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Harbor Park frames water views, and Camden Amphitheater Park, across the street served as a backdrop for the 1957 film 'Peyton Place.'
Harbor Park frames water views, and Camden Amphitheater Park, across the street served as a backdrop for the 1957 film "Peyton Place." (Globe Photo / Bill Regan )

Aging stars shine again

Two Camden parks, created by Steele and the Olmsteds, blossom after revival project

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 30, 2007

CAMDEN, Maine - When the high school class assembled for graduation in an outdoor amphitheater in the 1957 movie "Peyton Place," audiences were treated to one of the few wholesome moments in an otherwise sordid exposé of small-town life. The scene's location was fitting: This horseshoe-shaped lawn, ringed by ascending terraces of turf and granite, had marked its opening day with the graduation of Camden High School's Class of 1931. Part of the Camden Public Library grounds, the amphitheater worked in artful concert with a companion park across the street to frame views of the picturesque harbor.

PENOBSCOT BAY PANORAMA:

Views are renewed at explorenewengland.com.

Mary Curtis Bok, a local philanthropist, commissioned the parks - each occupying about 2 acres - in the late 1920s to complement the new library building. To design the space adjoining the library, which became the amphitheater, she chose Fletcher Steele, a Boston landscape architect known nationally for his elegant work on private estates. For Harbor Park, a hillside site directly overlooking the water, Bok selected Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace.

Though it may have seemed an odd choice to hire two of the most talented designers of the day to work on tiny plots across the street from each other, Bok got an inspired result: two very different public spaces that work in harmony. Steele planted the top tier of the amphitheater with dark evergreens, and in front of them, brilliant white birches. The birches seemed to leap out of the shadows, like dancers in pale leotards. Steele also angled the horseshoe slightly off-kilter, so that people in the space could see across to the water.

The Olmsteds created a broad, sloping lawn, using shrubs and trees to screen out parts of the working waterfront. They left the space largely open, which allowed the amphitheater to borrow the harbor views. As one Olmsted historian wrote, no other community in Maine "has a legacy of public landscape design that equals that of Camden," referring to "spaces planned by two of the most important American landscape architects of the twentieth century."

On Penobscot Bay almost in the center of Maine's coastline, Camden has long attracted tourists driving coastal Route 1. Well-heeled out-of-towners come here to sail, sharing the harbor with commercial fishermen and boat builders. At one time or another, the parks have received visitors from all of these groups, not to mention community theater productions, festivals, picnics, and graduations. By the mid-1990s, they began to show it: Lawns were threadbare, paths crumbled, benches rickety, and trees dying.

Three summers ago, after seven years of planning and community review, the parks entered the first phase of a sprucing-up from Heritage Landscapes, a landscape architecture, planning, and historic preservation firm based in Vermont and Connecticut. Steele's amphitheater and an adjoining space called the Fauns Garden, near the library's rear steps, got a buffing up.

Like a face-lift on an aging movie star, the intention was to restore the supporting structure and inherent drama of the design. The team started by replacing dead trees - spruces and arborvitae that had left shabby holes in the masses of dark evergreens, and clumps of young birches that had fallen away. The team also focused on less-visible but important basics, such as regrading soils for better drainage, repointing granite risers and steps, and replanting wild strawberry and sedum in pockets in the steps, which Steele had designed for this purpose.

Harbor Park received a more dramatic update: hundreds of new plantings of groundcovers, shrubs, and trees, repaved paths, and a new wheelchair-accessible entrance.

The firm was careful to preserve healthy existing plants, such as a locally beloved clump of 50-year-old lilacs, which give the park its old-fashioned feel. New granite curbstones create crisp edges, and 23 mahogany benches, made according to Olmsted drawings, are carefully arranged not to interrupt views. After studying the original design drawings and plant lists, as well as old photographs, the Heritage team planted species not seen here in decades, from beach roses and mountain laurel to blueberry, dogwood, and flowering crabapple.

The first few years of any "baby landscape" leave a lot to the imagination. Tufts of young shrubbery nest in mounds of new mulch, arranged in careful rows. Flowers and grasses appear tiny, isolated, and fragile. In general, the hand of the gardener is more visible than the bounty of nature.

This year, many of the young plantings in Harbor Park are coming into their own. Flowering trees have spread out, groundcovers have filled in, and shrubs have attained a respectable mass. The effects of the Olmsteds' design have added a lushness that complements the scenic drama of the waterfront. And, unlike "Peyton Place," the classic designs of the amphitheater and Harbor Park have never gone out of style.

Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached through regan-brown.com.

Photo gallery Tour Camden parks

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