Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project

 

 
Lower Lake

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Institution Name: Mount Holyoke College
Original/Historic Place Name: Lower Lake
Location on Campus:
Date(s) of Construction:
n.d.landscape design Olmsted & Sons
Designer: Olmsted & Sons (Boston)
Type of Place: Landscape site
Style: (Glossary)
Significance: education, history, landscape
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Function:
ca. 2004-present (2006)outdoor space
 

Narrative:
" The stewardship of cultural landscapes provides the richness and complexity of the human story of our nation."
--National Park Service, statement on Cultural Landscape preservation

Mount Holyoke College and the Modern Pastoral: A Work of Art and Artifice

The Mount Holyoke campus represents a work of art and artifice, the core of which embodies the tradition of American pastoralism. Although this tradition moved beyond the ancient Arcadian idyll of shepherds living the virtuous rustic life, it proudly carried forward a key belief: landscapes reflecting the "natural" beauty of rural settings were needed as places of inspiring contemplation and soothing relaxation for a society increasingly dominated by urban life, its stresses, and its many problems. In this sense, the modern pastoral was a combination of moral, social, and aesthetic ideas.

These ideas--and much more--were developed into the modern art of landscape architecture by Frederick Law Olmsted. One tenet of his art and philosophy found early expression in his reflection "On the Value of Natural Places," written in 1865. There he echoed a romantic, Wordsworthian appreciation of natural scenery as a source of solace and emotional recovery while extending it into a practical principle of landscaping, which in urban parklands would be beneficial not just to the cultural elite but to all. If we analyze the operation of scenes of beauty upon the mind, and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended.

At Mount Holyoke, the influence of Olmsted and his two sons, Frederick Law Jr. and John C., are evident in archives documenting the firm's involvement with the College from the 1880s to the 1920s. And even though Olmsted and his firm cannot be counted among the principle designers of our campus, Olmsted's ideas and designs were very influential here, just as they were in the some 300 other college and university campuses that the firm had a hand in designing. It could scarcely have been otherwise. In the last decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, President Mead, Treasurer Lyman Williston, and Mary Woolley emulated parts of the Olmsted designs that had been executed for the campuses of Smith College and Wellesley College, as they began to introduce what was then called the cottage system of individual dormitories and buildings. Underway before fire destroyed the old seminary building in 1896, these plans were rapidly put into execution in the years that followed. In his consultations with the Olmsted firm, Williston absorbed the principles and philosophy that defined the Olmstead approach to landscape, something to which the development of the campus under Williston and Wooley attests clearly, as we shall see.

Before then, the modern pastoralism of Frederick Law Olmsted was inscribed in his landscaping for Pageant Field, Goodnow Park, and Prospect Hill in the 1880s. An essential element of Olmsted's approach was the preservation and shaping of open spaces that were defined at their edges by walkways, trees, plantings, and buildings. This framing by walkways on the edges enhanced the experience of the landscape by guiding pedestrians around park-like greens with their long and open perspectives. As in Olmsted's Central Park in New York City and in his Fenlands in Boston, roads designed for vehicles were hidden or subordinated by being put below grade or kept at the extreme outer edges of the park. In the case of Pageant Field, Olmsted developed the allées of trees that served as former property boundaries to create paths that led people along the edges of the field to the water's edge of Lake Nonotuck (Lower Lake), enhancing their view of the gently rolling green and the approach to the lake.

Although further research will clarify the extent to which Olmsted ideas were consciously incorporated in the landscaping leading from Skinner Green past Blanchard and on to Lower Lake, it seems clear, as mentioned above, that Treasurer Lyman Williston was significantly influenced in his landscaping decisions of the 1890s and early 20th century by John C. and Frederick Law Jr. Hence, after fire destroyed the old Seminary and as the new dormitories and Blanchard Hall were constructed in rapid order, Williston was careful to preserve the pastoral tradition of Mount Holyoke's landscape. In so doing he found further encouragement in developments at Wellesley. At the turn of the century there, the Trustees adopted the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and the faculty continued to insist that its remarkable natural landscape be preserved. In moving forward with Wellesley, Mount Holyoke consciously rejected the transformations unfolding at Smith where an increasingly dense collection of tightly spaced buildings gave the campus the look of the surrounding town. So with advice from the Olmsted brothers and his own sense of taste and conviction, Williston preserved and improved what we now call Skinner Green by siting the new buildings around its perimeter with generous spacing between them to retain long perspectives and open areas. The siting of Blanchard generously apart from Wilder dormitory framed and enhanced the view from the Green to Lower Lake.

During a period of considerable expansion up to the 1950s, spaciousness, open perspectives, and modern pastoralism continued to shape and distinguish the College. With help from Frederick Law Jr. the classic gothic buildings constructed under Mary Woolley were placed along College Street, giving a confident, stately face to the world while retaining the distinctive spaciousness of the campus. In the 1920s when the College shifted from the Olmsted to the Shurtleff architectural firm, the Shurtleff plans envisioned an expansion of Blanchard Hall and modifications that would have replaced the curvilinear flows of Olmsted inspiration with rectilinear quadrangles. Fortunately, the Depression made the execution of the Shurtleff plans impossible. As the years wore on, visual and physical access to Lower Lake was preserved in the gentle slope down to the (former) tennis courts and in a broad expanse at the water's edge. In this park-like green, the Outing Club constructed a stone fireplace in 1942 to enhance the place for picnics and other social activities. Of key importance, Lower Lake road remained near the buildings and away from the lake, echoing the Olmsted principle of keeping vehicle traffic to the edges of park-like spaces and subordinating vehicle traffic to the pedestrian's enjoyment of the park and scenic surroundings.

It was only in the 1950s that the rectangular modernism of that era established itself on campus via the building of new dormitories (Torrey, Ham, McGregor, Prospect, and Buckland), the row academic structures in the Clapp Hall area (the Psychology and Education Building, the Art Building, Carr, and Elliot House), and Gattell Amphitheater. This had the regrettable effect of separating the campus into upper and lower parts. Nevertheless, the open, rolling, and spacious qualities of the Olmsted inspired landscape and campus remain predominant overall, a situation on which the oft-remarked beauty and harmony of the campus continues to rest. In that sense, it remains in keeping with another tenet of Frederick Law Olmsted's art and philosophy, as expressed in his 1886 notes on his plan for Franklin Park in Massachusetts:

[T]here is no beautiful scenery that does not give the mind an emotional impulse different from that resulting from whatever beauty may be found in a room, courtyard, or garden, with which vision is obviously confined by wall or other surrounding artificial constructions.

Excerpted from Professor Robert Schwartz's introduction to online historic atlas
http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hatlas/introduction.html .
 

References:

Alaimo, Laura Ann. "Building Mount Holyoke College, 1896-1900." B. A. thesis, Mount Holyoke College Department of History, 1981.

Edmonds, Anne Carey. A Memory Book: Mount Holyoke College 1837-1987. South Hadley, MA: Mount Holyoke College, 1988.

Gaines, Thomas A. The Campus as a Work of Art. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Mount Holyoke College. The Centenary of Mount Holyoke College. South Hadley, MA: Mount Holyoke College, 1937.

Mount Holyoke College. Memorial. Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Springfield, MA: S. Bowles & Company, 1862.

"Mount Holyoke College Historic Map Website." Online (1997). Archives and Special Collections. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/lits/library/arch/map/

Nutting, Mary O. Historical Sketch of Mount Holyoke Seminary. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1876.

Schwartz, Robert, et al. "Historical Atlas of the Mount Holyoke College Campus." Online (2004). Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hatlas/atlas/

Stow, Sarah D. Locke. History of Mount Holyoke Seminary, South Hadley, Mass., During its First Half Century. Springfield, MA: Springfield Printing Company, 1887.

 

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