How the campus was created: A reflection on new exhibit

Courtesy of Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News

As you walked from your 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. class, you may have stopped to wonder about the curious, randomly intersecting paths meandering whimsically throughout campus. Or maybe you took a second to pause and look at the flowers and bushes that often line our walkways. Sure, most college campuses are aesthetically pleasing, but something about Vassar’s greenery feels more than that. It feels like its own, unique space walking the line between carefree and purposeful design. As it turns out, those aspects of our Vassar environment that garner our adoration have been in the works long, long before any of us even considered the idea of college.

“The Campus Green: The Olmsted Firm’s Designs for Vassar College” is an exhibition currently housed in the Art Library, which depicts the presumably gargantuan task of creating a campus.  The exhibition celebrates the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted this April, and was organized by Associate Professor of Art Yvonne Elet, Associate Professor of Art and Caleb P. Mitchell ’22. A space that solely contained all necessary buildings may have been sufficient, but how to make it one in which students felt comfortable proved challenging. As you walk into the exhibition, you are greeted with walls full of older blueprints and designs for specific areas across campus.

Courtesy of Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News

The exhibition and associated brochure provide an introduction to Vassar’s early campus planning, and I flipped through a newly published research article on the topic by Elet for further information. Of the various Olmsted partners who have consulted at Vassar, John Charles Olmsted’s work in the 1890s was most consequential.  He applied the Olmsted firm’s “principles and rules governing convenience and design” to Vassar, recommending the layout of future important buildings—specifically Rocky and the Chapel—on either side of Main Drive, to form a central quadrangle. In this way, he shaped this central core of campus down to the present.

The largest section of the exhibition focuses on the next phase of Olmsted activities at Vassar, directed by Olmsted firm partner Percival Gallagher, from which many drawings survive. Gallagher, as the exhibit demonstrates, continued in the convenient design mindset of Olmsted, while himself also contributing to extremely valuable projects in his own right. The wall directly to the left as you walk in details a sketch of Blodgett Hall and surrounding areas. Gallagher oversaw the significant task of conducting a topographical survey of the northeast campus, including the area around the newly-built Blodgett Hall. He also made designs for the circulation of paths and roads, and recommended plantings.

Courtesy of Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News

The final section of the exhibition regards Gallagher’s contributions to the area around Skinner Hall. The right

The final section of the exhibition regards Gallagher’s contributions to the area around Skinner Hall. The right wall of the exhibition reveals the ways in which Gallagher and planners adapted to new issues that could impede progress of the campus design, most notably the rise of the automobile. With this new technology growing extremely prevalent in the daily lives of Americans, adjustments needed to be made to allow for inclusion of this new phenomenon. With regards to Skinner Hall specifically, Gallagher worked on issues of parking around the new concert hall; and also worked with Chair of Botany Edith Roberts on plantings around the building, which partly stepped on her neighboring garden of native species.

As the exhibition puts it, “Gallagher creatively and deftly thought about the plantings in relation to Robert’s garden.” This concluded the written section of the exhibit, and with the rest of the time I was there I enjoyed getting the chance to view all of the vintage photographs of Vassar’s iconic building at the turn of the century, old sketches of design plans and the numerous books on display. 

The main takeaway that I am leaving this exhibit with, and presumably its intended message, is to appreciate how instrumental efforts during Vassar’s early period were in creating the space that we all know, love and interact with every day. The layout of our campus was not instantly decided. It is the product of careful and thoughtful planning over the span of decades, forged with great scrutiny given to even the most minute of details. When looked at as a whole, it is clear to see that these efforts added up to something truly beautiful. With spring finally here and students congregating en masse on the lawns outside, it has never been more clear just how successful this century-long project has been.

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