You wouldn’t think a landscape historian would become a household name among New Yorkers, but San Antonian Elizabeth “Betsy” Barlow Rogers has earned that status among the civically hip.
She has been celebrated in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and photographed by Annie Leibovitz. She is president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, which she created, has taught curriculum she developed at the Bard Graduate Center, and publishes a literary journal, Site/Lines. She has been heaped with awards.
Most of the accolades come from her creating the Central Park Conservancy as the first ever public-private park partnership, in 1980. The model has been adopted by parks nationwide, including Brackenridge Park.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy will honor Rogers at its third annual Spirit of Brackenridge Park gala on March 27. Rogers, 83, will autograph her newest book, Saving Central Park, at the event.
A New Yorker for more than 50 years, Rogers traces her affinity for nature to the verdant, oak-filled spaces surrounding her family’s Alamo Heights home before the area was fully developed.
Along La Jara Boulevard and in the “deep, deep woods” of a half-acre lot across from her home, Rogers and lifelong friend Sarah Jo LeMessurier explored changes brought by seasons and even rehearsed for adulthood by smoking grapevines.
She and her brothers, Robert and Jamie Browning, also had free rein at their family ranch on the Pedernales River near Johnson City. In a recent essay in Site/Lines, she described the ranch as “quite simply, a child’s paradise” where she rode her horse Peewee, played hide-and-seek in the hayloft, chased armadillos, and ate figs off the branch.
Her first “office” was a room in her home’s garage where she and other students put together the yearbook for Saint Mary’s Hall. She graduated as valedictorian and attended Wellesley College, where she majored in art history. She married her college boyfriend and soon had their first of two children. Somehow she fit in a master’s degree in city planning at Yale, specializing in preservation of open spaces.
“The environmental movement hadn’t really started yet, but something was in the air that nature was important,” Rogers said.
When she and her young family moved to New York, she began volunteering with a group that enabled her to continue her childhood rambles to parks throughout the city and in outlying boroughs.
“In those days, there were still wetlands not used for garbage dumps,” she said.
In 1971, her book The Forest and Wetlands of New York City was published, the first of 11 books she has written on parks and urban places. Her 2001 tome Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History is required reading for many students and landscape architects, as well as anyone interested in a cultural history of the built environment. Ten years in the making, she considers it her magnum opus.
Soon after falling in love with New York City’s open spaces, Rogers began researching Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America, and was smitten with his design for Central Park. By that time, the park’s 843 acres was blighted through crime, litter, massive concerts, and lack of maintenance, including 50,000 square yards of graffiti. Though the city was mired in an epic fiscal crisis during the mid-1970s, Rogers was able to raise millions of dollars to begin the park’s restoration and maintenance. Just as important, her model emphasizes controlling funds to ensure these functions continue.
The story she tells in Saving Central Park blends her own life with the park’s history, decline, and revival, all with the striking turns of phrase and use of detail only a natural storyteller and writer can achieve.
Her fidelity to Olmsted’s plan, despite the ravages of human interference, is visible in restored designs of gardens, meadows, and woods as well as preserved bridges, buildings, balustrades, benches, and lampposts.
“We can’t go back and make the park exactly like it was in the 19th century,” Rogers said, “but we could respect the beauty of the old park and integrate playgrounds and ballfields that are popular. I had the entrepreneurial vision, but the total management vision all relates back to that Olmsted plan. Nothing is ever finished, but the state in which the park is now is due to the implementation of that plan by really dedicated people, some of whom I hired 30 years ago and who have given their whole professional lives to Central Park.”
Rogers’ brother Jamie and his wife, Phyllis, visited Central Park with Rogers last May and can attest to that dedication.
“We were walking through the park and there was an elderly maintenance man,” Jamie Browning said. “Betsy stopped and talked to him, and you could tell he had great pride, an invested ownership. That’s one of the things she has changed – how whether they’re volunteers or employees, they have a real love of the park. It really shows in the way the park looks and is maintained.”
Rogers’ impact on Manhattan’s green spaces has not ended with Central Park. Relationships forged in San Antonio connected her to those responsible for the revitalization of Battery Park on the island’s southern tip and to the creation of the High Line on the West Side.
The transformation of Battery Park took root when Rogers ran into a friend from Olmos Park, Warrie Price, and learned she was at loose ends.
“I told her there was an old prominent park at the harbor that was in terrible shape, and Warrie took it on,” Rogers said. “She is indomitable. She’s been able to raise a good deal of money and she has a plan.”
Rogers’ family had known the family of Robert Hammond, who helped lead the effort to transform an elevated railway line into one of Manhattan’s most popular park spaces, since Hammond’s father was a child.
“Robert and I went to lunch and he took me up on the High Line,” Rogers said. “It was beautiful because you could see how nature revegetates things, even an old piece of infrastructure. So I encouraged him, and he didn’t need much more than that. Robert’s just a genius at doing what he’s done.”
In Hammond’s view, Rogers’ influence extends far beyond just the island of Manhattan.
“I feel like she is really the mother of all these projects happening all over the country,” he said. “She was a great cheerleader for me, but I think the most important thing is the [public-private funding] model she created.”
Rogers and her husband, Ted Rogers, awake every morning to a view of Central Park, and most days she walks in the park. Many have asked her what she thinks about, as every view brings a memory. Free of managing the park, it brings only delight.
“I don’t dwell on struggles now,” said Rogers, who retired as president of the Central Park Conservancy in 1996. “Almost every day that I’m there I go into the Ramble – the woodland in the middle. You really feel you are taking a hike in the wilderness, a place where you can get pleasantly disoriented. And this morning there was a great-horned owl, and I hear there’s a barn owl!”