Charting a Course
for the Girl Scouts
Master in our Midst
Jaharis Family Center
Master in our Midst
Tufts' Landscape Design and the Influence of Frederick Law Olmsted
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
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
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."