Olmsted’s 1883 Plan for Colgate University and its Impacts on the Campus

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1 minute, 19 seconds

Olmsted’s 1883 Plan for Colgate University and its Impacts on the Campus.


Olmsted came to Madison University (now Colgate) in mid-September 1883 at the behest of James B. Colgate, the leader of the University Board, and Ebenezer Dodge, University President. His primary charge was to advise the University on the siting of a Library/Museum and a Laboratory though earlier correspondence had also made it clear that the University desired a more comprehensive assessment of its expanding grounds. Regrettably, any polished report or drawings generated by Olmsted in the wake of the visit have been lost. But it is possible to “reconstruct” Olmsted’s text from his notes housed in the Library of Congress with the help of a "Sketch Map" at the F. L. Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline. Using those resources, as well as extended study of archival materials at Colgate, it is possible to assess Olmsted’s transformative contributions to one of the country's noteworthy college campuses for the first time.

Olmsted's Sketch Map and accompanying notes reflect several of Olmsted's campus priorities. He sited the two new buildings on a lane that traversed the hillside several hundred feet downslope from Madison's extant line of blocky buildings. A quadrangular organization of the Hill was avoided. That being noted, the new structures were carefully positioned to interact optically with the older buildings, which Olmsted considered lacking in architectural character. The ensemble he proposed would introduce theretofore absent visual complexity and lend the campus an architectural interest commensurate with the University's cultural status and aspirations. Olmsted also rethought the carriage and pedestrian movement from the northern plain on the north and the Hill to the south. Madison University had habitually operated as two distinct zones - Hill and plain - separated by an old road and by the largely impassable, boggy lowlands bordering Payne Creek. Olmsted, however, prioritized the enhancement of the north-south flow across Payne Creek, thus integrating the campus in new ways. He saw the grounds as a whole rather than as separate hillside and lower farmland zones, and, thereby, he framed the understanding of the campus that endures to the present day.

While few of Olmsted recommendations were followed in the years immediately after his visit, Madison University was sufficiently satisfied with Olmsted's 1883 work that it requested a more detailed campus plan from the Olmsted firm in 1891. To support that work, and, perhaps at Olmsted's suggestion, Ernest W. Bowditch was brought in from Boston, to execute the University's first detailed survey. By the end of the year, Bowditch persuaded the University Trustees to hire him, rather than the Olmsted firm, as supervising landscape architect, and over the next twenty years he oversaw the transformation of the campus. Yet, there can be no question that many of the key elements he oversaw were direct extrapolations from Olmsted's 1883 plan whose legacy endures and deepens as the campus evolves over time.

Robert McVaugh

Presenter Biography

Robert McVaugh has been a Professor of Art and Art History at Colgate University for just over forty years. His current research focuses on the evolution of the Colgate University campus and the evolution of Liberal Arts College campuses in the post-World War II era. In 2018-19 he mounted The Hill Envisioned, an exhibition of Colgate University's historical campus plans. In 2011, he published An Architect's Vision. Paul Rudolph and Colgate's Creative Arts Center, a catalog accompanying an exhibition of Rudolph's drawings found in the Colgate University Archives.

Part of a series of articles titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Last updated: December 21, 2022