President’s Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Shaping Princeton’s Landscape
April 25, 2012
As I write, the cherry trees are blossoming near Firestone Library, the daffodils are at their peak in Prospect Garden, and the magnolias are poised to open on Scudder Plaza—harbingers of an early spring. Soon the campus will be in leaf, reflecting the collaboration between nature’s bounty and past and present groundskeepers, gardeners, and landscape architects.
The beginnings of this fruitful partnership can be traced to 1765, when the Board of Trustees requested one of its members to “procure a number of buttonwood trees … in order to be planted round the college yard,” but Princeton’s landscape was first systematically cultivated under President James McCosh, an avid gardener who sought to recreate the noble parks that dotted his native Britain. Princeton’s first consulting landscape architect was one of our nation’s best. Between 1912 and 1943, Beatrix Farrand, the only woman to co-found the American Society of Landscape Architects, worked closely with the University’s first supervising architect, Ralph Adams Cram, and his successor, Stephen Voorhees ’00, to create the harmonious marriage of plant and stone we know today.
The landscape she bequeathed to us is beautiful as well as practical. Writing more than 80 years ago, she noted, “Spaces must be kept free, walks must lead where the traffic requirements make them necessary, and nothing should be attempted in the way of ornamentation which is either flimsy in character or inappropriate to the use of many thousands of young men.” Hence her abundant use of wall plants, be it “a varied mass of ivy” or “garlands of wisteria” or “the pink weeping cherry and climbing hydrangea”; her preference for plantings, such as evergreens, that would complement the academic year; and her avoidance of self-indulgent touches that could interfere with the lines and purposes of Princeton’s architecture. Today, every effort has been made to preserve her vision, most recently along Blair Walk, where the flagstones and border of Japanese yews have been painstakingly restored. More broadly, we continue to foster what Cram described as “the revelation of the unexpected”—broad vistas and intimate spaces that offer glimpses of the whole while accentuating the uniqueness of Princeton’s parts.
Examples of the former include the forceful east-west axes of Shapiro and Goheen Walks; the view from Streicker Bridge on Washington Road, which stretches to Cleveland Tower on the grounds of the Graduate College; and the future home of the Lewis Center for the Arts, which will anchor a southern extension of Blair Walk while opening a new approach to the east along Baker Lane. Conversely, Princeton remains committed to creating relatively secluded spots that serve as quiet havens or as a means of drawing together academic and residential subsets of our University community. There is, for example, the serene memorial garden created to honor the 13 alumni who lost their lives on September 11, 2001; the grassy amphitheater that surprises visitors to the newly reconstructed Butler College; and, looking to the future, the multi-level gardens of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. The plan for this site calls for three buildings that will, in effect, become the gardens’ walls, with the gardens themselves bringing light and greenery to even the below-grade level of the complex. Befitting a center focused on environmental challenges, nature will be immediately accessible to all who work there.
This is also true of the new Frick Chemistry Laboratory, but in a very different way. The second largest academic building on our campus is nestled in the woods that border Washington Road, which tempers the scale of this gleaming mass of glass and aluminum. It is here—and on the site of the emerging neuroscience and psychology buildings across the way—that the park-like Princeton of Farrand gives way to a wilder and, until quite recently, under-appreciated feature of our landscape. Indeed, the woods that occupy this area have assumed a new aesthetic and ecological importance as the University has expanded southward toward Lake Carnegie. Under Princeton’s 2008 Campus Plan and through the efforts of our current consulting landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the woods are being renewed and enlarged, creeping round the southern and western flanks of Whitman College and further up Elm Drive, to cite just two examples. Since 2007, we have seen a net increase of 1,956 trees on campus, and this, coupled with the creation of “rain gardens” and “green roofs,” has played a significant role in managing storm water and restoring threatened habitats. The most striking evidence of this rebalancing can be found on the eastern side of Washington Road, where a streambed extending from Streicker Bridge to Lake Carnegie has been rebuilt after many years of erosion due to poor storm water management.
Whether the human hand is barely apparent, as in these woods, or whether it has made its presence felt for generations, Princeton’s landscape is a source of endless delight and solace. And that is as it should be. As Farrand once put it, “No life is well rounded without the subtle inspiration of beauty … beauty brings to it refreshment and renewal.” Such is nature’s gift to Princeton, and the trust that falls to us as its custodians.