February 7, 2001: President's Page

The Beauty of the Campus

One of the University’s most valuable resources is the beauty of the campus landscape—the plantings, the vistas, the open space and intimate courtyards, the walkways that keep us connected. The University was fortunate in the first half of the 20th century to have the assistance of a master landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand, who served in that capacity from 1912 until 1942. Her tenure coincided with the construction of important collegiate gothic structures at Princeton and with significant expansion of the campus. Thanks in good measure to her skillful approach, new elements of the campus were successfully connected to each other and to the historic, older parts of campus. Her blend of intimate courtyards and open space, her choice of plantings and thoughtful design, resulted in a campus of remarkable beauty.

The campus has remained beautiful, but it has changed significantly. As we dug up the landscape to make necessary infrastructure changes (for instance, to lay the underground optical fiber backbone for new computer technologies), added and subtracted buildings, and dramatically expanded the size of the campus, the original beauty and strong lines of Farrand’s plan have in some cases been diminished, compromised, or literally overgrown.

In the mid 1990s we launched a new effort to maintain and enhance the beauty of the campus by renovating McCosh Courtyard and the approach to Prospect House. New plantings now mark the western entrance to the courtyard and a well defined perimeter bordering the courtyard allows small service vehicles access to the area but keeps it free from traffic. Brick sidewalks were included within the drive leading to Prospect House, preserving greenspace and improving the area for walking. The success of these projects suggested some model approaches for campus landscaping and strengthened our conviction that campus grounds deserved more systematic, professional attention. As a result, we recently engaged a landscape architectural firm, Quennell Rothschild & Partners, Inc., to work with us to develop a comprehensive multi-year campus master plan. The Trustee Committee on Grounds and Buildings has enthusiastically supported these efforts and has approved increased resources to realize our objectives. These objectives are ambitious and presume an ongoing effort to restore the historic area around Nassau Hall; to create a consistent approach for replacing and enhancing plantings; to provide a more cohesive plan for accommodating new buildings; to accommodate better events, including reunions, commencement, and other heavily attended functions; and to improve the campus wayfinding system. In addition, an important overall objective is to “reclaim” the campus for pedestrian use, which will depend, in part on restricting vehicular traffic so that the beauty of our buildings and landscape is not compromised.

The implementation of our master plan begins with the historic northwest quadrant of campus, centered on Nassau Hall, where it is possible to consult archival photographs and records to determine the intention of Farrand’s earlier plans, and where little if any new construction will occur in the foreseeable future. You can see the result of our first efforts in Hamilton Courtyard where shrubs and plantings have been pruned or replaced, and a magnolia has been substituted for an overgrown chestnut tree as a focal point. The project also encompasses refurbishment of the walkways and of structural elements—the finials will be returned to the porch railing that runs along the east side of the courtyard. This summer’s projects include Nassau Hall. We will fix drainage problems and carefully prune old trees and add new ones to strengthen the architectural relationships with Henry House and Maclean House. The walks will be paved with bluestone defined by contrasting stone borders and the gravel areas around Nassau Hall will be reduced significantly and replaced with grass.

A major advantage of having committed ourselves to an overall master plan is to assure that plantings, walkways, and vehicular access are all a part of the design of a new facility from the earliest design stages. Too often in the past, these design elements have been left until the end, added almost as an afterthought or neglected if project budgets exceeded expectations. Yet it is clear that such considerations can influence even the footprint of a building, and certainly are an intrinsic part of the beauty and success of a facility. For this reason, we are giving careful attention to the landscape in the earliest design stages for the new home for the Integrative Genomics Center and our new upperclass dormitory, both on the ellipse by Scully Hall. The landscaping of the ellipse, as it opens out onto Poe-Pardee playing fields, will be critical in establishing a welcoming and visually pleasing southern “entrance” to campus.

Circulation is an integral element of the master plan, including the creation of clear pedestrian access to our facilities. For example, we are extending historic McCosh Walk across Washington Road toward the Engineering School. As elsewhere on campus, plantings and paving material are essential to creating a continuous thread linking the eastern and western sectors of campus. But it is also clear that the University requires better wayfinding systems, for members of the community as well as for visitors. With new facilities soon to open and with existing buildings lacking any exterior signage, a uniform, attractive and informative permanent signage system is overdue.

I believe that the master plan will develop landscaping that lasts, is maintainable and affordable, and enhances the experience of living, working or visiting the campus. The landscape is similar to a work of art in the powerful responses to beauty it is capable of eliciting from us, and the pleasure it gives us, but it is also a living organism that requires our commitment to nurturing care and attention.