Dennis Buettner was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1943. He received a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967, and upon graduating began working for landscape architect John Simonds in Pittsburgh. Simonds’ book, Landscape Architecture, had inspired Buettner to change from a botany major to landscape architecture. Following three years in Pittsburgh, Buettner returned to his hometown of Milwaukee. After a decade spent working for the land planning firm of Nelson & Associates and CH2M engineers, Buettner opened his own design practice. With a deep knowledge of the region's landscape history and its native plant materials, coupled with a passion for public projects, Buettner designed many public and private spaces throughout the Midwest, including hundreds of public gardens, parks, commercial sites, residential works, and historic master plans.
Paine Art Center and Gardens, Oshkosh, WI - Photo by Haese Photography, Courtesy of Paine Art Center and Gardens, 2017
Buettner's first historic landscape commission came in 1975, when he was freelancing prior to committing to opening his own firm full-time. He was chosen to redesign the grounds of the Cothren House Historic Estate, which was constructed in 1839 in Mineral Point, Wisconsin’s third oldest city and a Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The land contained a lead mine, for which Buettner recreated a windlass once used to hoist ore buckets. He fenced off the sheep meadow and installed a stepped stile, and reused extant brick pavers for the walkways.
Years later, in 1997, Buettner returned to Mineral Point to undertake a Master Plan for the nine-acre “Orchard Lawn” gardens at the 1868 Italianate [Joseph] Gundry House. Buettner’s work was aided by consulting a tree inventory he had developed of his own volition in 1976. He had identified that the Gundry House contained Wisconsin’s first catalpa tree, as well as a number of mature Bur oaks, only some of which remained. The property is considered to be Wisconsin’s first “arboretum.”
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum - Lloyd Smith House, Milwaukee, WI - Photo by Kevin Hansen, 2009
Known for his creative designs that utilized rich native planting palettes, Buettner especially relished public projects, citing public gardens specifically as opportunities to implement diverse plant materials. He was interested in the educational potential of public space, and “how plants relate to man, what meaning plants have to children, horticultural history, plant genetics, ethnic viewpoints, and the usefulness of plants to people.”
Buettner traveled to Japan at a young age, and Japanese art and architecture often served as inspiration for his work. He was an avid antique collector, and his interest in furniture and historic objects also influenced his designs—he often collaborated with land artists, sculptors, blacksmiths, and coppersmiths to incorporate structures and other unique artifacts into the landscape.
Green Bay Botanical Garden, Green Bay, WI - Photo by Ryan Schmitz, 2013
His firm of six landscape architects, including Nancy Benninghouse, who served as an associate for 22 years, designed numerous public gardens in Wisconsin, including the Wisconsin Governor’s Residence and the Allen Centennial Garden at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh; the Visitor’s Center at Boerner Botanical Gardens in Hales Corners; the fourteen-acre Rotary International Gardens in Janesville; the Green Bay Botanical Garden in Green Bay; and the Villa Terrace garden rehabilitation (now the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum) on Milwaukee’s lakefront. The firm also designed the International Friendship Garden in Michigan City, IN; the Wellfield Botanic Gardens in Elkhart, IN; the Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens in Waterloo, IA; and the Bickelhaupt Arboretum in Clinton, IA, among others throughout the Midwest.
Wellfield Botanic Garden - Birch Grove sculpture, Elkhart, IN - Photo courtesy Eric Amt, 2020
Buettner earned awards from the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (WI ASLA) in 1979 and 1983, and numerous accolades from the Wisconsin Landscape Federation (in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1995). He served as WI ASLA Chapter President in 1979, and Chapter Trustee from 1981 to 1986, as well as on the ASLA National Finance Committee (1984-1985) and the National Chapter Advisory Board (1978-1980). Buettner was elevated to ASLA Fellow, one of ASLA’s highest honors, in 1995.
Dennis Buettner died at the age of 77 at his home on Washington Island, Wisconsin, on September 16, 2020.