Moving Heaven & Earth

The Baltimore Sun

Although it has been proposed as a place to bring prayer, peace and healing to Baltimore, the John Paul II Memorial Prayer Garden project will have to first overcome a turbulent beginning.

Enter landscape architect Scott Rykiel, a self-described "Polish kid from Baltimore" who has worked on projects around the world but retains a soft spot for his hometown and its precious public green spaces.

Rykiel, 51, has designed the memorial garden planned for the site of the Rochambeau apartment building at Charles and Franklin streets. The demolition of the former hotel in Mount Vernon by the Archdiocese of Baltimore stirred one of the noisiest architectural preservation disputes in recent years.

The garden proposal is intended to complement the $32 million restoration of the adjacent Basilica of the Assumption, a two-century-old sanctuary that is the first Catholic cathedral built in the United States. The prayer garden is scheduled for completion by spring 2008.

Rykiel, a partner at the Baltimore firm of Mahan Rykiel Associates, imagines the garden as an ecumenical refuge, a place where people of all religions can go.

It may be difficult for people who sought to save the Rochambeau to share that vision. Rykiel, though, has stayed out of the fray. When his firm won the prayer garden commission last year, he says, "We didn't feel like we were causing the building to come down or not." When the battle began, "we had already [presented] our concept."

The effort to spare the Rochambeau was "not a reason not to do the job," Rykiel says. Nor did preservationists ask him to reconsider the commission, he says.

The garden design was not part of the Rochambeau debate, says Johns Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage. "Preserving the building was always the central component and we didn't participate at all or get involved at all in the garden issue."

With his experience and personal background, Rykiel brings a unique set of skills to the project. Although he was raised in Hanover, his parents grew up in the parishes of St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church and Holy Rosary in East Baltimore, where he was a frequent visitor. Rykiel now lives in Towson with his wife and three children. All are parishioners of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore.

Rykiel has designed projects around the globe, from the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in Norfolk, Va., to the Al Ghurair City shopping center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to the Troia eco-resort in Portugal.

Even as his firm's roster of out-of-town clients grows, he can point to many high-profile projects in Baltimore, including War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall, the Inner Harbor Promenade by the Marriott Hotel, Charles Center Plaza, the Spinnaker Bay residences at Inner Harbor East, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and the plantscape in the University of Maryland Medical Center's new atrium. Rykiel also volunteered his time to design the pedestal for the National Katyn Memorial, an Inner Harbor East sculpture honoring thousands of Polish officers slaughtered during World War II.

When he was younger, two aunts introduced him to the joys of gardening.

"I remember them making me pronounce the names of things, such as 'forsythia,' which I hate now," he says.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, Rykiel switched from a pre-veterinary track to horticulture. A professor, Robert Baker, encouraged Rykiel to become a landscape architect. After college, he worked for the National Park Service, researching Dutch elm disease and tending to the White House lawn, the Lincoln Memorial and other landmarks.

Although his park colleagues urged Rykiel to become an urban forester, he enrolled in a landscape architecture graduate program at Morgan State University. While a graduate student, he had an internship at the architecture firm RTKL, where he met Catherine Mahan, his future business partner.

A partnership forms

In 1993, Rykiel joined Mahan's firm, which she had founded a decade earlier. "It really was a very good match," Mahan says. "We have a lot of interests that we share, but he brings in an interest in commercial retail and resort work and I tend to do more work in the public sector and with health."

Rykiel's affability has served the firm well, Mahan says.

"When the clients are being really difficult and demanding, he'll work with them. He doesn't mind going the extra mile in order to preserve a relationship."

While he has transformed many industrial spaces into parks and promenades, Rykiel has also had occasion to honor Baltimore's historic green spaces. As a participant in the 2000 effort to develop a restoration plan for the Jones Falls Valley, Rykiel found himself retracing a master plan developed by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture.

It was "kind of intimidating," Rykiel says. "I don't want to mess with Olmsted. Everything we did was in the spirit of [their] design. We were trying to preserve and enhance."

With the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, Rykiel has developed a master plan for the exterior gardens of the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory in Druid Hill Park. The plan provides for free, public access to the gardens during the day as well as "tentable space" for party rentals that can draw income for the conservatory.

Needed: a good eye

We needed someone who could really see the space's functionality and at the same time, he understands the horticulture," says Mary Porter, a design planner with the city. "He's a person who enjoys Baltimore and enjoys any projects that make our parks and public spaces look nicer."

Rykiel's work led the American Society of Landscape Architects to induct him last weekend into its Council of Fellows, an honor reserved for the group's most accomplished members. But recognition for a job well done poses a conundrum to someone in the business of altering urban environments, he says.

"You do want [finished projects] to be memorable," Rykiel says, "but you do want them to seem seamless."

Indeed, while sauntering through Bond Street Plaza, one of Rykiel's projects, it's easy to assume that the waterfront park, with its inviting green lawn, London Plane trees and harbor vistas, has always been a part of the urban fabric. Built upon a former pier in Fells Point, the plaza bonds naturally with the revitalized landscape showcasing Baltimore's historic waterfront.

His future design for honoring the pontiff, who visited Baltimore in 1995 and who died last year, will face the same litmus test as his other projects.

"I couldn't imagine how they can get a prayer garden to work there," says Mark Cameron, a Baltimore architect who reviewed a preliminary plan as a member of the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel. "How do you create a space appropriate as a prayer garden in an accessible urban environment on a small site on a small corner?"

But Rykiel appears to have done the best he could under the circumstances, Cameron says.

After realizing that other concepts were impractical for the garden, Rykiel says he settled on the theme of ecumenism. He had considered engraving in the garden wall the names of all of the saints the pontiff had canonized, but, he says, "there were too many."

Even as its wrought-iron fence and curved seating walls embrace visitors with a sense of enclosure, the prayer garden's design invites circulation along various pathways. Alcoves reminiscent of interior chapels and confessionals are designed for privacy, Rykiel says. At the garden's center, a statue of Pope John Paul II will rise from a shallow reflecting pool. Within the garden, the design calls for a statue of the Virgin Mary as well as elements marking the history of Catholicism in the United States and religious freedom.

God in nature

Intended as a complement to the basilica, the garden, planted with perennials, shrubs and shade trees, "will help people of all faiths to experience God as divinely revealed in nature," Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, writes in an e-mail.

Eva Lane, a Historic Charles Street Association board member, served on the garden design committee. She and others agreed that Rykiel's interpretation compared favorably with a design that was submitted by a prestigious international firm.

It was "something that felt right for that particular location," Lane says. "[Mahan Rykiel Associates] are local. They have a sensitivity for what works in Baltimore."

One of Rykiel's projects not on his resume is in northern Anne Arundel County's Hanover -- where he still cares for the yard of his mom, Theresa Antoniak.

"He got me a fish pond and he'll come out and help me with that and the outside," she says.

Antoniak had yet to speak with her son about the prayer garden, but she is certain of one thing: "I bet you a dollar it's going to have a fountain somewhere."


Age -- 51

Education -- Bachelor's degree in horticulture at University of Maryland, College Park (1977), master's degree in landscape architecture, Morgan State University (1982)

Family -- His wife, Mary, a nurse, does diabetes research; three children, Natalie, 16; Graham, 14; Haley, 12

Other current projects -- National Arboretum Fern Valley Walk, Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, Washington College Arts Center in Chestertown


Plantscape of the University of Maryland Medical Center?s atrium (2003) // The sky-lit atrium features three landscaped settings, each increasingly private, to accommodate the public, patients and patients? families and friends.

Troia eco-resort, Portugal (master plan completed in 2001) // Rykiel?s model for this project was Kiawah Island, S.C., a resort development noted for sensitivity to environmental and historical preservation.

Anne Arundel Medical Center Healing Garden, Annapolis (2001) // Rykiel and his partner, Catherine Mahan, looked to create places in health care facilities that encourage well-being for visitors, patients and staff.

Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman (1987) // One of Rykiel?s earliest efforts, this resort design, including a series of gardens and water features, helped to establish his reputation.

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