Reflections on Jim van Sweden

by Barbara Whitney Carr
Retired President, Chicago Botanic Garden
August 2010

It would be difficult to overstate the institutional importance of the meeting in 1999 at Chicago
Botanic Garden where I first met Jim van Sweden.Jim, Barbara Carr and Kris Jarantoski, at the dedication of Evening Island and the Gardens of the Great Basin, September 19, 2002

We were meeting to interview design finalists for the development of almost 15 acres in the center of the 400-acre Chicago Botanic Garden. The design was to incorporate 5.5-acre Evening Island, water gardens in the 7-acre Great Basin, multiple gardens on its perimeters, as well as bridges to connect the Garden’s largest Island to its second largest one. The view incorporating Evening Island and its water gardens was to be an iconic vista from the most visited space in the entire Garden. Beyond being a key vista, it was to be a beckoning invitation to walkers, a refreshing and enlightening experience for those who crossed its bridges and ventured onto the Island; and it was to establish a design vocabulary which could be extended to become a unifying feature throughout the entire Garden. The design of Evening Island and the Gardens of the Great Basin were at the very heart of the Garden both literally and symbolically. Whoever took on this project would leave a mark on an important public Garden by which it would be defined for years to come.

Jim walked into a room of over a dozen people seated formally, with two walls of glass overlooking a cold and crystalline late winter view. His arrival immediately filled the room with warmth that was reflected in his very genuine smile. He had a presence that radiated energy and enthusiasm and creativity -- and, importantly, a happy self assurance which left his
audience wondering how they could ever entrust this important assignment to ANYONE but Jim Van Sweden, to his trusted and quiet partner Wolfgang Oehme, and to his talented colleagues who, one guessed, must spend a good part of their time reining in the exuberance and sweep and bigness of vision which Jim made clear was the very essence of his work.

He stood up to present, flicked on the computer and the large presentation screen was filled with the image of a beautiful abstract painting which he used to describe his inspiration in large scale landscapes: Big sweeps of color, lovely simple structure, balance and scale and elegant organic lines. Suddenly we knew this man understood our vision, knew he could create what we could only dream of, and that NOTHING could make him happier than to do it for us.

But what also shone through on that first meeting was the no-nonsense and grounded work ethic that Jim and his colleagues radiated –- his Midwestern roots simply must have played a part in creating a man whose design sense reflected the long views of the Michigan farms throughout the changing seasons, the elegance of their simplicity, and the grounded mid- American values of growing up in the heartland between the Great Lakes: Solid as a rock. A man you could trust.

The Botanic Garden Committee voted unanimously at the conclusion of that presentation to hire Oehme, van Sweden & Associates to take on the design of Evening Island, the bridges and gardens of the Great Basin. Three years of hard work and fun followed; the van Sweden team under Jim’s leadership continued to delight and surprise us at every turn; construction began a year later in the spring of 2000; and at summer’s end in 2002 the project concluded and happily opened to wonderful reviews.

The friendship that began on that cold morning when Jim’s warmth filled the room has grown and continued over the past decade as project after project has come on line at the Botanic Garden. Now when Chicago Botanic Garden visitors look out toward Evening Island, they see a classic “New American Garden” landscape. What I see is the face of a friend whose smile and sparkling eyes said it all on that morning we first met and whose gifts have continued to delight and instruct literally hundreds of thousands of visitors each year since then. Nothing short of FABULOUS, as Jim would say.