A Shared Inheritance
The people of Camden love their trees. When a bosky section of Route 1 north of the downtown was rebuilt two years ago, residents campaigned fiercely to protect and preserve the stately maples and other shade trees lining the street. So a dying tree in Camden Amphitheatre and Harbor Park can be cause for mourning. Then again, the passing of a tree may also be the town's opportunity to move a step closer to recapturing the lost vision of the parks' renowned designers and a chance for Camden to recapture part of its past.Sentiments for the parks run deep in the fabric of this town which, with its tidy village snugged between rugged hills and sailboat-dotted harbor, its river cascading under Main Street, its forests and its lake, is as close to Hollywood's idealized New England townscape as it gets. Allusions to generosity - nature's and man's - are inescapable, but nowhere are they expressed more strongly than in the parks at the head of Camden Harbor.
Built between 1928 and 1935, Camden Amphitheatre and Harbor Park are, with the public library, philanthropist Mary Louise Bok's most extraordinary offering to her summer home-town. In the dark days of the Great Depression, they not only were gifts of uplifting beauty but also gifts of employment. Mrs. Bok instructed Fletcher Steele and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the preeminent landscape architects of their day, to hire as many Camden men as possible. Crews took to the woods to collect trees, boulders, granite. With these native materials, Steele and Olmsted, in their only known collaboration, created a unique landscape legacy and a vital center of community life.
The amphitheatre, a rare public garden by Steele, is a contemplative space, evoking the mystery of an ancient ruin. Wild strawberries, sedum, and mosses grow in the cracks of the curving granite terraces, upon which spruce and arborvitae rise and create a sense of enclosure. Here and there, slender white birches punctuate the velvety green curtain. "It is an architectural landscape masterpiece," says Dave Jackson, Camden Public Library's director of the Camden Conservancy, who is preparing to nominate the amphitheatre as a National Historic Landmark, a designation reserved for the most exceptional properties. "Steele was schooled in Beaux Arts classicism, but he'd just been to France where he'd been blown away by Modernist landscapes. The amphitheatre is a transitional piece where he upset the symmetry of the Beaux Arts tradition with the random installation of boulders and the bending of the amphitheatre away from the library and toward the harbor."
The U-shaped amphitheatre opens on Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.'s sun-drenched Harbor Park and the sheltered waters beyond, where Camden's famed windjammers dock. Accustomed to working with hundreds of acres, the son of the landscape design profession's pioneer managed to choreograph his firm's signature elements into just two acres. Its steeply sloping lawns are banded by paths and interspersed with groves of rugosa roses, Annabelle hydrangea, and lilacs, but the design's real genius is its four "chambers," says preservation landscape architect Patricia O'Donnell, who has overseen the preservation of more than fifty Olmsted parks, including this one. Defined by plantings and terrain, each outdoor room offers a distinct park experience and vantage point from which to view harbor and hills.
While the amphitheatre boasts of the artist's hand, the naturalistic harbor park disguises it. Yet these dramatically contrasting landscapes are seamlessly compatible, thanks to the designers' cordial, if occasionally tense, cooperation. Different as their approaches were, Steele and Olmsted shared the belief that gardens are, first and foremost, meant to be enjoyed. And so these parks have been. Since the amphitheatre formally opened with the graduation ceremonies of Camden High School's Class of 1931, the parks have witnessed countless festivals, weddings, concerts, theatrical performances, and public gatherings.
Still, it is not surprising that over the course of seventy years few people noticed the parks changing. New trees took root in the amphitheatre, and their limbs shaded what Steele intended to be a sunny center. Harbor Park plantings that once framed views from library to water grew to obscure them, and weeds and "volunteer" shrubs snarled the steeply sloping gardens.
Camden, built on ships and industry, changed, too. For decades, townspeople had enjoyed a symbiotic economic relationship with well-to-do summer folk, but the nineties brought rapid transforming growth. Credit-card company MBNA arrived and donated to area schools and hospitals, including $1 million toward a library addition. Glowing magazine articles drew retirees and vacation-home buyers. Housing prices skyrocketed beyond the means of most Camden families.
It was against this backdrop that the library trustees first announced their restoration plan - a plan that called for, among other things, the removal of thirty-five trees that were not in the designers' schemes and the planting of three hundred trees that were. Voters said no. As some later explained, the plan had the feel of "a clearcut" and "a horticultural invasion." The changes were too drastic, too fast.
Two-and-a-half years later, after much community give-and-take, the trustees returned with a new proposal: the preservation plan would be executed gradually. Stonework, plantings, and statues would be restored in stages, and trees would be removed only after they died. This, a gradual transformation of their shared inheritance, was something Camdenites could live with. Many contributed money to the effort, including several six-figure gifts. In 2003, voters overwhelmingly approved a $350,000 bond issue for the restoration.
To date, $1 million has been spent renewing Camden's green heart. Native plants mirroring those used by Olmsted have been planted in Harbor Park, and the mahogany benches he designed have been recreated. In a departure from Olmsted's blueprint, the hill has been modestly re-graded and a walkway added to make the park accessible to people with disabilities. In the amphitheatre, meanwhile, the granite terraces and masonry have been repaired. Evergreens have been added to fill in gaps in the green curtain and native ferns have been planted on the shady knoll above the theater.
And recently, a dying sugar maple was removed from the Fauns Garden at the library's east steps. Pretty though it was, the tree had blocked a path to the amphitheatre and its shade had obliterated Steele's graceful arabesque flowerbeds. July's dedication of the revitalized Fauns Garden, with its bronze cherub-and-faun fountain and intriguing Compass of the Winds, makes the restoration of Camden Amphitheatre and Harbor Park "virtually complete," Dave Jackson says. True, renegade birches still grow where Steele wanted evergreens, and it will be some time before the shoot sprouting from the stump of Olmsted's black willow reaches the stature of its parent, but that is the nature of gardens. Like towns, they are always works in progress.