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“The Lady Boss”

With a team of strong and diligent helpers, landscape architect Barbara Seymour ’63 created a very special garden in Chester.

By Carol Brévart-Demm


At the corner of Seventh and Madison in Chester, Pa., stands a building that looks like a church and, in fact, once was. Now transformed and renamed Wesley House, it’s a refuge for homeless women and their children. Until 18 months ago, the home’s only outdoor “recreational” area was the steps down to the sidewalk, where women would sit with their children as traffic sped past just a few feet away. These days, though, Wesley House residents enjoy a safer and more tranquil place to relax—thanks to Barbara Seymour ’63.

A lifelong artist and a landscape architect for the past 30 years, Seymour says that one of her missions as a creator of gardens is “to bring people and nature together, to get people outside, where there are birds and butterflies.”

In 2008, Seymour had the opportunity to undertake a project that fulfilled her mission in a very special way, when she was asked to donate her services to the Community Action Agency of Delaware County (CAADC) by designing and supervising the installation of a place of peace and serenity for the women of Wesley House. The project was sponsored by the Wachovia Foundation, Comcast-Spectator Foundation Sixers Charities, Conoco Phillips Trainer Refinery, and the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Seymour credits her friend Brenda Exon, wife of Swarthmore Professor of Studio Art Randall Exon, as one of the main driving forces behind the project. “Brenda is the Philly Pride Lady and involved in lots of civic ventures to help children. She’d been talking with someone from the CAADC, and she recruited me,” Seymour says.

Given just one month to design, draw up plans, and install the garden, Seymour needed to survey the site before agreeing to the project. “When I saw those women and their children on the steps, with all that traffic going by, and that was the only place they had to sit, my heart went out to them,” she says. She was unable to refuse the challenge of converting the barren, 50-by-30-foot plot. “And I knew it was something I could do,” she added.

With so little time to complete the task, she started immediately, creating a design and making a list that included plants, benches, paving stones, and sod. She e-mailed the list to the head of the CAADC, requesting that all items be available on schedule.

On installation day, Seymour went to the site knowing that a team of helpers had been recruited to assist her but with no idea who they would be. On arrival, she was introduced to a group of 10 young men who had been released from prison one day earlier. This was to be the first volunteer assignment of their rehabilitation program—and their first day outside.

“One of the interesting parts of this job,” she says, “is that I’m used to working with professionals—masons, landscaping contractors, engineers—who know what they’re doing. In this case, my team didn’t know anything about building a garden. I had to teach them on the job.”

After a short period of hesitation, Seymour says, the young men threw themselves into the task, asking questions constantly, such as: “How deep do we dig the hole?” “How do we get the tree to the hole?”

“They called me ‘Lady Boss,’ Seymour says. “I had to persuade them to call me Barbara.”

With only a pickax and two or three shovels, the young men dug into the shallow soil, discovering masses of rubble beneath. “They were just working with brute manpower,” Seymour says. They planted five large trees and 20 large shrubs, rolling the heavy root balls into position for planting. They laid sod and created a patio of paving stones, embellished with three wrought-iron benches. They completed the garden but had about 50 small pots of flowers left over.

“Let’s just plug these flowers into the lawn,” Seymour suggested.

“Do we take them out of their pots?” one young man asked.

“‘Guys, a pot is like a prison for a plant,” Seymour told them. “You have to take it out of the pot and put it into the ground.’”

“It was a moment of enlightenment for all of us,” she says.

After a day working under Seymour’s gentle supervision and with Exon’s constant words of encouragement, several of the young men expressed interest in finding jobs as gardeners.

“Brenda and I just fell in love with these guys,” Seymour says. “They worked so hard. I think they were really proud of themselves. In one day, we’d taken a barren site and made a garden. And for me, it was an incredibly moving and humbling experience.”

View more photos of Barbara Seymour's Wesley House garden in Chester, Pa., in the slideshow below.

3 Responses to ““The Lady Boss””

  1. Barbara,
    This is a beautiful story. You did an outstanding job….as usual. I can only imagine how wonderful it is for these families of women and children to have a "green" sanctuary to enjoy. It would be icing on the cake if those young men decided to become gardeners because you and your one day garden installation. I really enjoyed the photos. What a difference the garden makes ………….not just to those who live in the shelter..but to those people who live in the area. Thanks for sharing the article.


  2. Thanks for this story. I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of newly released prisoners working with nature and beauty and doing good for others. I know the power it can generate in rehabilitation. For some time they have been allowing prisoners to work with service dogs and rescued horses. I would think it would be wonderful to allow prisoners and released prisoners to work in parks, gardens and especially vegetable gardens that could feed the needy. This might even more powerful in Juvenile Detention Centers. I intend to discuss this with our local Juvenile Center, but not sure they have any available land.

  3. Barbara - Philip sent this to me but I am only now looking at it. Having once worked in Chester myself, this really resonated with me. I love the project - I love even more that you did it!!! I would LOVE to come see it and see you when next we are in Philly.

    Leslie Graitcer