Robert Schwartz on Campus Beauty

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 12:00

The Mount Holyoke campus, ranked among the most beautiful by the Princeton Review, never looks lovelier than in the weeks preceding commencement. Questioning Authority recently asked Robert Schwartz, E. Nevius Rodman Professor of History, to discuss how the campus has evolved since its founding in 1837. Here’s what he had to say.

QA: What and where was the original campus back in 1837?

RS: The original campus was centered on the Seminary Building, which was on the site now occupied by Mary Lyon Hall and the Chapel.

QA: As the College expanded, was there one single unifying design or did the campus just grow organically?

RS: From the original campus of 1837, the campus grew mainly by the acquisition of more land and addition of buildings, including the expansion of the Seminary Building, and the addition of a small adjoining library, of the Dwight family residence (on the Dwight Hall site), and the Williston Hall science building. As far as I know, there was no master plan. That said, the gift of what today is Prospect Hill by a Springfield resident was turned into Nonotuck Park beginning in the 1890s, with a curving drive upward that still can be seen.

The campus was transformed after fire destroyed the Seminary Building in 1896. Within a year, the current campus began to take shape. The treasurer at the time (A. Lyman Williston) engaged John C. Olmsted, the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, as a consultant, and Olmsted advised about the placement of the new buildings, including Blanchard and the dormitories on the "south green" (now Skinner Green), the College Gate, and Prospect Park (Nonotuck previously). Interestingly, in his correspondence c. 1910, he complained to Williston that the College had failed to keep the park properly pruned and manicured, allowing underbrush, shagginess, etc. to grow. In other words, to Olmsted, "naturalism" was not letting "Nature" take its course.

QA: Who were the key figures in shaping the landscape over the years?

RS: I'd say John C. Olmsted and Williston were the most important. What we see today, for the most part,took shape under their guidance. The spaciousness was possible because of acquired land, and Olmsted seized upon that with the vision made iconic by his father.

QA: Were Upper and Lower Lake always the way they are now?

RS: Upper Lake seems to have been dammed quite early, for we have pictures of the dam there that date to 1850. All of the land behind it where Kendall and the sports fields now sit was agricultural land. Lower Lake was a good deal narrower in the 1880s because the grist mill at the southern end of the lake allowed more of the water to flow unimpeded. The current lake is wider because of the larger dam.

QA: What is it that makes the campus so beautiful?

RS: We have retained much of what I call the "modern pastoralism" of Frederick Law Olmsted that was nurtured by his sons. This is characterized by spaciousness, a good degree of architectural harmony, and long perspectives. Olmsted designed the Smith campus and introduced what he invented and called the "cottage system" of coordinated buildings in place of the single building plan introduced by Mary Lyon et al. that housed the school in the one great Seminary Building (in the spirit of domesticity, one big family, etc.). But look at Smith now: precious little is left of the harmonious Olmsted Plan, first breached with the erection in the early 1900s of a huge classical-styled hall. This building drove John C. Olmsted to distraction but his opposition failed to persuade the Smith worthies.

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