Yale reworks campus landscaping

As the residential colleges undergo renovtions, the University has made an effort to redevelop the surrounding landscaping to match the original vision of the 1920s through 1940s.
As the residential colleges undergo renovtions, the University has made an effort to redevelop the surrounding landscaping to match the original vision of the 1920s through 1940s. Photo by Amir Sharif.

Yale’s most recent plans to relandscape its picturesque campus may not be realized for at least another spring, until more fruitful economic times return.

Over the past several years the University has been working to revitalize and replant the streetscapes and greens that have distinguished Yale’s campus for centuries. These measures are the University’s second effort in nearly 30 years to redevelop the landscaping of the campus to restore it to the vision of Beatrix Farrand, who designed Yale’s famed open greens and clearly delineated pathways in the 1920s and 1940s, along with architect James Gamble Rogers, class of 1889. But while this year’s mild winter has brought “spring color” to the campus earlier than usual, Facilities Director Phillip Sissick said many of the new plans for this spring or the next have been pushed to the backburner because of budget cutbacks.

Among the new plans waiting to blossom are a botanic garden to be located off of Prospect Street on Science Hill, the redesign of and addition of a “green court” to Becton Plaza and the replanting of the nearly naked stretches of Prospect Street near upper Science Hill. These plans are among several the University commissioned at the turn of the millenium from Philadelphia-based landscaping firm OLIN — one of the foremost landscaping firms in the world. The commission aims to extend Farrand’s original landscape designs — which introduced manicured lawns bordered by carefully placed trees that heighten the sense of open space without obstructing views of surrounding buildings — from the Medical School to northern Prospect Street.

Though no ground-breakings have been scheduled yet, the projects have all received approval and are waiting for the school to shore up necessary funding, said Laurie Olin, the founder and principle of OLIN. University President Richard Levin announced Sunday that the University is considering moving forward with construction projects on Science Hill, though a timeline is yet to be determined.

But a number of updates were made to the campus before the recession thinned the University’s wallet. The first of these efforts focused on Old Campus, where the entire lawn was dug up and transformed into a mud pit for several weeks over the summer of 2001 so sprinklers could be installed. Once the construction tape was taken off the site, few could notice that anything had been done in the first place, said School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65.

Indeed, Olin said the firm made an effort to keep changes to a minimum: Like the renovations of Yale’s faux-aged residential colleges, the landscape was not meant to look noticeably updated, either. Though much of the lawn was rearranged — moving and aligning statues, replacing and removing trees, changing pathways — Olin said the goal was to leave no trace but freshened turf.

“It was a quiet transformation of the Old Campus,” Olin added.

But the grass has not always been so green on campus. In the 1980s, after years of spotty maintenance and incoherent planting designs, Stern said the University was “looking really ratty,” so administrators enlisted the help of architect Cesar Pelli, then the dean of the School of Architecture, along with local landscaping firm Roland/Towers, to make a push to return Yale’s gardens to their former beauty and prestige.

“The most important thing was to regain vitality in the school,” Pelli said last Thursday, reflecting on the 1980s redevelopment. “It had lost its sense of excitement, and that’s what I thought was my job — to bring it up to date.”

At the time, more than $2 million was spent on reviving Old Campus alone. New trees from disease-resistant elms to the leafy American sweetgums were brought in, old trees were recycled and moved — sometimes at great costs, Pelli noted — and pathways were replaced with broader sheets of slate. Another $2,000 was spent to replace the Yale Fence that borders the Old Campus grass.

All the while, as with the Olin’s renovations in 2001, planters were keen to keep the campus from looking too new and refurbished, and aimed to recreate the plans first sketched by Farrand, said Shavaun Towers, of the landscaping firm Towers/Golde, formerly Roland/Towers.

In the 1920s, Farrand removed many of the weak trees and moved the older ones from the centers of greens to the edges of pathways, opening the green space. A few decades later, the firms of Pelli and Roland/Towers revived Farrand’s slate walkways and airy lawns.

“We worked in the style and palette of Beatrix Farrand,” Towers said. “We always tried to make sure things looked like they had always been that way.”

Since the 1980s revisions, Hillhouse Avenue has been replanted with oaks — which only just grew to their full heights in the past few years — and residential college courtyards have been returned once again to Farrand’s vision.

One proposal that never received the green light, however, was Pelli’s suggestion for a tree house in the Bingham courtyard during the 1980s renewal of Old Campus.

“That came through the initiative of some students that we supported,” Pelli said, laughing. “I had completely forgotten about it.”

The proposal suggested a variety of inspirations, including a 14th-century Italian portrait of a Chinese monk sitting in an ornate platform in a tree, and a wooden “palace” from a 17th century Persian painting.

Though amused by the idea, Stern said the University is not planning on installing the tree house in front of Bingham anytime soon.

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