Landscape Architect Thomas Woltz

 Landscape architect Thomas Woltz at his Charlottesville firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

Photo by Michael Jin Bowles 


Wild at Heart Thomas Woltz — mastermind of some of the most well-known parks and gardens in the world, including Hudson Yards and Bok Tower Gardens — doesn’t tame nature as much as heal it. Here,  he talks about his own gardens and his massive, utopian plan for Memorial Park in Houston. By Rebecca Sherman

 

This interview took place in early March, 2020

 

For the past 12 days, Thomas Woltz has been sheltering at home, like much of America. It’s a misty, chilly morning when we talk, the fog just starting to lift across the Virginia foothills, rays of sunshine fanning through somber clouds. Woltz, a world-renowned landscape architect, is looking out the windows of his 1880s house in Charlottesville to the drowsy gardens beyond. Thick walls of hornbeam hedges lie dormant, waiting. “It’s early spring, so everything is still gray and bare and twiggy,” he says. “But if you get close, you see buds popping — there’s an incredibly rich microcosm of life and diversity that’s happening.” Yesterday, he gathered the first colorful bursts of flora from the garden, from tiny blue brunnera to clusters of yellow star anise, and arrayed them on the table to inspect. Recently he planted a substantial kitchen garden: Rows of butter lettuce, rainbow chard, mustard greens, mizuna, radishes, and English peas will start to poke through the ground in coming weeks.

    Woltz, 52, has been building these gardens for more than 20 years, and has lived in Charlottesville on and off since he was a student at the University of Virginia. He and his former wife bought the house in 1998, right after they married. “I remember when the hornbeam hedges all arrived — hundreds of plants,” he says. “We couldn’t afford masonry, so we made walls out of the hedges. We planted them, and they looked like hundreds of brown pencils jabbed into the ground.” Decades later, thick hedges form the garden’s structure; semi-evergreen, the hornbeam is coming to life again slowly, buds cracking open in a tracery of pale green.

    For the first time in more than a decade — due to circumstances no one wanted or expected — Woltz has time to tend his own gardens. “Because of my intense travel schedule, I’m rarely at home, and the gardens have suffered,” he says. Now he spends two hours each evening weeding, pruning, shearing. “There’s a deep reassurance of having hands in soil that has really carried me, buoyed my spirits enormously through the past few weeks,” he says. “It’s been both cathartic and healing.”

 
Memorial Park Houston redesigned by Thomas Woltz
 

Although Woltz has created some of the most exquisite and sculptural gardens in the world, he does much more than make pretty outdoor spaces. His firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, is known for an “ecologically regenerative” approach to landscape architecture. Woltz coaxes beauty from the land by first focusing on its health, and  frequently collaborates with biologists, soil scientists, and ornithologists to lay the groundwork needed to do his work. The firm has completed projects in 25 states and 10 countries, specializing in designing and rejuvenating civic gardens, public parks, communities, and even agricultural landscapes such as farms.

    Woltz often takes on badly damaged areas, such as defunct quarries and former industrial sites, rebuilding the land so that nature can thrive again. Some are monumental undertakings, like Orongo Station, a 3,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch on New Zealand’s North Island. There, the firm reforested, replanted, and restored habitats for migrating seabirds. At Hudson Yards in New York, which opened last year, Woltz’s public square and gardens are a feat of technology and horticulture. Built on a six-acre platform above a working railyard, they include a small forest and wildflower gardens. Because heat rising from the rail yards reaches 150 degrees, roots are protected by a complex web of cooling tubes.

"There’s a deep reassurance of having hands in soil that has really carried me, buoyed my spirits enormously through the past few weeks,” he says. “It’s been both cathartic and healing.”


    Woltz, who has offices in Charlottesville and New York, opened an office in Houston in 2018, and he’s currently working on two projects there, including new green spaces, landscaping, and a meditation garden for Rothko Chapel, the first phase of which opened in June 2020.

    But Woltz’s massive restoration and revitalization of Memorial Park is the project that will change the face of Houston. The Memorial Park regeneration and master plan have been ongoing since 2015, after a devastating drought killed more than half the trees four years earlier. It just might be his most ambitious project yet: With 1,500 acres of wilderness and recreation hubs, it’s double the size of Manhattan’s Central Park and one of the country’s largest urban park restorations. “It’s exhilarating to be able to work on something at this scale,” Woltz says. Kick-started by a $70 million lead gift from the Kinder Foundation, the 10-year project is being managed by a public-private partnership including Memorial Park Conservancy, Houston Parks and Recreation Department, and Uptown Development Authority.

    Memorial Park sits on a prime swath of land running through the heart of Houston. Bisecting the Uptown, Tanglewood, and Memorial neighborhoods, its land value is enormous. Real estate aside, the park’s true worth lies in the four million people who use it annually. An average 10,000 runners each day access the Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail, making it the most popular running trail in the country, says Shellye Arnold, president and CEO of Memorial Park Conservancy. Along with an arboretum, bird sanctuary, and award-winning golf course, designed in 1934, there’s mountain biking, kayaking, tennis, baseball, and picnicking. A 2016 biological assessment of the park identified 260 species of trees, shrubs, and vines proliferating throughout its confluence of forests, meadows, and wetlands. This unique habitat is a haven for wildlife, attracting 79 diverse mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish, and 60 species of birds.

 

“It’s an act of grace to ask the land its full story before you bring anything new to it,” Woltz says.

 

    Woltz’s intense discovery process included interviewing demographers and park industry leaders, and engaging the expertise of some 75 scientists. Large public and community meetings were held for a year to hear what people wanted and needed from the park. Baton Rouge-based cultural historian Suzanne Turner was enlisted to document the park’s rich cultural history, dating 400 years ago to the Karankawa Indians and encompassing its use as a WWI training camp for soldiers. The Hogg family originally bought the land in 1924 and arranged for the city to buy it back over time as a memorial to Camp Logan soldiers who died in service — hence the park’s name.

    “It’s an act of grace to ask the land its full story before you bring anything new to it,” Woltz says. “We built the master plan squarely on this research.” The plan is monumental in scope and complexity. Highlights include a future land bridge over busy Memorial Drive to provide safe crossing for people and wildlife and a restored network of prairie and savannah that will act as a green sponge to absorb storm water and mitigate flooding. One of Woltz’s favorite aspects of the park is Memorial Groves, a 100-acre living memorial to Camp Logan soldiers who died. “The idea is to evoke the scale of loss through grids of loblolly pine, creating cathedral-like corridors of trees, as far as the eye can see,” he says.

    Eastern Glades reclaims 100 acres of formerly inaccessible parkland. Phase I opened in 2018, and included realigning East Memorial Loop Road and extending the Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail to three miles. Top of the list were 150 new parking spots, a restroom station, and picnic areas — some of the public’s most-requested changes, says Woltz. The final phase of Eastern Glades was completed in June 2020 and features the new Hines Lake and wetlands, both essential habitats for the park’s native species. There will also be boardwalks with educational signage.

 

Not long ago, Woltz went to the park on a weekend by himself and paused at the access point of Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail, just as a group of kids were finishing their first half-marathon. It was a memorable moment in their lives, and their joy and enthusiasm touched him deeply. “It strikes at the heart of how I feel about my work,” he says. With museums, restaurants, movie theaters, and other public places closed because of COVID-19, people are now seeking solace outdoors. “More than ever, I feel a sense of urgency to help heal the many fragile and broken places that are in need of stewardship and restoration,” he says. “Nature is proving to be a balm to people’s souls in a moment of crisis.”

  
Memorial Park Houston designed by Thomas Woltz