Pauline Vollmer, a donor to the Cylburn Arboretum who created an influential garden that inspired a generation of landscape designers, died of heart failure Jan. 11 at her home in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Woodbrook. She was 104.
“Pauline was a grande dame of horticulture and flower arranging,” said a friend, Annette Nagler. “She was a woman of special talents who was admired and beloved by all of us who had the pleasure of knowing her, and learning from her. Her contributions will live on in her memory, as well.”
Born in Winfield, Kansas, she was the daughter of Seldon Johnson and his wife, Ada Margaret Henry. She attended a Wichita business college and married Leo J. Vollmer, who owned a broom-making business in Southeast Baltimore.
She and her husband lived in Ednor Gardens, where she cultivated roses and said she tried to get grass to grow before moving to Murray Hill in Woodbrook in Baltimore County.
She was a founding member of the Woodbrook Murray Hill Garden Club and was a bird-watcher.
“Pauline taught even the lowly how to arrange flowers to win awards,” said Mrs. Nagler, a former neighbor and garden club member. “She opened her heart, home, and time to sharing her talents; always with a kind, nurturing demeanor. Her fabulous garden was always open, from horticultural bus tours, to nearby neighbors; the point was to educate us in opportunities to learn how to grow interesting specimens to create our own special spaces.”
Mrs. Vollmer commissioned the German-born landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme in the 1960s to create a garden at her home. It was created along a set of terraces near the intersection of Charles Street and Bellona Avenue and featured a lily pool. Writers later called it an early example of the “New American Garden.”
Carol Oppenheimer, a friend, said, “She’d be up very early in the morning in her garden. She used massive kitchen knives to do her weeding.”
She also said, “Pauline was a remarkable, brilliant woman. She was hardworking and had an inner strength. She was not a person who wasted anything.”
Peter Bieneman, president of the Horticultural Society of Maryland, said, “She was bright and cheerful. She embodied the spirit of people who love horticulture. She showed us a different way to garden. She was kind and generous with her knowledge of horticulture.”
He also said she advocated for scholarships and encouraged everyone to share her passion. “I remember being invited for a tour of her amazing garden as a young student at Morgan State. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.”
While it was a suburban neighborhood garden, Mrs. Vollmer’s grounds became well known in the horticulture and design community. Pictures of it appeared in publications and landscape architects visited it.
Friends recalled that Mrs. Vollmer was a savvy investor and money manager.
Nell Strachan, another gardening colleague, said, “She was kind, gracious and generous. She donated significant amounts to the gardens at Cylburn.”
Joel Cohen, an attorney and fellow gardener, said, “She was broadly interested in gardening and in nature, and the center combined her interests.”
In 2005 she decided to make a $1 million gift to the city toward construction of a visitors center at the 207-acre city nature preserve near Northern Parkway.
“Her gift coincided with a Cylburn master plan that identified the visitors center as a priority,” said a Sun article. “Vollmer attached just one condition to her gift: Matching funds must be raised. The city quickly agreed to provide $1 million in taxpayer funds.”
William Vondrasek, a former city Department of Recreation and Parks official, said, “Pauline was very direct, not shy to share her opinion, and wanted to get things done. She asked that we limit the amount of people on the committee to design and build the Vollmer Center so that things would not get bogged down with too many opinions.”
He also said, “She was at heart a horticulturist and we would talk about the latest poinsettia varieties and their various colors and patterns. We would sit in her living room overlooking her garden and talk about how, by designing her garden, she helped Wolfgang Oehme get his break in horticulture in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“She talked about [nursery owner] Kurt Bluemel. She would tell stories about the beginnings of the Federated Garden Clubs, the scholarships they offered to help promising young students into a career in horticulture,” he said.
Mr. Vondrasek recalled she told him how her husband in his broom business would arrange for broom material to come from the southwestern states by rail into Baltimore to be assembled at the family building in Canton.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.