DARNESTOWN, Md. – At this time of year for the past 34 years, Paul Pincus would oversee fall gardening duties for the 240 acres surrounding the U.S. Capitol and nearby buildings. As the trees turned color and the days grew shorter, the government landscaper would make sure summer plantings were discarded and flower beds were prepared for tulip bulbs.
But Pincus, 68, retired in September as the Capitol’s chief landscape architect. Since then, his vistas have narrowed to the brand-new home he bought with his wife, Claire, in western Montgomery County, and its two acres of nearly barren property just waiting to be redone.
“It was hard giving it up,” Pincus said of his job. But, “It was time.”
In the past, his office “never had a budget problem,” he said. Now, times are less certain. Congress is discussing turning some of the office’s functions over to the private sector.
“It was a good time to get out. I didn’t agree with a lot of policies,” he said.
His job, he said, was one of a kind. He filled the Capitol grounds with cannas, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, petunias, cleomes, begonias and other annuals he ordered up from the Botanic Garden.
“We couldn’t take chances. We sort of stuck with tried and true varieties,” Pincus said.
In addition, he oversaw a staff of 84 who tended trees, fixed sidewalks and, in what he called his “biggest headache,” directed massive lawn repairs after U.S. citizens came to Washington to petition their government.
Since 1964, he also supervised the installation and decoration of the Capitol Christmas tree on the Capitol’s west lawn.
His retirement brings its own challenges.
He and Claire left their Silver Spring home and its woodland garden for a larger house and wide-open spaces.
“Here, I have a lot of land,” Pincus said, waving his arm to take in all of his property, still largely devoid of trees and flowers.
He has started planting Bradford pear trees, as a screen between his property and a neighbor’s. He said he will plant more than 200 perennials and a vegetable garden and build a fish pond for a formal garden.
“Luckily, I didn’t lose anything in the drought,” he said of August’s dry spell.
For the man who came to know the real dirt on Capitol Hill, little in his early years seemed to point him to the Capitol landscape architect’s office.
Pincus grew up in urban Chelsea, Mass., on Boston Harbor’s north shore. “Nobody had gardens there,” he said.
He studied math at college, but, unhappy with the choice, switched fields of study after reading a government posting for a landscape architect. Its call for candidates with an engineering background and an artistic interest appealed to him.
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1950, Pincus worked for private landscape architecture firms in Boston and, later in suburban Framingham, Mass., where he and his wife settled and began to raise their two sons.
In 1961, following the advice of friends who he said urged him to consider government work – “You’ll never get rich, but the government takes care of you,” they told him – Pincus applied for the position of senior landscape architect.
Just as Pincus’ decision to retire was in part a political calculation, his entry into government was touched by politics.
The post of senior landscape architect had been vacant for four years, Pincus said. But then-Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, a Massachusetts Republican who headed the Senate Appropriations Committee, took special interest in the job application submitted by Pincus, a constituent.
One doesn’t work on Capitol Hill for more than three decades without making some influential friends. Pincus said the late Republican Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois and Democratic Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota were not too busy to praise his work. Nor were former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a Maryland Republican, or Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican.
“He did a wonderful job,” Warner said of Pincus. Maintaining the Capitol grounds is “absolutely essential,” he said. “For me, it’s the highest priority.”
Comparing the Capitol grounds to the “center of town,” Warner said Americans want the property kept “with the same loving care as their own homes.”
But Warner didn’t allay Pincus’ fears that the Republican-controlled Congress may farm out his old office to a private company.
“We are obligated here to look at privatization,” said Warner, who is chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee that has oversight over the architect’s office.
In the meantime, Matthew Evans, who was Pincus’ assistant for four years, has moved into his boss’ old job.
“My agenda is very similar to his,” said Evans, 52. “We collaborated on many projects,” he said, adding he foresees little change.
Whatever the outcome of the political debate, Pincus is sitting pretty on his new property. “I won’t have to rake leaves in the fall,” he said. “That’s one thing I won’t miss.” -30-