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Towson garden fans protest talk of redesign

The Baltimore Sun

Carol Oppenheimer describes the garden in front of the old courthouse building in Towson as "magical," so visually arresting that the first time she saw it she nearly caused a car accident swerving to see it closer.

To Elyssa Baxter, it's the antithesis of the grass and concrete expanses that ordinarily fill public outdoor spaces. And it reminds Holly Sefter of the lush public squares that have made Savannah, Ga., famous.

But a consultant is recommending that changes be made to the favorite spot of many Towson gardeners, residents and county workers - just a year after a team of planners recommended that the garden be plowed over.

The suggestions have prompted members of dozens of garden clubs and neighborhood groups to mount a letter-writing campaign to county officials pleading for the oasis to be preserved as it is. Some residents and gardeners are concerned that a plan might be funded to redesign the garden created - and often tended in the middle of the night - by a Towson resident and renowned landscape architect who has designed parks at embassies and museums.

"It makes no sense to destroy a beautiful garden, created at public expense ... by a nationally known landscaper for one more characterless, barren open field for nebulous public gatherings or party rallies," Dick Parsons, a West Towson neighborhood activist wrote in a letter to other community leaders last week. "It seems folly to destroy it on a consultant's whim."

The recommendation for change comes from consultants hired by the county to look at ways of revamping Towson, making it more attractive to pedestrians, more lively for shoppers, and more comfortable for residents and students.

In June, a team of transportation consultants and city planners held a series of meetings with residents, merchants and county officials to develop a plan to make Towson more appealing to pedestrians. They recommended that, at the very least, the iron fence around the garden in front of the courthouse be removed to make the area more accessible to pedestrians.

And when an urban design assistance team, made up of mostly out-of-state architects and engineers, visited the county seat last year, one of the experts said the courthouse garden should be reconfigured to lend more prominence to the building known as the old courthouse, built between 1854 and 1856 and now used as offices for the county executive and other government workers.

There is no plan to redesign the garden, bounded by Washington, West Pennsylvania and Chesapeake avenues, according to county officials.

The garden was created in the late 1980s by county landscape architect Avery Harden and Wolfgang Oehme, an author and landscape designer whose work has adorned Battery Park in New York, millionaire's mansions and Washington's Embassy Row.

Oehme said he was "flabbergasted" when consultants suggested ripping it out. "Anyone I talk to, they just love it," he said.

Oehme, who lives in Towson, designed the space with winding paths, plant-covered slopes, mature trees and a mix of bushes and flowers chosen because they don't require the frequent use of pesticides, fertilizer or daily watering. The blooms, which attract an array of butterflies and birds, peak in different seasons.

Despite his high-profile commissioned landscapes and world travels, Oehme is known locally as the "midnight gardener," because he favors weeding public gardens, including several he's planted in median strips, during the middle of the night when it's cooler. The 77-year-old also amuses local garden club members and friends by inviting them to celebrate his birthday by helping him remove debris and prune plants in the old courthouse garden.

"I can't understand why anyone would want to change it. It would be a terrible loss for Towson," says Oppenheimer, a Stevensville garden designer who often works with Oehme. "It is an example of the best in public park design."

Baxter, director of the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland's District 3, said there's more than enough concrete in the plaza between the old courthouse and the county's Circuit Court building.

"Environmentally, too, it would be so much better to keep the garden as it is," said Baxter, adding that the recommendations to tear up some or all of the garden seem to contradict the county executive's initiatives to create more green space.

Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said the idea of creating more "access points" in the garden may warrant "more discussion."

But, he said, "The gardens are a beautiful, restful place for people in Towson and for many people who visit Towson. Jim Smith has no intention of making major renovations or alterations to these gardens."

"There's a lot of history behind them," Mohler said. "And they're important to a lot of people."

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