Balboa lay below, a conduit for cars traveling from the locks and the little towns upcanal to Panama City. I tried to imagine the setting in 1907, before Balboa was built, when the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the creator of New York's Central Park, and sculptor Daniel Chester French were sent down by the national Commission of Fine Arts to suggest how the canal and its environs might be made more picturesque. "'The Canal," they wrote in their subsequent report, "like the Pyramids or some imposing object in natural scenery, is impressive from its scale and simplicity and directness. One feels that anything done merely for the purpose of beautifying it would not only fail to accomplish that purpose, but would be an impertinence."
     Impertinent or not, Balboa had to be built nearby to accommodate administrators and workers, and it required landscaping as well as houses, offices, schools, and so on. Goethals wanted "a town that shall be a credit to the nation and a place of comfort for those who inhabit it." He wanted, more precisely, a 150-acre town site to support 130 buildings, a layout of streets, walkways, sewers, and water lines, and everything landscaped.
     By this time, the Administration Building was already rising on an artificial mound at the base of Ancon Hill; it would soon take shape as an Italian Renaissance complex with a covered central entrance, dominating everything on the plain below. It still does-including even McDonald's. But the young man who in 1913 finally took the job of laying out the town, William Lyman Phillips, was determined to make the rest of Balboa appealing on a more human scale.
     Exactly 108 steps below the Administration Building is the garish fountain dedicated to Goethals, a monolith in white marble. More impressive are the corutu trees on either side, 40 feet in circumference, with vast green canopies, and the prado beyond, the formal approach to the administrative hill that Phillips, who had been a student of Olmsted Jr.'s at Harvard, designed. Royal palms line the prado. Phillips didn't care for these "feather-duster trees," but Goethals did, and so they are seen everywhere in Balboa. The buildings shaded by them are uniform, with raised porches and the ubiquitous red tile roofs.
     Phillips accommodated the town to its natural setting, in sharp contrast to the faux palace above it. His enlightened town plan, with winding streets and bountiful landscaping, avoided of whenever possible the linear regimentation dear to the military; rendering Balboa a more relaxed environment.
     Goethals offered little support to the young, inspired landscape architect; finally Phillips departed Panama in disgust, neither his plans nor the effects of his ambitious landscaping fully realized. Another landscape architect, one of several brought in to finish up Balboa, remarked of Phillips, "I don't know who he was, but he was a master." Phillips also "may have been the only man on the isthmus who understood the importance of making a visually harmonious tropical town which would reflect the rhythm and style of life in Central America," according to his biographer, Faith Reyher Jackson, writing in Pioneer of Tropical Landscape Architecture. The Panamanian architect and historian Samuel Gutierrez told me that "gardens were kept as an integral part of the houses, and the houses were so well suited to the tropics." I found the community to be like a North American suburb, the winding streets set about with small houses and large ones of a similar design, linked by the profusion of plants and by a common, if vague, sense of purpose.
     The open foyer of the old U.S. Post Office next to the plaza, also designed by Phillips, suggested a precursor of the mini-mall.
  Goethals Memorial 600.JPG (76981 bytes)

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