Blue Ridge Parkway
Gary Johnson remembers the day in the spring of 1975 when the chairman of Virginia Tech’s landscape architecture department announced that the Blue Ridge Parkway was looking for student landscape architects who wanted summer jobs.
“Although I lived about 60 miles from the parkway, I’d never been on it. But I didn’t have a summer job lined up, so I decided to apply,” he says.
In the fourth year of VT’s five-year landscape architecture program, Johnson, now the parkway’s chief planner and landscape architect, assumed he was headed for a career in the private sector. That summer changed his life.
Back in the 1970s, at least four sections of the parkway were repaved each summer. In addition to the usual paving jobs, that particular summer, work on the parkway’s “final section around Grandfather Mountain was under way. They were building the Stack Rock Creek bridge and finalizing the alignment for the Missing Link,” he remembers.
Johnson’s job saw him reporting to two superiors: Bob Hope, parkway resident landscape architect, and Bob Schreffler, project landscape architect from the park service’s Denver Service Center. Because he accompanied Schreffler on all his paving inspection trips, the two “spent a lot of time in the car with not much to do but talk about the Blue Ridge Parkway. It Not Just Another Road was all so matter of fact that I didn’t think about how much I was learning. That summer showed me what landscape architecture was really about.”
After graduation, Johnson hired on at the parkway. When Schreffler returned to Denver, inspecting the paving projects fell to Johnson. Throughout the May-November construction season, he drove to Rockfish Gap (milepost 0) every Monday, and for the next three days made his way south.
“Seeing the parkway through three seasons, and in end-to-end sequence, I caught the weather differences and saw places at different times of day,” he says. “Traveling alone, with no radio, I could have gotten bored. Instead, I really looked at the landscape; I hiked the trails if I had time. Not many people have done that, week in, week out. Back then, I could look at a picture of anything on the parkway and tell where it was.”
In October 1979, Johnson was transferred to the Denver Service Center and stayed there for 15 years. When he returned in 1994, one of his goals was “to reintroduce landscape architecture to the parkway and to rebuild the critical mass of landscape architects” the parkway had earlier employed. At the time of his return, not a single one was working for the parkway, although Will Orr, who he’d worked with in Denver, soon joined him as the parkway’s resident landscape architect. Within two years Johnson had hired two more: one as a community planner, the other to manage scenic easements, utility rights-of-way and lands.
After Orr arrived, he and Johnson reviewed the Parkway Land Use Maps (PLUMs) and rode the parkway from end to end, cataloging landscape features that appeared on the maps: the locations of rock outcrops, fences, road crossings, overlooks and historic structures. The summaries they drew up allowed them “to look at four sheets instead of 850” as they began to assess the scenic roadway’s current state “compared to the way it was intended to look.”
Vegetation management had been a key component in the parkway’s design – of necessity, since construction had scarred the road corridor and much of the farm and forestland beyond it had been denuded by logging and eroded by poor farming practices. To make the parkway function as a “museum of the American countryside,” its landscape architects created vistas that provided a variety of views. In places, views were panoramic, but there were long stretches where they weren’t. To maintain interest, they manipulated roadside vegetation, creating openings (“bays”) filled with grass, or wildflowers or shrubs. “Specimen trees” – individual trees that were given sufficient space to achieve their fullest and most picturesque form – were planted to arrest the eye. The effect was cinematic, presenting the motorist with an unfolding drama that featured picturesque points of interest at various distances from the centerline.
The landscape architects approached their task the way you might landscape your yard, the difference being one of scale. Theirs was an unprecedented 469 miles.
“They wanted to lead your eye to more aesthetic values,” says David Anderson, the parkway’s current resident landscape architect. “When you rounded a particular curve, you were supposed to see a variety of colors of vegetation that changed with the seasons. All that was taken into account. If that’s lost, and the vistas are lost, then pretty soon all you’ve got is a tree-lined road no different from a state road.”
That is precisely what Johnson and Anderson want to prevent. But how? Huge changes have occurred in land use patterns beyond parkway borders but visible from it. Who, in the 1930s, could have anticipated cell towers, the decline in family farms and boom in second home development, encroaching residential and industrial development? In the Great Depression, who would have dreamt that pollution would obscure views?
Things also changed on the parkway itself. The huge, inexpensive labor force that built and landscaped the roadway in the 1930s was siphoned away by World War II, never to return. Gone, after the war, was the momentum needed to finish the project. As post-WWII decade followed decade, funding lagged until just getting construction completed became the number-one priority. The achievement of that goal in 1987 required another shift in gears.
Since Johnson’s return, seven years later, planners “have been looking at the park in a new way,” Anderson says. “We are more back in the maintenance and enhancement mode,” focused on preserving “what makes the parkway distinct from other rural roads – what makes the parkway the parkway.”
The PLUMs are crucial to that process. Drawn after sections were completed – they’re maps rather than plans – they capture the “as built” in extraordinary detail. “They show vista locations and widths, specimen vegetation, where grass bays were to be maintained,” he says. “If you view the Blue Ridge Parkway as a maintained landscape, the PLUMs are the maintenance plan.”
Because the parkway has neither the funds nor the personnel required to restore the cinematic quality the early landscape architects sought to provide everywhere, “it’s becoming more and more important to prioritize what we work to restore and maintain.” The hope, Johnson says, is that some of the earliest sections of the parkway – from the VA/NC state line through Doughton Park – can be restored to PLUM specifications, perhaps as an interpretive exhibit.
In the meantime, something else is – by happy chance – occurring. The PLUMs are being transformed into a powerful 21st-century tool, thanks to Anderson.
“I wasn’t looking at the computer skills Dave brought with him; I hired him as the lands resources person,” Johnson acknowledges. “When he got here, though, he looked at the PLUMs and started thinking about what we could do with them if they were on the computer instead of hanging in a drawing storage cabinet. I’d been using them the way they’d always been used, essentially as hard copy. Dave grasped that they could be made accessible to more people and be used more interactively if they were digitized.”
Digitizing the drawings, a massive undertaking that took 11 years, fell to parkway draftsman Ed Braren. Since 2007, when he completed the initial work, he has been updating them to include construction that has taken place – addition of RV parking, visitor center expansions, and so on – since they were drawn. Now Anderson is creating multilayered maps, marrying them to high-resolution aerial photography. Orienting the two takes time, but the end result superimposes present day realities on the asbuilt maps. No one has to go into the field lugging a paper set of PLUMs anymore. Sitting at his desk in parkway headquarters, Anderson can pull a map up on his computer screen and see where open land has grown up in woods, where a specimen tree or chestnut fence has disappeared.
“We can see where changes have occurred without ever leaving the office,” he says. “And when we do go into the field, we can take it all with us on a smart phone or laptop.”
It’s a far cry from the old days, when Johnson got his feet wet driving the length of the parkway in a car without a radio, scrolled copies of the PLUMs on the back seat. He values the deep understanding of the parkway he gleaned on those long solo trips and from working with Hope and Schreffler. But he recognizes the power that technology holds for future generations of parkway planners.
“The new direction that Dave has moved us in – into digital technology and geographic information system mapping – represents the next phase of parkway management,” he says. “It’s going to be vital to the parkway’s future.”