Exhibit Highlights Newly Revealed Olmsted Role in Campus Design

Photos Karl Rabe

There have long been unsubstantiated reports that Frederick Law Olmsted, widely considered the founder of American landscape architecture, designed the Vassar campus, or important elements of it. In advance of the Olmsted bicentennial in April 2022, Associate Professor of Art History Yvonne Elet undertook a three-year research project to determine what Olmsted and his firm actually contributed to campus design.  

Research in the Library of Congress, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historical Site, and Vassar Special Collections revealed that three generations of the Olmsted firm consulted at Vassar, at very different stages of the College’s development. First, Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux came in 1868; then John Charles Olmsted made fundamental recommendations for the College’s expansion beyond Main Building in 1896; and in 1929-32, Olmsted partner Percival Gallagher directed topographical studies and made recommendations for grading, circulation, and plantings.

Elet researched the first two phases herself; for phase three, she engaged students in her course CLCS/Art 120: The Vassar Campus to do preliminary research, then developed a Ford Scholar project, undertaken by Caleb P. Mitchell, ’22. The culmination of this research is the exhibition The Campus Green: The Olmsted Firm’s Designs for Vassar College, organized and designed by Elet and Mitchell, and presented in the Vassar Art Library. This architecturally significant space—the first modernist interior in an American college—was designed c. 1935, just a few short years after the Olmsted firm made the drawings for Vassar that are displayed there. The current exhibition design is in dialogue with this historic space.

The exhibition presents letters by Vassar presidents, trustees, and the Olmsteds, John Charles Olmsted’s written recommendations, and Percival Gallagher’s photos of and drawings for the campus, as well as photos and newspaper clippings that trace the evolution of campus landscape design. Beyond clarifying the Olmsted firm’s activities, the exhibition also addresses the agency of various campus planners; the use of native or exotic plant species; the choice of formal or natural landscape styles; gendered design for a women’s college; related issues of protection or openness; the form and function of a campus arboretum; and the changing role of the landscape architect in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Much has changed since the Olmsted partners were here, but the central core of campus envisioned by J. C. Olmsted—the rectangular green comprising the Chapel and Library Lawns, and the Dorm Quad—remains virtually unchanged. And we may still see plantings recommended by Gallagher, from the linden trees in front of Skinner Hall to the Japanese maples at the center of the Dorm Quad. The exhibition’s focus on diachronic campus development underscores the importance of landscape design and stewardship in creating our sense of place, and the significance of campus history as a basis for making informed plans for the future.

For further information, see the accompanying exhibition brochure; Elet’s article “Échelon, Quincunx, Quadrangle: The Olmsted Firm and Campus Planning in the Early Decades of Vassar College,” published in the Journal of Planning History in March 2022; a story on Mitchell’s Ford Scholar project; and the Vassar Campus History website.

The exhibition and brochure were funded by the Art Department’s Agnes Rindge Claflin Fund.

June 7, 2022