DARWINA L. NEAL, FASLA
... Members of her family, legions of colleagues, and tightly woven-together groups of friends will remember her as always endearingly direct, graciously uncompromising, unfailingly thoughtful, and deeply sentimental.
Darwina L. Neal, 79, of Washington, DC died peacefully in her sleep the morning of September 4, 2021, with sunshine in the room and the doors flung open to her garden overlooking Meridian Hill Park. As the news of her passing quickly spread through family, friends, and colleagues, many serendipitous toasts of sadness and kinship were made skyward.
Darwina was delivered by her paternal grandfather, the town doctor, at home on a dairy and poultry farm in Mansfield, Pennsylvania in 1942 to Darwin and Ina (Cooke) Neal. She graduated from Mansfield High School and then attended Penn State University to study Horticulture. She later switched to Landscape Architecture and was only one of two women in the entire class. After graduation she became only the third woman Landscape Architect to work for the National Park Service, where she continued to work for her entire career of 44 years.
In 1965 Darwina interned at the National Park Service, the start of her 44-year career where she rose to leadership roles. At that time she was the third woman within the agency. It was as an NPS landscape architect that she assisted Lady Bird Johnson with her Beautification Program. Working with the First Lady’s task force, she helped design beds for the hundreds of thousands of daffodils that are sprinkled throughout the small triangles, circles, and squares of the Capital District and that are stretched along the Potomac Parkway, Rock Creek Park, and Lady Bird Johnson Park. She later worked at the White House Liaison Office preparing designs for the landscapes of the White House and Camp David. Her final NPS postings were as Chief of Design Services, in the NPS Office of Professional Services and as the Chief of Cultural Resources in the NPS Office of Lands, Planning, and Design, National Capital Region where she served until her retirement in 2009.
After joining the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 1972, taking on officer roles in the Potomac Chapter, also in 1972 she was appointed chair of a task force to investigate the status of women and Blacks in the Landscape Architecture profession. This important work established a discouraging baseline of 5% women. That report led to ASLA policies to equalize women in the profession. The importance of that study continues as a current update seeks to measure change over the past five decades. She served as ASLA National Treasurer and Vice President. In1982 she was inducted as an ASLA Fellow at the age of 40, a young woman to achieve that distinction. Darwina was elected ASLA President in 1983, the society’s first female leader, becoming an important role model for women Landscape Architects. She continued her dedication to notable works and the promotion of the landscape architecture profession for the next four decades, within the ASLA, the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), and in the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the cultural heritage advisor to UNESCO for World Heritage.
In June of 2021, out of a pool of more than 15,000 members world-wide, to coincide with this award’s 50th Anniversary, Darwina was selected to receive the highest honor ASLA may bestow upon a landscape architect, the ASLA Medal. The ASLA Medal is awarded to a landscape architect, nominated by their peers, whose lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession have had a unique and lasting impact on the welfare of the public and the environment. Darwina’s family would like to extend gratitude to her valued colleagues, nationally and internationally, who so enthusiastically penned her nomination, and acknowledge their shared disappointment and sadness along with the entire ASLA community that she cannot be with us to receive this crowning award recognizing all her accomplishments.
Darwina Neal’s lifelong dedication to landscape heritage is marked initially by a 1977 paper titled “Restoration of Park Landscapes.” She pushed for the 1985 to 1994 documentation projects for the remarkable landscapes of Meridian Hill Park and Dumbarton Oaks Park through the Historic American Building Survey (HABS). The acceptance of the 1916–1936 neoclassical design of Meridian Hill Park as a National Landmark in 1994 was a highpoint for a designed landscape reached through her efforts. She continued to support the documentation, preservation, and rehabilitation of this important park through her lifetime. Across the years from the mid-1980s to 2000 when the agreements were finally signed, Darwina constantly lobbied for the Historic American Landscape Survey, a landscape focused documentation companion to HABS. Darwina’s pivotal roles in these cultural landscape preservation advances deserves wider recognition.
Darwina was a constant leadership contributor to the United States Committee of ICOMOS (US/ICOMOS) serving on the board of trustees, and as treasurer from 1985 to 2019. She was valued for her institutional memory, contributions to board direction, to the thriving of the US/ICOMOS international Internship program, and to the US/ICOMOS annual symposia. Darwina was honored as a US/ICOMOS Fellow in 2007. At the international level for ICOMOS, Darwina made constant contributions to the scientific work in cultural landscape preservation to the joint ICOMOS IFLA International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes (ISCCL), engaging in working groups, aiding in guidelines and doctrine texts, and carrying out World Heritage nomination desk reviews. The ISCCL members remembered her fondly with quotes particularly about her gracious, warm and welcoming engagement with colleagues from around the world. In 2021 Darwina was elected an Honorary member for her sustained contributions over 20 years.
Darwina’s contributions to IFLA are also notable, beginning in 1984 the year she served as ASLA President, and continuing through 2014, culminating in service as IFLA Vice President for the Americas 2006 to 2010 and for her recognition through Honorary IFLA member status. Her works included contributions to the IFLA World Council, the IFLA Past, Present, Future publication, IFLA representation for the UNESCO Historic Urban Landscape Recommendation, the IFLA Geoffrey Jellicoe Award Jury, and the shaping of the IFLA Global Landscape Convention and Latin American Initiative. She was considered a dear friend of many IFLA colleagues around the world.
A champion for women and talent within landscape architecture and a constant supporter of the work of artists, Darwina collected beautiful works of art and appreciated creative talent. She generously supported organizations and causes aligned to her passions through contributions of her time, expertise, and funds. In particular her philanthropic contributions funded a scholarship and a lecture series that will continue to reap benefits into the future. Her contribution at Penn State created an endowed travel scholarship, awarded to a promising student to broaden their experience and learning. To recognize the global day honoring heritage, Darwina conceived of and worked with the National Building Museum to develop a mid-April annual lecture at the museum highlighting cultural landscape preservation and landscape architecture pioneers, particularly women.
Members of her family, legions of colleagues, and tightly woven-together groups of friends will remember her as always … endearingly direct, graciously uncompromising, unfailingly thoughtful, and deeply sentimental.
Darwina is survived by her sister, Marynel Somogy of Elmira, NY, brother-in-law, Larry Shellenberger of Philadelphia, PA, and sister-in-law, Eleanor Neal of Mansfield, PA; niece Jennifer (Paul) Somogy Salvaggio of Berwyn, PA, and her nephews Stephen (Michele) Somogy of Newport, NC, and Matthew (Johna) Neal of Mansfield, PA; during the past year Darwina’s family suffered deeply with her loss, the loss of her youngest sister, Dawn Shellenberger of Philadelphia, PA, and her brother Charles Neal of Mansfield, PA. May they rest in peace and the family be surrounded by happy memories.
A closing quote from this remarkable woman: “Life is a tapestry woven of people and experiences and throughout my life I have been very fortunate that I have worked with many talented and dedicated ones, friends and family, who have helped make my accomplishments possible, and my tapestry a more beautiful one. I am very fortunate and very grateful to everyone. Thank you.” 2017 Alumni Fellow Speech, Penn State University