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Master in our Midst

Tufts' Landscape Design and the Influence of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

by Evan Bourquard, E00

How often do you truly appreciate the energy and architectural design effort that went into your surroundings? Our fast-paced society affords few moments to stop along the way to admire the view or to appreciate architecture. At Tufts, few of us are aware that many parts of the campus were designed or show the influence of one of the most famous landscape architectural firms of the 20th century, that of Frederick Law Olmsted. I recently uncovered this significant piece of Tufts history and I hope my discovery of one of the many lost jewels in the University's past will foster a renewed interest in architecture and an appreciation of how important a beautiful, well-designed environment can be to success and happiness.

In American Architecture, taught by Daniel Abramson of the Art History Department, we had been studying the most significant contributors to American and world architecture over the past two centuries. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and I. M. Pei were all famous names that I had already heard, however, the name of Frederick Law Olmsted was not familiar to me. It soon became clear that his contribution was by no means inconsequential.

The Olmsted name is one of profound significance to American landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), is widely recognized as the founder of the profession. An active conservationist, sailor, farmer, writer and adventurer, he began his career as a landscape architect at age 35, and eventually became responsible for such well-known projects as New York's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace. After returning to his native New England to plan the Boston park system, Olmsted worked out of his Brookline, Massachusetts, office from 1883 until his retirement in 1895. His projects included city parks, private homes, and many college campuses. He popularized the national park and public space concepts and helped formulate early naturalist landscape theory, in sharp contrast to previous tradition.

After Olmsted's death in 1903, the firm was taken over by his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and his stepson, John Charles Olmsted. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the younger of the two, showed himself as the true heir of his father. He was trained early on for a position in the Olmsted firm, studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he would later establish the first formal landscape architecture training program. He served as an apprentice on two very important Olmsted projects, the plans for the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which was considered one of the most significant turning points in America's architectural development. In 1920 he became the senior partner in the Olmsted Brothers firm and found himself the leading figure in the new and fast-growing profession of landscape architecture. Following in his father's footsteps, he was an avid conservationist and contributed some of the key language in the legislation that established the National Park Service. He helped to continue the landscape traditions of his father, who held that a calculated naturalistic arrangement of vistas, as well as an understanding of the natural environment, makes a view beautiful. Who knew that during all this he was also working quietly on our very own campus!

With these Olmstedian ideas and images swirling around in my head, one afternoon after class, inspiration struck. I had left Anderson Hall at the College of Engineering, crossed College Avenue, and passed through one of the iron gates that lead up the hill. But just inside the gate, a naturalistic garden caught my eye. I had never noticed it before, since it nestled into the hillside and, being small, it was easy to overlook. But on examining it further that afternoon, I noticed some of the very same architectural mechanisms at work that I had come across about in class. It is circular and very simple. It lies below grade, or below the natural line of the hillside and is ringed by a rough stone wall that incorporates a set of simple steps for the path. In the garden are several varieties of plants and evergreens. The small flagstone patio, which makes up the viewing area, is a notable change from the surrounding concrete and emphasizes the distinction of the space. To add to that effect, the overhanging tree makes the area even more personal. It serves as a tiny sanctuary from traffic and from the hustle and bustle of the path it is a part of.

Who was responsible for the layout and design of this fine garden? I began to wonder if there could be a real connection between Olmsted and this particular spot. The Olmsted firm, in the hands of father and son, had been prolific, and many of their projects had been included on college campuses. Today, the Olmsted home and office in nearby Brookline is part of the National Park System. I phoned the archives at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, where most, if not all, of the firm's drawings, photographs and records are catalogued and kept. The staff were able to tell me that, in fact, there existed a folder in the archives entitled "Tufts College" and that there must have been some connection between Olmsted and Tufts during the 1920s. Beyond that it was up to me to find out more. During the following month my search took me not only deeper into the Olmsted Archives, but to the Tufts archives, the Tufts Construction Department plan room, and to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I quickly discovered that this historical link had been completely forgotten: not one person I spoke to in the Tufts administration was aware of any work done by the Olmsted brothers. I was also fortunate enough to do much of my research through primary sources. Original documents at the Olmsted Archives and at the Library of Congress proved essential to my understanding of what was really going on during this period. The story I uncovered is quite fascinating.

 

A Vision for Tufts

In the 1920s, due to increased demand across the country for collegiate education and new study programs, Tufts' enrollment was growing. Competition for places in the student body became intense, and Tufts administrators, like those of many other major schools, found themselves atop a wave of strong interest in higher education. This excitement was partially the result of the economic boom of the postwar period, but also of the remnants of the industrial and manufacturing revolution whose effects were still being felt around the world.

This newfound popularity and funding gave Tufts an unprecedented opportunity and rationale for expanding its physical facilities, something that had previously happened only very slowly. Rapid expansion building had often threatened the coherence and beauty of college campuses across the country. The possibility of a haphazard placement of facilities, with little sensitivity to any overall plan or future development, was a very real one. At that time, the importance of a cohesive and unified campus was not widely recognized, and new construction often took place without regard for the surrounding buildings or the existing layout. Landscape architecture, especially college landscape architecture, was relatively new and college administrations rarely realized the importance to students of a sense of place.

At Tufts, however, this new growth served to inspire certain members of the administration and the faculty, namely, those who had been involved in previous construction efforts, who realized the need for proper planning. It was clear that the campus was soon going to change dramatically. A vocal presence and probably the impetus for Tufts' fledgling planning was John A. Cousens, president from 1919 to 1937. President Cousens had high hopes not only for the college but for the Medford campus, which he alluded to on several occasions in speeches and newspaper articles. One of the most telling examples appeared in an article in the Boston Herald, later reprinted in the Tufts Weekly in February 1926. In it he describes his vision of Tufts fifty years hence, in 1976. The new Tufts would be based on the organizational system at Oxford, with separate colleges organized and physically arranged according to different academic subjects. He proposes moving the medical school from Boston back to Medford and creating a local college hospital. Cousens is also interested in establishing a two-year college on campus to serve as a proving ground or trial run for future students. He envisions a newer, more unified, more beautiful Tufts. He describes the 1976 campus as "a garden, a Mecca for lovers of beauty everywhere" and of the hill he tells the reporter: "The hill itself? How shall I describe it? A dream come true!" It is clear that along with others in the Tufts leadership, he was interested in a future growth plan, one that preserved the unity and beauty of the existing campus and sought to improve it. It is about this time that the Olmsted firm was hired as consultants on the Tufts grounds.

 

A New Aesthetic

The choice of the Olmsted firm is a significant one. It is tangible evidence of a commitment to planning and careful landscaping. The Olmsted name was linked to the most famous park and landscape designs in existence. For Tufts-a small college with limited financial resources and under a thousand students-to choose such a famous firm in the 1920s was a risk, and probably seen by some as an unnecessary indulgence. Bringing in an outside firm also displaced those on the faculty who had previously overseen the layout and even the design of much of the campus.

To determine the nature of the relationship between Tufts and the Olmsted firm, I carried out a careful reading of the original documents, which consisted mainly of letters, notes and receipts, most now in the National Archives in Washington, DC.

At first, the firm's work at Tufts was limited to consulting: for example, Olmsted Jr. and an assistant would be invited to meet with President Cousens or various faculty members about the placement of a path or a building. The university was interested in Olmsted's aesthetic opinion more than anything else. But as Tufts became more dependent on Olmsted's recommendations and counsel, it began to call on the landscaping firm for more and more tasks, leaving the direct supervision and major choices up to the Olmsted brothers. By the late 1920s, it is clear that Olmsted's firm had essentially become the landscape managers of the Tufts campus. Bills and statements from that time indicate that they were responsible for subcontracting maintenance work, for tree inventories and feedings, and for most smaller repairs and construction. The firm even hired the first full-time Buildings and Grounds employee. Monthly meetings and walk-throughs by firm employees began, and more consultations with Olmsted Jr. who was himself very busy, occurred occasionally as well by the mid-to late 1920s.

Eventually university officials, along with Olmsted, realized that an overall plan would be necessary to integrate the existing layout of paths, buildings and scenery with the new growth and construction. Coherence and unity are, after all, key aspects of any college campus. The Tufts administration soon authorized the creation of such a plan, and the Olmsted firm set about planning and projecting the future of Tufts for the next fifty years.

It is important not to underestimate the necessity or the difficulties of devising a college master plan. A good master plan provides a rigid structure for current development and a suggestive structure for future development. It must allow for some flexibility of program or layout while simultaneously setting guidelines to enforce unity and coherence with existing work. It must strike a balance between utility and aesthetics. Any good plan will contain areas of high detail representing features that will be completed immediately and resolved, and areas of low detail which represent activity that will occur far into the future and can only be loosely projected. The major difficulties come in the form of accurate predictions and reliance upon an administration whose goals may shift in a fifty-year period.

In the archives of the Olmsted National Historic Site, I was thrilled to find two original Tufts master plans. The letters at the National Archives had mentioned these plans, and they had passed the scrutiny not only of Olmsted Jr. himself, but also of President Cousens and various other important Tufts figures. Of the two plans, one stands out as the most likely final plan because of its closer resemblance to today's campus. This plan is very interesting from an architectural perspective: it retains the character of the upper campus as the focal point, while also successfully creating other pedestrian areas and open campus centers. Olmsted Jr. realized the importance of Tufts history to student morale and of preserving student space and not polluting the academic environs with non-academic distractions like cars and parking lots. The most pleasant walks and views are those that are uninterrupted.

 

Steps, Paths, Trees

The most significant aspect of the master plan, however, is the attention it pays to the eastern slope of the campus. Earlier, firm employees had designed the landscaping of the entire eastern slope area, as well as all the walks and the terrace around Paige and Minor halls. At that point, however, no direct connection to the street existed. Recognizing the need for a link between the Engineering College and the main campus, the need for a formal gateway to Tufts, and the college's desire to honor those students and alumni who had given their lives for their country, the firm conceived the Memorial Steps. This master plan probably marks the first appearance of this idea. As evidenced by this plan and various letters, the Olmsted firm was instrumental in visualizing and creating the Memorial Steps.

Today, the Memorial Steps are one of the most notable and visible reminders of Olmsted ideas at Tufts. Although architecture firms and contractors completed much of the work, Olmsted Jr.'s involvement in the conception of such an important site is a significant contribution to the college's architectural heritage. The steps are a unique combination of a memorial to the war dead, a formal entrance to Tufts, and a major student thoroughfare. They provide access to and from the heart of campus, the quad. They start beside Paige and Miner halls and descend down a steep hill to the Engineering College and Boston Avenue. Of concrete set below grade and along the natural curve of the slope, they are punctuated by a number of landings inlaid with large brass memorials for each major war that has taken the lives of Tufts alumni, from the Civil War to Korea. The formal gateway, a combination of iron and brick, is flanked by tall evergreen shrubs.

The steps are a major campus element; they are featured in brochures mailed to potential applicants, and they are heavily used by students. They continue to serve the campus not only as an east-west link, but also as Tufts' most impressive entry.

Other important campus features can also be credited to the Olmsted firm. The brothers selected the trees for preservation on the eastern slope, and the small garden area behind the gate immediately opposite Robinson Hall may also be their work. As you walk up the path from this gate, you are presented with a majestic view: the overhanging trees frame the decorated top of Paige Hall, a small piece of Olmsted. The archives also contain landscaping plans for Pearson Hall, Stratton, Metcalf, Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, and the older Fletcher School buildings. While it is clear that in some cases the original layout has not been perfectly preserved, much of the original concept is intact. Walking the campus we can readily see several Olmstedian trademarks, especially on the northeastern slopes. There are large open spaces separated by large trees and older growth. The fence surrounding campus creates a natural sanctuary and subconscious separation from the busy streets. The paths, with their rough raised stone surfaces following the curve of the slope, are indicative of a desire by the designer to meld them with the surrounding hillside. The carefully preserved and crafted views of different buildings, most evident on the main quad and in the long downhill slope of that area toward the arched gateway to the Memorial Steps, is clearly planned. While it is true that much of that area was already in existence when the Olmsteds entered the scene, there is evidence that the firm played a large role in preserving that area and removing distractions like roads and crowded buildings. The Olmsted landscape has always been characterized by these naturalistic vistas, calming meadow-like spaces ringed by large trees, and the creation of spaces in which one can escape the rigors of everyday life. It is that setting that makes the old campus of Tufts such a source of pride for students and administrators alike. Recently, when I asked an engineering faculty member out for a walk at lunchtime what he was up to, his response was: "Just getting out of the office to get some fresh air and to relax." This is exactly what this kind of design aimed to accomplish, to create a sense of escape and of calmness, and these environs are affecting students much the same way they did 70 years ago.

Olmsted Jr.'s early consultation and insight may also have helped guide the direction in which Tufts College chose to expand in the early 1920s. During one of the early meetings, he recommended the preservation of the empty lots south of Ballou Hall, which later became the President's Lawn. Old growth trees that stand there today would have been handpicked by Olmsted employees. Even the direction of campus growth, down the southern side of the hill, could have been influenced by Olmsted. Certainly once the master plan was constructed, it most likely served as a guide in the ensuing years.

Unfortunately, no master plan works forever. Tufts was never able to fully realize Olmsted's vision of the campus, although many elements of the quality older campus remain intact. As administrations, goals and programs changed, the Olmsted plan became obsolete and was replaced by what I consider scattered growth and haphazard placement of the more recent downhill dormitories. These newer sections of campus unfortunately lack the pedestrian and recreational space that characterized the Olmsted plan. Students using those areas today must compete with automobile traffic and other distractions.

The full extent of the Olmsted involvement at Tufts remains unclear, but the influence of Olmsted Jr. is profoundly felt on the Tufts campus. The firm was involved in the creation of one of the most symbolic and integral parts of the campus, Memorial Steps. Other evidence suggests that the firm also helped to shape the layout and growth of the campus. The connection is not forgotten by students or those who work to shape the modern Tufts. All landscape architecture has a profound effect on our daily lives, and it is important that as a university we aspire to push for the improvement of the landscape and the preservation of the historic beauty of the future Tufts.

 

About the Author

Evan Bourquard is studying civil engineering and hopes to study architecture after graduation next year. He is attending the Career Discovery Program at Harvard's Graduate School of Deisgn this summer, a studio program in architecture.

 

"As a fledgling civil engineer and architect, I have always had a heightened awareness of my surroundings. I was the shy kid in the preschool corner whose greatest pleasure was the company of some good wooden blocks. Today I am the fellow who looks up at the intricate ceiling of the train station or notices the pattern of the flooring tiles while my amused friends wait and watch. I am the person who looks up underneath the highway overpass to try to see how it is held up. It is a way of life. These interests have led me to civil engineering here at Tufts. And while I enjoy the challenge and the creative side of the profession, my true passion lies in architecture. It is, in my view, one of the few vocations that require not only a good amount of building sense and civil engineering knowledge but also a knowledge of society and people, coupled with creativity and vision."

   

 

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