A brief reflection on James Van Sweden

by Marilyn Melkonian
August 2010

Marilyn at the time of the Paradise Manor ProjectI have known and loved Jim Van Sweden for more than 45 years. We met in the stairwell of a Capitol Hill townhouse where he and his wife Linda lived on the top floors and I on the first. They had just returned to America in early 1964 after four years in the Netherlands, their ancestors’ homeland once removed. Having left in the calm of the ending Eisenhower years, they missed the soaring hopes and tragic end of the first three years of the 1960’s. To their patient amazement, I filled them in on everything that had happened while they were away.

Jim is ten years my senior. He became and is my teacher, mentor, exemplar in the magical world of urban design and philosophy, and a great friend (and, from time to time in student years, houser of last resort). Oehme Van Sweden became the model “business” for me. I followed in his footsteps, starting a company around regenerating communities in partnership with neighborhood people. Jim and I saw the spaces in between and around buildings as the important connections between sky and earth; serving, delighting, and connecting the people living there. His landscape architecture is the architecture on which neighborhoods regenerate. He always welcomed the work of resident gardeners into his landscapes, praising the addition of favorite vegetables or the surprise of a well tended rose bush, as improvements on OVS designs; and designing playgrounds and fountains in collaboration with their end users, the children in the neighborhood.

Jim and I have worked together over the last 25 years in more than 25 places creating beautiful spaces and gardens that flow from his imagination and great talent. He has brought his special vision to unexpecting places in America’s urban neighborhoods, changing the less than ordinary into the extraordinary. The rich are not his only beneficiaries.

Congratulations Jim!