.

Critics are mostly unchanged in their opinions.

"It was a tremendous waste of money," retired County Council secretary Thomas Toporovich said recently, conceding that the garden is "pretty and looks good."

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican first elected along with Mr. Hayden in 1990, said he thinks the garden, while "obviously lovely," is "less people-friendly." The lawn is no longer flat, and families no longer picnic there, he said.

County tax protest leader John D. O'Neill of Ruxton said his objection was always that maintenance of such a large garden would be too expensive -- a prediction he says has been borne out.

"I think it looks pretty ratty," he said. "I don't think it has the same beauty it had four years ago."

Despite the criticism, Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Robey said they are proud of their efforts, and only sorry they didn't get the chance to do more during a second term.

"It's the county seat. It just wasn't a very pleasing part of the courthouse," Mr. Rasmussen said, recalling dying trees, soil damaged by years of chemical treatments, and a small fountain that mostly didn't work. It presented a poor impression to visitors, he said.

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