NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

NIH Landscape Architect Mueller Retires After Nearly 37 Years

Mueller, with snow covered NIH grounds behind him
Longtime NIH Landscape Architect Lynn Mueller, after one of the region’s tamer winter storms in 2014

Photo:  Credit Ernie Branson

After more than 3½ decades, the self-described “tree hugger” who adopted the NIH campus and cared for it like it was his own backyard is leaving these green pastures for more leisurely pursuits. NIH Landscape Architect Lynn Mueller retired Dec. 31, 2 months shy of 37 years of service here.

Looking back, Mueller’s NIH career got off to a somewhat inauspicious start. It was just after the long President’s Day weekend in February 1979, and the D.C. metro area had just been buried under more than 20 inches of snow, the result of a humongous winter storm that surprised even weather forecasters. Enter Michigan native and Michigan State University graduate Mueller, who had been hired as landscape architect at NIH, sight unseen, after a phone interview. 

Before coming here, he was a registered landscape architect at the largest landscape contractor in southeast Michigan. His turf there covered whole towns, “from Toledo up to Saginaw over to Grand Rapids and through much of the Detroit suburbs. So I wondered how 300 acres would keep anyone busy—much less 2 people,” he said, counting himself and Tom Cook, then chief of the Grounds Maintenance and Landscaping Branch in NIH’s Division of Engineering Services, who hired him. 

“Originally I wanted to get into the [National] Park Service,” Mueller explained. “I initially turned this job down.”

But Cook was persistent and called Mueller again. Apparently the job series was in a “shortage category”—HR-speak meaning recruiters could sweeten offers to qualified candidates. Mueller would be able to start at the highest grade allowable—GS-7 at the time. In addition, Cook said he needed him to start right away. 

“I didn’t even know what N-I-H stood for,” Mueller said, recalling his first impression. “I got here and Tom drove me around the campus, bought me lunch, I accepted the offer and then thought, what have I gotten myself into? Of course it all worked out great.”

Later that same year, he married his sweetheart in Michigan and they replanted themselves in Maryland. A registered nurse, she landed a job in neurology at the Clinical Center, “making a lot more money than I did,” Mueller said, laughing.

In addition to managing snow-removal, lawn-mowing and tree contractors, his first two assignments were biggies—overseeing the landscaping at the ACRF (the then newly built clinic attached to the front of Bldg. 10) and completion of the grounds at the Lister Hill Center (Bldg. 38A). Construction on those areas was concluding and Mueller’s job was to make sure the government was getting everything it paid for, in terms of landscape installation and site restoration.

“[From the beginning] Tom had me out inspecting the grounds, looking for trouble spots, which I still do today,” Mueller said. “I’m always looking for areas that need to be renovated, unsightly public areas that may need attention.”

But anyone who’s ever paid the slightest attention to NIH out-of-doors knows Mueller didn’t just perform above and beyond the call of duty. He loved the place. In fact, NIH folklore insists Mueller knows every tree and blade of grass by name; that’s probably not much of an exaggeration. 

He was always coming up with creative campus improvements: Use of a “resistograph” device to determine unseen structural tree health; an official tree census in 2000 (although Mueller had taken his own survey 20 years previously); installation of bluebird and purple martin houses and bat houses to control the mosquito population without using insecticides; no-mow meadows and buffer strips that naturally filter out road and parking lot pollutants.

In 2001, he secured $700,000 for a project to restore the seriously eroded NIH Creek. Mueller remembers those negotiations—competing for reforestation dollars when funding was particularly tight—as some of his most challenging work here. He argued that returning the stream to its natural “greener” state would be crucial for stormwater management in the long run; drawing indigenous wildlife back would be a bonus. NIH management agreed. The eco-friendly restoration also caught the attention of like-minded conservationists, Maryland state foresters and the Department of Agriculture.

“Eventually, the project got recognized and it’s a beautiful habitat,” Mueller said. “What’s been so remarkable is that I’ve had 10 direct supervisors who all have been very supportive of these initiatives over the years. That’s been the basis of my success, having supervisors who have been understanding of these efforts…It’s usually a lot easier to pave over areas and cut down trees than to try and save them. The environment and the landscape are too often afterthoughts.”

“I’ve really enjoyed being Lynn’s supervisor for the last 6 years,” said Jim Lewis, chief of the Specialty Branch in the ORF Division of Facilities Stewardship. “When you supervise somebody like Lynn, who really doesn’t need supervising, you don’t really need to do anything but stay out of the way and maybe sign off on a little paperwork every now and then and the results have been great.”

Mueller’s favorite project (and one with results both historic and international) was the successful cloning of the Tree of Hippocrates, a 1961 gift to the National Library of Medicine from Greece. Mueller had noticed the historic sycamore deteriorating in the late 1980s due to weather and fungal disease. He attempted several different ways to nurse it back to health, to no avail. Then in 2004, he located—in Michigan—the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, which was able to clone the tree from cuttings Mueller sent. The original tree died in 2013. Two “new” Hippocrates trees were planted here. On Earth Day 2014, the Greek ambassador attended a ceremony celebrating the tree’s rebirth at NIH.

“That was really rewarding,” said Eagle Scout Mueller, who developed an affection for nature, the environment and animals early in life. As for his immediate after-NIH future, Mueller has no specific plans, beyond a bit of travel to expand his birding “life list” and perhaps some skiing. “It’s been an outstanding career,” he concluded. “They say if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well that’s true for me—except having to manage some of those ice and snow ‘Storms of the Century.’” 

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