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Olmsted's Beautiful Schools

Frederick Law Olmsted shaped many beautiful college campuses


Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York

Wilderness and civilization combine at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York

Photo: Flickr Member Grenadier32 / Creative Commons 2.0 Sage Hall at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

Frederick Olmsted and other architects were commissioned to develop master plans for Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Shown here, a view of the Central Campus from Sage Hall. Photo © Jackie Craven.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

Members of the Olmsted family helped design the grounds at Yale and many other colleges.

Photo © Jackie Craven

A school doesn't have to have a lawn. You can find excellent schools in busy urban centers or even on the Web. But when we dream of academic life, we often think of ivy-covered towers, ancient trees, and vast expanses of green.

Some of the most picturesque college campuses in the United States were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted or his partners. From 1857 to 1950, Olmsted's firm designed the master plans or served as landscape consultants for 355 school and college campuses.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who is often called the father of American landscape architecture, was possibly the first campus designer to identify the importance of natural topography. Olmsted didn't base his designs on established theories or rules. Instead, he took a practical approach, looking at the existing landscape, vegetation, and climate. Functional organization, urban design, landscaping, gardening, and art combined in the campuses Olmsted designed.

One of Olmsted's earliest campus projects was to create a master plan for the College of California on a dry, dreary hill in Oakland. He wanted the college to blend with the character of the neighborhood, and also to allow for later expansion and modifications. For these reasons, Olmsted argued for a picturesque rather than a formal plan. Olmsted placed the college buildings four miles away from Oakland's orderly, square village lots, and he divided the land into large wooded areas with tranquil winding roads.

The 1865 plan proved flexible years later, when the College of California merged with another school to create the University of California, Berkeley. Little remains of the original college, but Olmsted's plan is still visible along the quiet, residential Piedmont Avenue.

When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned for the campus design at Stanford University, he again argued for naturalistic plan. He wanted buildings nestled into the foothills, with a road meandering though the forest. However, it was necessary to compromise with the architects. Sandstone buildings with red tile roofs were placed in an orderly rectangles on flat land. The resulting design, completed in 1914, does not entirely reflect Olmsted's original vision, yet it is certainly one of America's most memorable schools.

Olmsted set the standard for campus design, and after his death in 1903, the landscape architecture firm he founded was continued by his sons and their successors. More than thirty-five years were spent creating the expansive landscape at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Vassar has seen many changes over the years, but the campus remains a serene place to think and dream. Immense trees spread their arms outside stately brick and stone Victorians. A winding lane leads into cool pine groves with thick beds of pine needles. Nearby, a narrow brook bubbles into a calm lake. Olmsted would be pleased.

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