Moving Heaven & Earth

Landscape architect Scott Rykiel has a plan to bring peace to the controversial site of the old Rochambeau apartment building

October 09, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

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.

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