Making city oasis a more public place

To Susan Van Buren, the city-owned Cylburn Arboretum is "Baltimore's secret garden."

"Even many people who live near here don't realize it's public property," she said of the secluded space that includes carefully cultivated gardens, a nature preserve and a 19th-century mansion not far from Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore.


Van Buren is on a mission to change that unofficial designation. As the newly named and first executive director of the nonprofit Cylburn Arboretum Association, she wants to raise the arboretum's profile beyond the avid gardeners and birders who are regular visitors, and help fund improvements to the grounds and buildings.

"We want to make this place Baltimore's public garden, in the way it shows up on every Web site for coming to Baltimore, in every hotel lobby," she said last week after a tour of the arboretum.


The city's Department of Recreation and Parks, which has been under severe budget constraints for years, said it welcomes the arboretum association's increased involvement at Cylburn, which houses the department's horticulture division.

"We think it's definitely a positive development that they're stepping up their activities," said Kimberley A. Flowers, director of the department. "We definitely need partners like the Cylburn Arboretum Association."

In May, the department completed $600,000 in city- and state-funded renovations to the ground floor of the mansion -- including the installation of disabled-accessible restrooms, a new kitchen and air-conditioning system, and restoration of plaster and woodwork. Since then, the mansion has been rented out for a couple weddings and a nonprofit fund-raising event.

The arboretum association, which has helped the city oversee Cylburn for half a century, hopes to build on those improvements. It will hold its 50th- anniversary celebration there in October and plans to move its first-floor office upstairs in the three-story mansion, opening up more space for events and raising the possibility of opening a visitors center in the vacated area.

"We need a place where people can come, find out what's going on and buy a book or small souvenir," Van Buren said.

The association has also commissioned a master plan to focus on the "immediate needs" of the arboretum, she said.

Among the issues to be considered by the plan, which is being funded with $50,000 in private donations, is whether to retrofit a space to house separate collections of mounted birds and items such as a beaver pelt and a deer skull. The collections, on the upper floors of the mansion, have been closed since last year because they are not accessible to the disabled.

The plan will also study the possibility of a more visible entrance to the arboretum off Greenspring Avenue, which is now marked by only a small wooden sign with white block letters; improved parking; and the creation of paths and signs in the various gardens.


There is also a glaring need for renovation of the mansion's upper floors and tower -- the latter of which offers a sweeping view of Cylburn's grounds but has water damage and cracked plaster -- and an outdoor fountain that has been inoperative for a decade.

Mary Porter, a design planner in the Recreation and Parks Department, said there are no additional funds set aside for projects at Cylburn. "Once the master plan is done, we'll see what's appropriate for us to fund" and what's better left to nonprofit organizations and foundations, she said.

That's the pattern that has been used to pay for multimillion-dollar improvements, phased in over the past several years, at Carroll, Druid Hill and Patterson parks, she said.

At 207 acres -- three-quarters of which is woodland, accessible by 3 1/2 miles of trails -- Cylburn is considerably smaller than Druid Hill Park's 744 acres but larger than Patterson Park's 130 acres.

Unlike other major parks, it is designed more as a pure urban oasis than as a site for sports. "We will never have tennis courts or a swimming pool," Van Buren said.

Originally, Cylburn's grounds were owned by Jesse Tyson, a wealthy Baltimore industrialist who began building a mansion there in the 1860s as a summer home, according to an association brochure and signboard outside the building. Designed by George Frederick, the architect of City Hall, the building was not completed until the late 1880s, about the time Tyson, then in his 60s, married Edyth Johns, a 19-year-old debutante.


After Johns' death in 1942, the city bought the property and ran it as a home for neglected children for the next decade. It became a wildflower preserve in the mid-1950s and was rechristened the Cylburn Arboretum in 1982.

The association expects the October gala celebrating its half-century of involvement in Cylburn to raise $25,000, which could help fund improvements.

"There's always been a core of volunteers. For the first time, I'm getting a sense that there's a renewed energy," said Barbara Shea, an Owings Mills resident. She is the board president of the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, a $50 million nonprofit agency whose mission is to restore the canopy of Washington, and co-chairwoman of the gala with her husband, James Shea, managing partner of Venable LLP.

By then, a draft of the master plan, with cost estimates for projects, should be complete.

With that document in hand, Van Buren, a state planner and nonprofit executive before being named to her $44,000- a-year-post, said she will be able to more aggressively approach foundations and large donors for money.

"We should be thinking big," she said.


She raises -- and quickly dismisses -- the notion that site improvements and larger crowds will change the pastoral nature of Cylburn.

"I seriously doubt we're going to have that problem anytime soon," she said. She quickly surveyed the expanse of land and added: "It's a beautiful day, and almost no one's here."