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Campus Enhances Historic Quad

One of the most prestigious universities in the country will soon undergo a change. Consulting firm EDAW Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia, has developed the landscape masterplan for Cornell University College of Engineering and Duffield Hall. "The Engineering Quadrangle has long been considered one of the principal open space resources of the campus," said Roger Courtenay, ASLA, Principal-in-Charge, EDAW, Inc., adding, "this project is intended to make it live up to that billing."

Located in Ithaca, New York, Cornell University was founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White after Congress passed an act granting thirty thousand acres of public land to several states. New York State received a portion of these acres, which the legislators agreed to give to the campus if Ezra Cornell donated funds to the institution. The money would provide free education to one student from each Assembly district of the state. Cornell agreed to the request and then made an additional donation of two hundred acres of land.

The campus currently consists of approximately seven hundred and fifty acres in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. The buildings and quadrangles are intertwined in varying sizes, shapes, and configurations. The three large quadrangles that provide ample open space for students are called the Arts Quad, the Agriculture School Quad and the Engineering Quad. The new project will take place in the Engineering Quad with the construction of Duffield Hall and the revamping of the existing landscape.

History of Cornell Landscape

One of the first landscape designs for the campus was created by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1867. According to "The Cornell Campus" by Kermit Carlyle Parsons, Olmsted advised White and Cornell to "seek variety within unity" in the arrangement of the campus. His goal was to develop the natural features of the site by using native bushes and wild flowers to create a harmonious irregularity. Olmsted also wanted to arrange the Cornell buildings in an interesting line or queue. However, Olmsted's design was rejected in favor of White's preference for quadrangles.

Formed by glacial activity, the area surrounding the campus showcases the remarkable results of nature. The Finger Lakes were formed by glacial action during the Pleistocene epoch (Ice Age), which lasted over a million years and ended about 4,000 to 8,000 years ago. The first major ice advance remolded the land; the second glacier spread rock debris, blocked the southern ends of the lakes, and made the main alterations to the countryside. Initially, the flow from the stream valleys that became Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateless Lakes was north into Lake Ontario.

The stream valleys that evolved into Canandaigua and Keuka Lakes drained south to north, into Lake Ontario; the outlets were all in the northern ends of the lakes. The damming of the southern ends of the preglacial stream valleys with rock debris caused the change in flow. The formation of the Finger Lakes Regions was a topological event created by the enormous force of the ice advance opposed by a surface configuration unique to central New York State. The result is a land formation with unparalleled features. The landscape design at Cornell University has benefited from this dramatic history.

Without an official design plan in place, the campus opened on October 7, 1868. Since then, the privately endowed university has become a member of the Ivy League and a partner of the State University of New York.

 One of Cornell's first horticulture classes examines plant materials.

Current Campus Landmarks

The first building constructed on the main Ithaca campus was Morrill Hall. Today, the campus includes 260 major buildings on the site, some of which serve as unique landmarks showcasing the diversity of the University.

• The Jennie McGraw Tower and Cornell Chimes were constructed in 1891 and sit atop Uris Library. The tower is one of the most recognizable campus landmarks. It stands 173 feet high and 161 steps from the ground. It houses the Cornell clock and the chimes museum. The reconfigured, retuned and expanded set of 21 bells, were reinstalled in the tower in fall 1999. The chimes are played daily by student and alumni chimesmasters, whose repertoire includes more than two thousand songs.

• The Willard Straight Hall, or "The Straight", opened in 1925 as one of the nation's first student unions. A stately Gothic structure with cathedral ceilings, marble staircases, and oak paneling, it houses dining facilities, a browsing library, music room, ceramics studio, and an art gallery, along with Cornell Cinema, the Office of the Dean of Students, and various meeting rooms.

• Showcasing the diversity of the campus is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art housed in a building designed by I. M. Pei. Built in 1973, the site is located where Ezra Cornell is said to have announced his intention to found the university. The area offers spectacular views of the campus, Ithaca, and Cayuga Lake. The museum contains notable Asian, American, and graphic art collections.

• Cornell Plantations' holdings include 3,600 acres in and around Ithaca, all open to the public. On or near campus are the arboretum and botanical garden (200 acres) and 500 acres of natural areas encompassing woodlands, trails, streams, and gorges. Easily accessible on campus are rose, peony, rhododendron, wildflower, and herb gardens; shrub and nut-tree collections; the Pounder Heritage Crops Garden; and the Muenscher Poisonous Plants Garden.

The current landmarks at the campus reflect the innovative approach that was developed by Cornell's founders. The new project is expected to add to the already impressive variety of landscape design and architectural aspects of the campus. "The land has gone through a lot of changes. Now it will get a major change," said Herbert Gottfried, Professor and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the campus.

Enhancing the Quad

According to EDAW, Inc., the primary goal of the new landscape is to enhance the Engineering Quad's prominence by maximizing the use of existing outdoor space in keeping with the environmental integrity of the campus. The created landscape will dramatize the topography by adding landscaped slopes that recall the natural character of the nearby Cascadilla Gorge. Additionally, by incorporating grade and terraces, the site will provide space for outdoor recreation and for temporary facilities necessary during graduation.

One of the main challenges for the new project is to ensure the integrity of the site is maintained. "Cornell has a long history of care for its extraordinary landscape, and like any growing institution, we are having a difficult time finding sites for new buildings that do not compromise existing open space that is highly valued by this community," stated John Ullberg, Landscape Architect for Cornell's Facilities Planning Office. The new building will be constructed adjacent to Upson Hall. "We are going to miss the lost green space but look forward to major improvements to the Quad and to a new landmark building."

The location for the new hall was chosen for specific reasons. "When it became clear that the only viable site for the planned Duffield Hall is within the existing Engineering Quad, the University made the rather unusual commitment to fund a fully independent landscape study and construction project for the Quadrangle itself," stated Ullberg. This opportunity is rare because "most landscape alterations are done as subsidiary to the project that instigated the changes." In this case, not only will a new building be added, but the landscape for the entire Quad area will be revitalized.

Preserving History

Most campus designs are a patchwork of landscapes, with each new design team leaving their mark on the site. However, a special need for historical continuity exists on most campuses in America. Those sentimental gifts that were bestowed to the campuses from various notable alumni must be preserved in order to retain a strong link to the past. Plantings that show signs of longevity and strength must be retained and appreciated as important works of nature. The new proposed landscape design at Cornell included plans for the preservation of a White Oak tree and the campus sundial.

The funded landscape study included an arborist report on preserving a large white oak located near the proposed Duffield Hall. The specimen tree is 49" dbh and has an estimated age of approximately 175 years. The white oak is located off the northwest corner of Upson Hall and the northeast corner of Kimball Hall. The tree is surrounded by a stone wall and walkway to the west, a concrete stairway to the south, and open lawn areas to the north and east. The oak shows no outward signs of root decay as evidenced by sound and healthy tissue at the root crown. The report concluded that the tree should be preserved because of its historic significance manifested in its great size.

Another part of the campus that needed to be preserved is the campus sundial. The stainless-steel sundial was intended to be an "engineering statement" by its designers. The six-foot "bowstring" equatorial sundial is an accurate scientific instrument for reading time, with an error rate of no more than 30 seconds. The adjustments for day-to-day astronomical variations are made by an internal mechanism. Located in the Joseph N. Pew, Jr. Engineering Quadrangle, the piece serves as a fitting memorial to Pew.

 The white oak is located near the planned Duffield Hall. The tree is bounded by a stone wall and walkway to the west, a concrete stairway to the south, and open lawn areas to the north and east.

The sundial was designed by Dale R. Corson, president emeritus of the University, and Richard M. Phelan, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. The planned Duffield Hall will directly impact the light from the sun, causing inaccurate readings of time on the sundial. In order to ensure the preservation and accuracy of this important campus landmark, a plan was devised to relocate the sundial. EDAW worked with Corson's son, architect Bruce Corson, and the University to devise the best approach for the removal and relocation of the sundial. A solar study (above) was conducted to assist the team with this task.

New Beginning

The preservation of the White Oak tree and the campus sundial serve as symbols for the importance of historic integrity in the Quad. By retaining some aspects of history and implementing new features in the landscape, the new project promises to create an impressive addition to the campus. Ullberg says that EDAW "found inventive ways to make design alterations that give the Engineering Quad its own identity, as well as bringing it into better relationship with surrounding landscape conditions."

Other key members of the project team include: David Bennett, AIA, ASLA; Project Manager; Mike Arnold, SuHang Liu, Project Designers; Costich Engineering, Rochester, NY, Civil Engineer; Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, Los Angeles, CA, Project Architect for Duffield Hall. Bennett expects the landscape portion of the project to be completed by 2004. LASN

The campus sundial was designed by Dale R. Corson, president emeritus of the University, and Richard M. Phelan, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. EDAW worked with Corson's son, architect Bruce Corson, and the University to devise the best approach for the removal and relocation of the sundial. This approach included the completion of a solar study which detailed sun exposure during one complete solar cycle. The graph above shows aerial views of the sundial in the center of the Engineering Quad.

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July 25, 2017, 5:28 pm PDT

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Last Updated 07-24-17