UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 16 Winter 23 Library
Hughes was the University of Virginia’s University Landscape Architect for 26 years until her retirement in 2022. Image by Dan Addison, UVA Communications
School of Architecture

Congratulations, Mary Hughes!!

The UVA School of Architecture and the members of the Dean’s Advisory Board recently announced that Mary Hughes, FASLA (MLA ’87) was selected as the 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient. The award recognizes exceptional graduates from the School of Architecture who have demonstrated creativity, innovation, leadership, and vision through their distinguished body of work within the professional, academic, civic, or artistic realms, as well as their service to the University of Virginia. The award was presented to Hughes at the Annual Dean’s Forum Dinner. 

Hughes began her career as Historic Landscape Architect with the National Park Service and later became the University Landscape Architect at UVA. She is credited with transforming the role of landscape architecture by pioneering and evolving the field of landscape preservation and, in turn, establishing models for other institutions to learn from and emulate. Over the course of her three-decade career, she has emphasized the importance of continuity over the value of any specific narrative or moment in time though, advocating for and advancing the landscape as a dynamic medium of significant cultural consequence.  

“Throughout her career, Mary Hughes demonstrated tireless commitment and passion for advancing the discipline of landscape architecture and historic preservation in service to the greater public good,” said Dean Malo A. Hutson, “It is impossible to know and experience our University’s landscape without being indebted to her generous wisdom and pioneering advocacy. Her deep recognition of landscapes as evolving and dynamic has guided her renowned approach to the stewardship of public landscapes at UVA and well beyond. It is an honor to recognize her as a distinguished alumna of our school.” 

One of the reasons our Grounds are as vital as they are today is the good work of Mary Hughes.
Merrill D. Peterson Professor Elizabeth K. Meyer

In receipt of this year’s award, Hughes shared, “This is certainly a very great and unexpected honor! I deeply appreciate this recognition of my work by my mentors and colleagues in Campbell Hall. Some of the most special aspects of my career at UVA have been the ability to stay involved with the School of Architecture over the years, through occasional teaching opportunities and often hiring students as interns. It has been wonderful to watch the maturation of the programs at the School, meet the many generations of students, and witness the development of young professionals who are making such valuable contributions to the field after graduation.” 

Hughes received a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1987. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, she worked for the National Park Service (NPS) as a landscape architect on historic sites in the Midwest region of the United States from 1991 to 1996. Hers was one of only six such positions nationwide at that time. Shortly after joining the NPS, she created the Cultural Landscape Program, which later received a Federal Design Achievement Award. She produced cultural landscape reports for important sites and parks in her region, including two notable projects she helped to realize: the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, designed in collaboration by landscape architect Dan Kiley and architect Eero Saarinen, and the Forest Hills Park in Cleveland, Ohio. Evolving from thorough historical research and through advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised East Cleveland neighborhood where the park is located, Hughes stewarded the redesign of the 235-acre Forest Hills Park, the home site of John D. Rockefeller’s estate built in 1873. 

In 1996 Hughes returned to the University of Virginia as the University Landscape Architect, a role she dedicated herself to with great passion, sensitivity, humor, and tenacity until her recent retirement in January 2022. During her tenure at UVA, she was a visionary leader, managing the Grounds’ first landscape and stormwater master plan. At Hughes’ insistence, UVA completed a comprehensive study of its waterways and stormwater systems, which then resulted in innovative stormwater management practices recommended by Andropogon Associates, which were incorporated into the 1998 landscape master plan by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects. This work also informed an award-winning public park and stormwater management system, the Dell, designed by Warren Byrd of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. Hughes was instrumental in advancing the groundbreaking transformation of the Dell into a treasured place on campus — work that then inspired other institutions, such as Duke University and Georgia Tech, to reimagine the role of landscape as integral to both the experience and function of places of higher learning. 

On behalf of the Office of the Architect, Hughes helped shepherd the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers project from initial proposals to its realization.
(Photo: Sanjay Suchak, UVA Communications)

Her management of the 2013 Cultural Landscape Report of the Academical Village at UVA, compiled by Heritage Landscapes and Rivanna Archaeology, not only traced the historical evolution of the Grounds but also helped to seed ongoing archaeological excavations of campus sites. This work has led to the rehabilitation of key landscapes around the Rotunda, including the North Terrace and courtyards, restoring their original design intent while accommodating contemporary uses. 

Hughes served on the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which led to the construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.
(Photo: Sanjay Suchak, UVA Communications)

As part of her transformational work at the University of Virginia, Hughes encouraged cultural and archaeological research on the history of a free Black settlement established near and below the Academical Village by Catherine “Kitty” Foster in the 1830s. This research resulted in a design commission, by landscape architects Cheryl Barton and Walter Hood, for the South Lawn Project’s public spaces and was a pioneering model for the interpretation of America’s racial history within an academic setting. More recently, Hughes managed the design and implementation of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. The product of an expansive collaborative effort over many years, the memorial is a powerful national model for institutions working to confront and acknowledge their complete and, in part, painful histories. Hughes has helped to ensure that research, documentation, and interpretation of the Academical Village landscape, and in turn, its public experience incorporates the stories of the enslaved laborers who built and maintained the Grounds for fifty years. 

With a deep understanding of how campuses can and should adapt to contemporary needs, and in recognition of how this need is not in conflict with the preservation of public landscapes, Hughes’s stewardship of one of America’s most prized university campuses demonstrates how the integration of landscape architecture and historic preservation can expand our collective understanding of important histories while evolving in response to current and future needs.

“[During her time at UVA, Mary] has single-handedly changed the administration’s awareness of the campus landscape beyond the ‘sacred Jeffersonian center’…She has gained a reputation for her passion, integrity, and knowledge as one of the most important contemporary cultural landscape practitioners,” said Merrill D. Peterson Professor Elizabeth K. Meyer. “There are few public universities with public land holdings as significant, diverse, complex, and contested as the University of Virginia. One of the reasons our Grounds are as vital as they are today is the good work of Mary Hughes.”

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