Shortly before they co-founded Copley Wolff Design Group, Lynn Wolff asked John Copley to describe his childhood. They were both teaching at Boston Architecture College at the time, and had a standing Tuesday meeting to discuss their classes and projects. Ms. Wolff’s question wasn’t that unusual. The surprise came, mid-sentence, as Copley was talking about the rolling hills and farmland of his childhood and Wolff suddenly interjected, “Well, I know where you’re from. Western Pennsylvania.”
Ms. Wolff recognized the description because she grew up in the same region. A shared appreciation of the countryside of their childhoods, along with their entrepreneurial ambitions, helped inspire a partnership that has survived decades and nurtured the careers of dozens of young designers. Their diverse portfolio includes private gardens, museums, and beloved public projects, such as the Wharf District Parks on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, MA, the David Goudy Science Park at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, VT, and the Columbus Playground in Columbus, IN.
A Woman Ahead of Her Time
Ms. Wolff, who died of cancer last year in March, the day after turning 60, leaves behind a sizeable legacy, Copley says. When the firm was formed, she was one of few women in Boston to own a landscape architecture firm, or a business of any kind, and her private gardens and public spaces have become sought-after destinations for engagements and nuptials. “A lot of people want to be married and propose in her spaces. That’s a good indication your project has left a mark and will stand the test of time,” Copley says.
He describes her work as democratic and consensus-driven, following a creative bloodline to her own mentors: giants in the field, such as Peter Rowland, Ben Thompson, and Carol Johnson. Rather than stripping the pages from any one style book, Wolff’s projects arise from each site’s history and the interests of the people who use them. Along a therapeutic walking trail at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, in Charlestown, patients work with caregivers to improve their mobility, while enjoying calming views the water. At the David Goudy Science Park at Montshire Museum, budding scientists manipulate dams to control water flow down a terraced 250-foot long watercourse. Wolff’s Wednesday flower arrangements at the Women’s Lunch Place in Boston’s Back Bay were a welcome sight to the shelter’s poor and homeless women.
Landscapes Take Time to Grow
Of her talents as a landscape architect, Wolff’s charismatic ability to negotiate the competing interests of varied constituencies may be her most irreducible. Her diplomacy came to bear in rallying support for the Wharf District Parks on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. A year after it was installed atop the city’s “Big Dig,” the greenway was criticized for its openness, including being called the “Emptyway” in a 2009 Boston Globe article. Wolff recognized that it would take years for the land to mature and fill in and convinced others to follow her lead and embrace a long-term vision.
Getting stakeholder buy-in was not easy, Copley says, involving 133 public meetings, many of them contentious. The site adjoined several distinct residential and commercial communities, each with their own ideas about how the park should evolve. The city wanted a large civic space with few trees. Residents were concerned the parkland would encroach upon property lines. Land advocacy groups wanted to make sure there was enough greenspace.
The firm EDAW partnered with Copley Wolff Design Group on the project. Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, the principal in charge, is quoted in a July 2016 article in Landscape Architect Magazine as saying, Ms. Wolff was the “glue that held us all together.” By shepherding the park through the public process, she became a key figure in the creation of a busy, popular park near Boston Harbor that has transformed the city’s urban fabric.
While she excelled at building consensus, Ms. Wolff was not afraid of pursuing unorthodox solutions. In developing the David Goudy Science Park at the Montshire Museum, she saw a connection between the educational mission of the museum and the nearby Connecticut River that led to a cascading hydrological design no one had anticipated. While everyone was focused on how to go over the top of the railroad trestle bisecting the site, Wolff suggested a different approach: going under. “She produced a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, creating a beautiful water garden by seeing something nobody else saw,” Copley says.
Ms. Wolff compiled an impressive resume over almost four decades. She graduated from Cornell in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and received a master’s three years later from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She served as president of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects and as a commissioner of the Boston Civic Design Commission, and was a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
But beyond her training and design imagination, Copley says, it was her compassion and human insight that inspired those around her and continue to be felt at Copley Wolff Design Group today. “She firmly believed in the studio concept, the team concept. That bled though the entire office and still does. It’s an emotional issue. She was one of the most important people in my life, as a friend and business partner, one of the most dynamic individuals I’ve ever met. She’s deeply missed.”