It Takes One: Susan Keeton

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Susan Keeton

It Takes One: Susan Keeton
Houston, TX
United States

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but have lived in Houston, Texas, since early childhood. My mother was the youngest child-and the only one born in Houston- in a large extended family that migrated from Tennessee in the early 20th century.  Thus, Houston is “home.” I did spend six years away to attend boarding school in suburban Philadelphia and Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In retrospect, the decision to go away was unconsciously driven by my attraction to the landscape in the northeast.

I first saw the Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., designed campus at Smith on a vacation when I was 10 years old and still remember that I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I am sure that it was the landscape as much as the college’s reputation that was its appeal. After returning to Houston, I gardened once I began living on my own, and continue to do so to this day.

Some 25 years ago, I began to volunteer to work in the gardens at Bayou Bend, a Country Place-era estate in Houston. In 1992, by chance, I saw a notice about an “Historic Landscape Maintenance Workshop” in Cleveland, Ohio.

I thought it might help us deal with issues regarding continuity that we had been having at Bayou Bend (the women who had worked with Ima Hogg, the gardens’ creator, were slowly disappearing and the garden was changing yearly with each new garden chairman). It opened my eyes to a whole new world. It was some years later that I realized the meeting had been organized by Mary Hughes, whom I came to know through the Historic Landscape program at Monticello, and with the guiding hand of Charles Birnbaum at the National Park Service. I was hooked!

How would you define a cultural landscape?

To me a cultural landscape is one which, upon investigation, reveals valuable information about the values, customs, and priorities of a significant person or people at a given point in history.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

After my work at Bayou Bend, I became involved with a group that was formed to improve Hermann Park, our City Beautiful-era “central park” in Houston. Initially the group, The Friends of Hermann Park, planned simply to plant more trees and to work on drainage issues-to spruce it up a bit. One board member-Jack Mitchell, who was the Dean of Architecture at Rice University, wanted the group to undertake more of a project. He had sketched the Reflection Pool, designating it the “Heart of the Park” and suggested that as a focus. When Jack died suddenly of a heart attack, it was decided to initiate a competition to redesign the Reflection Pool as a memorial. Then wiser heads realized that what was first needed was a Master Plan.  After interviewing several landscape architects with experience in historic parks, we chose Laurie Olin, largely based on his work in rehabilitating New York City’s Bryant Park. We were off!

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

Amazingly, before we began the Master Planning process, I don’t believe that I had ever seen George Kessler’s original plan for Hermann Park. Once I did, I began to realize how much had been compromised within the park when “improvements” were made without regard to the Kessler design. It became apparent to me that our goal had to be to restore the park as much as possible to Kessler’s original design. However, we had to make adjustments to the reality of life in the late 20th century; Kessler had created his design in 1916, when traffic and development patterns surrounding the park were drastically different. It continues to be an exercise in balancing these issues.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

The board of the Friends of Hermann Park, the Mayor, City Council, and the public bought into the Olin Plan, after two years of meetings, talks, and intensive education efforts by Laurie Olin and the Friends. It was not an overnight process! And, I must add, it is an ongoing process every time we have a turnover in city government.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

The personal rewards for stewardship efforts are many. Of course there is the gratification in seeing the actual result, but the intangibles are just as meaningful. In championing landscape preservation work, it’s necessary to learn to listen to others and respond sensitively and to continually educate yourself so that you can respond. On a very personal level, it’s the greatest learning experience imaginable!