With trees, plants, and grass recently added to the landscape, the Folger Shakespeare Library is moving into the next phase of the building renovation project. The landscape, which also includes a fountain, a beloved statue of Puck, paths, ramps, and much more, will play an essential part in how the Folger connects with visitors.
In recent months, a vital part of the Folger Shakespeare Library renovation project has been put into place as plants fill the grounds around the renovated building—including the large, sloping gardens leading to the Folger’s new east and west visitor entrances below street level. Most of the plants went into the ground in June, roughly in order of size, from the trees (including oaks and red maples) to shrubs and hedges, ground cover, other plantings, and grasses. Numerous bulbs will be planted in the fall.
The swift change from a dirt, stone, and concrete workspace to a richly planted environment felt like “the difference between hibernation and waking up,” says Folger Director Michael Witmore. For Hallie Boyce, a partner at the landscape architecture firm OLIN, “it’s exciting when you start to see the landscape design come together—and particularly fulfilling to create a place that welcomes everyone.”
“The outdoor rooms are a way of ‘saying hello’ in a friendly, immediate way, shifting gears from the monumental, workaday life of Capitol Hill.”
The plants and other elements of the landscape design are an important signal that the major construction phase of the renovation project is coming to an end. But the landscape will also play a crucial role in attracting visitors now and for years to come. “From the beginning, I knew the landscape would be integral” to the renovation, says project architect Stephen Kieran of KieranTimberlake. OLIN has collaborated with KieranTimberlake for several years as the project has developed.
Two Welcoming Garden Rooms
The landscape design is stretched to the corners of the site through a series of garden spaces, trees, hedges, ground cover plantings, and plush green lawns at street level. It also includes the raised terrace or plinth in front of the building. The Adams Pavilion, the new public wing located under the building, now extends underneath the terrace, which also serves as its roof. For the first time since the building opened in 1932, a permanent sloping path will provide access to the terrace, letting more people see the Folger’s bas-reliefs of Shakespearean scenes—with no stairs required.
The closest coordination between the landscape and the architecture, however, involves the two large new visitor entrances that slope down below street level on the building’s east and west sides. Kieran and Boyce call them “garden rooms”—outdoor spaces that are similar in size to the two newly built exhibition halls indoors. In the garden rooms, Kieran says, “the landscape becomes an extension of the architecture, from the inside out and the outside in. It is all one space.”
So… we got really into gardening this year 🌳🌻 Check out our progress on the Folger’s gardens and landscaping over the past few months! FolgerRenovation
Each garden room is defined by a ramp on one side connected to a gently sloping path that wraps around the rest of the space. Inside the path is a large planting area that Boyce calls a “tapestry,” with a rich mixture of plants, some of which have yellow, blue, or pink flowers in different seasons. Plants like rosemary and lavender were chosen for their scents and are planted close to the edge. The tapestries are designed for all four seasons. Evergreens and other plants with sculptural shapes also supply visual interest year-round.
These sloping, welcoming gardens are like Renaissance sunken gardens, says Kieran. Sunken gardens have a different sense of the horizon, making them feel like worlds of their own. In drawing visitors down ramps and paths and into these spaces to reach the entrances, the gardens help answer the question that “we all have to overcome before entering an imposing building: ‘Am I welcome there?'” Kieran says. In Witmore’s words, the outdoor rooms are a way of “saying hello” in a friendly, immediate way, shifting gears from the monumental, workaday life of Capitol Hill.
Words Woven through the Landscape
In the west entrance garden, visitors will be greeted by an extraordinary element in the curbing that defines the planting area: a new poem by former US poet laureate and University of Virginia Professor Rita Dove, commissioned by the Folger. Visitors must continue down the path to read it, as only a few lines are visible at any given point.
Those are not the only literary words or references woven through the landscape. The west entrance also includes the familiar figure of Puck, perched above a calming, two-level fountain. Years ago, the original stone statue of Puck was preserved by being brought inside the Folger, and this aluminum copy was created for outdoor display. He still looks across the street above an inscribed quotation, “Lord, what fooles these mortals be.” But inside the building, Kieran points out, mischievous Puck turns up again, not far from the entrance, even though he was just seen outside. The original stone statue of Puck will be displayed near a flight of stairs to educational spaces above.
Outside the Folger Theatre at the east entrance, instead of Puck and the fountain, a new Juliet balcony offers an overlook above the plaza. Visitors will also discover and enjoy some of Greg Wyatt’s sculptures of Shakespeare’s plays in the southeast part of the grounds.
There are also Shakespeare quotations at the east and west entrances, displayed using custom-made aluminum letters in recessed spaces on the concrete walls. The letters are from the new “Puck” typeface, designed for the Folger by the design studio Pentagram from the lettering of the inscription near the Puck statue. The typeface is also part of the Folger’s visual identity, which Pentagram designed at the same time.
Shakespeare and Nature
Boyce’s vision for the landscape design, centered on Shakespeare’s love of nature, is inspired by the quotation from As You Like It near the west entrance: “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” Witmore, who calls this one of his favorite quotations from Shakespeare, says that it’s about “how landscape communicates to people.”
“Shakespeare grew up immersed in the natural world,” Witmore says. “His writing is full of very specific references to nature—to plants and birds. He was inspired by nature. It makes him distinctly powerful as a writer.” The “sermons in stones” idea of finding wisdom in nature also refers to a pattern found in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, he says: “leaving the intrigues of the urban world, being lost in the forest, and then finding yourself, in a way that was impossible in the city.” In a sense, this is the same journey visitors to the Folger are taking as they turn from the world of politics, government, and city streets to enter the garden rooms, shifting to nature, art, and words.
Instead of incorporating Elizabethan gardening ideas, Boyce and her team take a contemporary approach, leaning into the future and emphasizing biodiversity and pollinators. To “foreshadow the treasures within” the Folger, five of the many plants from Shakespeare’s plays are included: rosemary, lavender, boxwood, crocuses, and daffodils (which Shakespeare’s characters call “narcissus”).
Welcoming People In
The first major step in the construction phase of the renovation also involved the Folger landscape: moving the heritage magnolia tree about 100 feet across the west garden. Today, the same magnolia tree is the grandest of the Folger’s many trees, including numerous young trees and saplings, and it is valued as much for its shade as its stately appearance. In considering the Folger’s trees—old and new—”shade was a huge part of the discussion,” Kieran says. “Washington, DC, is a hot place, and the city’s monumentality and vast open expanses make it a haven to sit in the shade.” The magnolia offers a wealth of shade, he says. “It’s an invitation to everybody to sit there.”
The new landscape, offering shade, seating, and more, contributes to the cityscape and the local community—and will draw in tourists, office workers on lunch breaks, neighboring families, friends meeting up, and more. The gardens and grounds provide amenities, says Boyce. They are “beautiful and comfortable places to be outdoors, for life to spill out into the landscape, and to draw people in,” which is the whole idea.
Before the renovation project, the Folger could seem like “a beautiful building that is calmly in repose—like an actor with great posture sitting perfectly still on a chair,” Witmore says. But to engage the public, he says, “you have to do more. You have to lean over and reach out. And that’s what this landscape and the new entrances do—without changing the historical building.” For visitors, he says, “this landscape presents a world of poetry and what the arts and history bring: the great garden of the imagination, and of history and the past. There’s something about our dreaming capacity when it comes to flowers, plants, and trees. I want people to dream a little.”