Great Gardens

Barbara Paca Is Greening the World through Landscape Architecture

Portrait of Barbara Paca
Landscape architect Barbara Paca works from studios in New York’s East Village and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (above), where her family has roots going back to the 17th century. Top: A garden Paca created for a New York–based energy investor who owns a thousand acres near Easton, Maryland.

Barbara Paca is a landscape architect who likes intellectual challenges. Asked to help revive the garden surrounding the historic Government House on Antigua, a Caribbean island she has been visiting for 20 years, Paca came up with a plan for what she calls a “shared paradise” incorporating “teaching paths” where schoolchildren will learn about native plants like mahogany and Lignum vitae. (It is scheduled to be completed in 2022.)  But that’s hardly the extent of her involvement with the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, a British colony until 1981 and a place where cricket and calypso coexist. Named a cultural envoy in 2016, Paca, 59, has helped curate the country’s Venice Biennale entries, which have focused on environmental justice as a civil right, the historical roots of Antiguan carnival costumes and the artistic output of an underappreciated native son, Frank Walter.

Antigua is a long way from California, where Paca (pronounce PAY-ka) was born, and from Manhattan’s East Village, where she runs her landscape architecture business out of a photogenic storefront office. The firm is called Preservation Green, a name that sums up what she is determined to accomplish: saving old buildings and landscapes (including farms that, she says, have “survived wars, droughts and inheritance taxes”) while minimizing the environmental impact of those efforts. The firm also works on modern buildings and landscapes.

Walled garden at the Maryland Property
A walled garden at the Easton-adjacent property features boxwoods, hostas, crepe myrtle trees and borders of handmade bricks laid by a local mason.

Addressing climate change these days means tackling both resilience and prevention. The best example of how Paca pursues those parallel goals is in Oxford, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where she has created a home and a separate research and design studio — which she calls a think tank — with her husband, architect Philip Logan, a partner in Preservation Green. To protect the early-20th-century buildings that compose the think tank from rising waters, she repositioned them atop nine feet of fill. And to protect the planet, she equipped them with solar panels, which required the permission of Oxford’s Historic District Commission, in addition to giving three of the old structures green (planted) roofs, one sloping. “It was an engineering challenge, but I wanted everyone to be able to do it,” she says, meaning she wanted to find and implement a solution that others can apply. In addition, she installed cutting-edge storm-water management and rainwater-harvesting systems and other green features, which together garnered the project a LEED Gold designation. Paca wouldn’t have it any other way. She is setting an example for her clients, who include Michael Bloomberg (a horse farm in New York’s Westchester County) and filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (a pair of properties on Philadelphia’s Main Line). Her primary mission, as she sees it, is helping them become the best possible stewards of the property they own.

“If you have land, you have a responsibility,” explains Paca. “I can make it pretty, but it also has to be sustainable.” One of her clients, she recounts, inherited 150,000 acres in Florida; she persuaded him to undertake a vast reforestation using native oaks. “I’m not saying it has to be a misery march,” she notes of Preservation Green’s work. “But we have to think about the most intelligent solutions. I’m not going to dumb it down.”

Greenhouse at the Maryland Property
The property’s greenhouse, Paca notes, “is a lovely interior space within the walled garden — a good place to be in the wintertime or on chilly evenings when you still want to feel like you’re outside.”

It’s as if Paca answers not to clients but to their land. And she expects them to do the same. “Everyone says they’re environmentally aware. I say, ‘Prove it.’ I’ve fired clients,” Paca states, “if it turns out they aren’t who they say they are.”

She does all the things other landscape architects do, but without excess. “My aesthetic is lean,” Paca explains. “I’m the person who says, ‘No, you don’t need a swimming pool right there. What you may need there is nothing.’ ” For her, nothing — precious, restful open space — is one of the most important elements of a successful landscape.

A grassy lane designed by Paca
A grassy lane between a field of wheat and native cedar trees is “made for long walks but also a place where you feel a part of the muscle of the land,” says Paca, “a true agricultural landscape.”

Among those clients who walk the walk are Charles and Geneva Thornton, owners of a historic house in San Marino, California, just outside Los Angeles. The Thorntons not only donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation but, to improve its setting, bought up neighboring parcels and created a 10-acre garden that they added to the bequest. In designing that landscape, Paca chose plants that would require little irrigation, some from California and others native to regions with similar growing conditions (including parts of southern France and the Caribbean). The mix includes hellebores, bergenia, plumbagos, camellias, crocosmias and irises, plus gardenias and jasmines for fragrance. Large sections of the garden hug a public pedestrian path, created by Paca and the Thorntons as a way, she says, “of giving something back to the community.” One grateful neighbor told the local paper that walking along the property “makes you feel like you have appeared at the gates of heaven.”

The garden at Reed Creek Farm, designed by Barbara Paca
Paca created what she describes as “a tranquil place to sit within a tall walled garden” at another Eastern Shore property, Reed Creek Farm. The owner, Robert Simmons, commissioned Paca to design the gardens with and in honor of his wife, Marcia, who was terminally ill.

Paca was born, she says, “on a naval station in the middle of the California desert,” where her father was doing military research, but she spent most of her childhood in Scottsdale, Arizona. She studied landscape architecture at the University of Oregon and spent six years at Princeton, where she received a Ph.D. in art history. (“I wanted to better understand how landscapes fit into a larger cultural and aesthetic context.”) She won fellowships at several well-known institutions and is now a research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. Beyond those academic achievements, her résumé includes numerous honors. Last year, for instance, she was named to the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her historic preservation work.

Logan, for his part, was born in Taiwan to a diplomatic family. He grew up in such world capitals as Moscow and Beirut before studying architecture at Columbia University and establishing a practice in Paris, where he and Paca now spend several months each year. (They have a teenage son, Tilghman, who is disabled.)

Barbara Paca Is Greening the World through Landscape Architecture
1 / 8
Barbara Paca Is Greening the World through Landscape Architecture

Landscape architect Barbara Paca created this British-garden-inspired space for a client’s 150-acre property, called Reed Creek Farm. Although it borrows ideas from Great Britain, she says, this green space “is unique to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as its design grows out of an ancient tradition of practical yet beautiful gardening there.”

The luxury of space is ever present,” says Paca, referring to the Eastern Shore, “particularly as these vast tracts of land extend around large bodies of water.”

Paca describes the flowers used in this garden at Reed Creek Farm as “old-fashioned favorites that grow without pesticides or too much water in Maryland’s climate.” She designed the wall, which was built by local masons using handmade bricks.

The main house at Reed Creek Farm dates to the 18th century. Planted to flank the drive, the native American black gum trees “cool the earth and frame vistas of the house as one approaches,” Paca says, adding that they also “nourish desirable songbirds and provide them with a habitat.”

Paca’s “think tank” in Oxford, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, features solar panels, green roofs, water-harvesting systems and historic building materials, both local and from Europe. Thanks to these elements among others, it earned a Gold LEED certification.

The 18th-century Swiss stove in the foreground heats the think tank’s greenhouse, which Paca uses to test plants and work on other ideas.

Speaking of the 1704 ceramic-tile Viennese stove she installed in her studio, Paca says the stoveserves as inspiration in helping us to envision ways to further the happy marriage between high art and high tech.”

Paca’s tool kit includes such analog items as Sharpie pens, highlighters, scissors and a magnifying glass.

“I always say I’m getting tired of traveling, but that’s a lie,” Paca says. “We’re pretty global.” By the end of this year she will have spent time in New York, Paris and Antigua (her regular haunts) as well as England, Ireland, Morocco, Russia and Sweden. Still, the Maryland compound is her base, serving as “our think tank and research center.” Looking out the window of her studio there, she claims, “I can’t imagine being anyplace else.”

Barbara Paca's Watercolor Drawings
Although 21st-century concerns about sustainability and land stewardship are always at the top of her mind, Paca’s design process involves some old-fashioned methods, like watercolor drawings.

And in a very deep sense, her heart is on the east side of Chesapeake Bay, where her ancestors settled in the 17th century. They were plantation owners and signers of the Declaration of Independence. “If their dream of America was to survive, they had to accept that they were powered by a slave economy,” Paca says. “We probably are surrounded by relatives who are African American, but it’s only now just being acknowledged.” In 2018, in recognition of her work documenting the legacies of early African American families, she was named a trustee of the Maryland Historic Trust, which earmarks $1 million each year for properties that are part of African American history; one recent grant went to Harriet Tubman’s church.

Paca is fascinated by the region’s history — “We’re an hour from Washington, and people speak with an Elizabethan accent” — as well as by the physical conditions created by the relentless action of the bay. “There is no fat on this land. It’s all muscle,” she says of the Eastern Shore. She has designed gardens there for powerful people, including the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys, as well as a New York–based energy investor who owns a thousand acres near Easton, Maryland.

Another Eastern Shore client, Robert Simmons, asked Paca to help create a garden to honor his wife, Marcia, who was terminally ill. “I listened to her and translated what she wanted into a garden,” says Paca. She started by having handmade bricks from the Old Carolina company, in Salisbury, North Carolina, assembled into a curving 14-foot-high wall and spiral-shaped viewing platform. Then she planted an English garden in a palette Marcia selected, with a tapestry of salvias, lavender, orange butterfly weeds, Mexican tithonias and Lord Baltimore hibiscuses.

The waterfront at Reed Creek Farm
At the 150-acre waterfront Reed Creek Farm, Paca “worked to preserve the coastline by controlling invasive plants and encouraging native plants to grow,” she says. “We also worked hard to make sure that there are focused views of the water visible from the house and special seating areas within the gardens.”

Paca’s commitment to the Eastern Shore extends far beyond working for deep-pocketed clients. One of her projects there is a small park in the town of St. Michaels. Paca designed it to accommodate a weekly farmer’s market, meaning she had to provide flat, level surfaces while still making it a thing of beauty. She accomplished that, she says, by focusing views on the vast maritime landscape.

These days, Paca continues to take on new landscape architecture commissions. But those seeking her services should be warned, she says, that “I’m not a brand, and I’m not going to give you a brand.” One of her clients, she recounts happily, complained, “ ‘We pay you all this money to make it look like you were never there.’

“The most important thing to know if you hire me,” she continues, “is that I’m going to take you seriously. So you’d better be ready.”

 

Barbara Paca’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“A green tile stove is one of the most aesthetically pleasing sources of green energy. I have always enjoyed living with the gentle heat of tile stoves.”
“I have always loved eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wedgwood vases for wildflowers. Wedgwood’s black basalt completes any room and floral arrangement. The high quality of their craftsmanship is matched only by their artistic incorporation of botanical and classical motifs.”
“The carved coconut shell of this piece honors the organic riches of the Caribbean as well as my forebears from the region, who include a Jamaican grandmother and a Saint Lucian great-grandfather.”
“These Cuban-mahogany-frame Kaare Klint chairs show us all the timelessness of good design. We brought a set back from Paris to our Maryland think tank, where they serve as constant inspiration.”
“This is identical to an Arne Vodder piece in our East Village storefront studio. We have an intimate seating area tucked into the back of the office where we can visit with friends and clients, or sit for quiet reflection.”
“The sound of water is important in a garden, as it removes us from the distractions of daily life and brings us closer to nature. Less is more, and that is certainly my operating principle with sculpture in the garden, which is why I like this stone basin.”
“A boot scraper is a necessary accessory for me, and I like the simplicity of this eighteenth-century American design — just the essentials and made to last.”
“When I was a graduate student with limited resources, I purchased a set of bright orange Royal Copenhagen dishes to match the intense orange of my tithonia garden. I love this set of dishes, as they honor horticulture — and what better event for doing so than a pleasant meal with friends?”
“The only thing I admire more than women artists like Elizabeth Catlett is Frederick Douglass. Always good to be reminded of those who used their genius to rise above so much.”

Loading next story…

No more stories to load; check out The Study.

No more stories to load; check out The Study.