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Project Proposal

Olmsted at Vassar: Tracing Campus Landscape History

Project Description

There have long been vague rumors that Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American Landscape Architecture, contributed ideas for the masterplan of Vassar’s bucolic campus. But other than an 1868 letter to his wife saying that he visited Vassar, which has “a miserable plan to be amended,” virtually no evidence of his involvement has come to light. This research project tackles the issue of what Olmsted, his colleagues, and his firm contributed to Vassar’s design.

The upcoming bicentenary of Olmsted’s birth in 2022 is an important impetus for this project. The National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP) asked if Vassar can contribute something about Olmsted’s involvement on the campus, which I agreed to do. I have begun doing research, with help from students in my intensive on the Vassar Campus (CLCS/Art 120) last fall. But much remains to be done, and it needs to happen this year.

It emerges that the Olmsted firm was involved at Vassar during two periods: one, from the founding of the college in 1861 to the end of Frederick Law Olmsted’s lifetime (d. 1903), and another from 1929-33, when Percival (Percy) Gallagher, partner in the firm with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., was appointed Consulting Landscape Architect to Vassar. In the first phase, the Olmsted firm may have contributed ideas about the siting and layout of the Dormitory Quad. In the second, Gallagher added to the growing arboretum, and contributed to landscape design around the newly-built Skinner Hall and the so-called Euthenics Quad (comprising Blodgett, Cushing, Kenyon and Wimpfheimer). He also made recommendations for circulation on the Rock Lot – the site on the corner of Raymond Avenue and College Avenue, which currently comprises Alumnae House, Williams House, and the green.

I have identified sources of information, from which it remains to gather and analyze unpublished documents and drawings, to understand how the ideas of Olmsted and his firm shaped the campus. Moreover, both Olmsted Senior and Percy Gallagher were important designers of campus landscape at other schools and institutions; it will also be important to do secondary research to interpret their ideas for Vassar in broader socio-cultural context.

Anticipated Project Activities

  • Research, gathering, and organization of unpublished materials from libraries and archives, including the Olmsted Archives in Brookline, MA; the Library of Congress; the Percival Gallagher Archive in Indianapolis; and the Vassar Special Collections Library. (Most of the outside institutions have scanned material that is available electronically, so the project can move forward, even if the pandemic limits access to Vassar’s Special Collections.)
  • Analysis of architectural and landscape design drawings
  • Analysis of archival documents related to the design projects
  • Drawing schematics and maps
  • Creating posts and media for a website I am preparing to launch for the Vassar Campus course
  • Writing an essay to send to the NAOP for the Olmsted bicentenary
  • Drafting an article for submission to a journal

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

  • Demonstrated research skills in the history of architecture, and landscape, including using library resources, databases, and doing archival work
  • Advanced coursework in history of art, architecture, and landscape
  • Ability to analyze architectural and landscape design drawings
  • Excellent writing skills, including experience writing papers about the history of the built environment
  • Ability to do basic architectural drafting
  • Excellent visual and design skills
  • Experience designing and working with Wordpress

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

I would like for the student to collaborate in writing an article for submission to a journal. This activity will extend beyond the summer; we will continue the writing, submission, revisions, preparation of illustrations, and securing image rights to produce the article. I will also ask the student to lead a class meeting of my course on the Vassar Campus in fall 2021 to discuss the process of research we undertook, and the findings. We would also prepare and present a campus wide lecture in connection with the Olmsted bicentennial. This project will give the student experience with the development and presentation of research at many stages, and the integration of research and teaching.

Project Location

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY—Hybrid. The student and I can mostly work remotely and meet via zoom. Some library work and archival research may take place in person if possible; but if not, there is enough digitally available material to undertake the project.

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

June 7, 2021

Project End Date

July 30, 2021