While many people think of Yale’s campus in terms of the limestone and towering Gothic structures that distinguish its buildings from the rest of downtown New Haven, what might not come to mind is the unique design of the space between the buildings.
Much of what holds these buildings together is the product of one woman’s vision. Beatrix Farrand, consulting landscape gardener from 1923 to 1945, designed much of the landscaping Yale students now take for granted. Farrand’s designs included seven of the residential college courtyards as well as the gardens of Old Campus, Sterling Hall of Medicine, the Peabody Museum, the Divinity School and the president’s house. In addition to Yale’s campus, Farrand also helped shape the Princeton University and University of Chicago campuses.
Working in cooperation with the botany department and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Farrand selected plants based on their appearance from October to mid-June so that students could enjoy them throughout the academic year. Her landscaping style combined formal and naturalistic elements, and she favored the use of native species.
Although much of Farrand’s work has been lost or altered in renovations in the 60 years since she was employed at Yale, what still remains has served as a model for future landscaping as the campus continues to evolve. One of her signature pieces is Silliman’s central bluestone walk, which spans the residential college’s courtyard.
Farrand was noted for her hope that her landscaping would help students become more interested in plants, said Mary Helen Goldsmith, chairman of the Program in Studies of the Environment at the environment school. At the same time, Farrand was concerned with designing an outdoor environment that students would find useful and convenient.
“She observed where people were walking and laid out the paths to go where people wanted to walk,” Goldsmith said.
In residential college courtyards, Farrand planted moats of trees close to windows so that students studying in their rooms could look out at them.
Though extant examples of Farrand’s work may be limited, many students and faculty have taken an interest in Farrand’s creative approach to landscaping. Joshua Viertel, who works for the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said he sees similarities between Farrand and Alice Waters — an internationally renowned chef who helped inspire the Sustainable Food Project — in that both believe improved local ecology leads to greater quality of life, economic efficiency, and a more valuable educational experience.
“Both have a strong desire to change what has become merely maintenance, such as managing the cafeteria or mowing the lawn, into an important piece of the academic mission of a school,” Viertel said.
One of the main reasons Farrand’s wisteria vines and magnolia, crabapple, viburnum, and dogwood trees in the moats and courtyards have disappeared, environment school lecturer Diana Balmori said, is that starting in the 1950s, colleges across the country have not made campus maintenance a priority. Balmori co-wrote a book about Farrand, called “Beatrix Farrand, American Landscapes: Her Gardens and Campuses.” After Farrand retired in 1945 at the age of 73, Yale never replaced her with another overall consulting landscape gardener, Goldsmith said.
Balmori said she thinks Farrand’s work has been overlooked and underappreciated, and that she finds it unfortunate that there is very little of her work left today for architecture students to study.
“Farrand had an aesthetic idea for the whole campus, and I think students could learn from that philosophy rather than from the very little pieces of landscape left,” Balmori said.
Goldsmith said because gardens and campuses are living artistic creations, without the regular input of artistic vision and broad knowledge of plants, they all eventually become run-down.
“If we choose, we could return to the spirit of Farrand’s designs for the Yale campus,” Goldsmith said. “This would require the help of a creative landscape architect who is faithful to the history and spirit of Beatrix Farrand’s work but mindful of today’s necessity for a lower-maintenance landscape.”