Is Vassar an Olmsted campus?

Is Vassar an Olmsted campus? And what constitutes an Olmsted campus, in light of the different members of the Olmsted family and firm, and the iterative nature of campus planning and expansion?

There have long been unsubstantiated statements that Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American Landscape Architecture, either designed Vassar’s bucolic campus or contributed important elements of its plan. In August of 1868, he and his partner Calvert Vaux indeed came to  the campus; the next day, Olmsted wrote to his wife reporting his impressions of Vassar: “They have a miserable plan to be amended, that’s all.” What recommendations did they, or other members of the Olmsted firm, contribute to Vassar’s design?

The upcoming bicentenary of F. L. Olmsted’s birth in April, 2022 has been a good impetus to address these questions. New research and unpublished archival material is revealing what Olmsted and his associates did–and did not–contribute to Vassar’s campus. The college engaged the Olmsted firm on several different occasions. A forthcoming article in a scholarly journal by Yvonne Elet traces the Olmsteds’ contributions and campus planning from the start of the college through the end of Taylor’s presidency in 1914, revealing new information about important ways the Olmsteds did indeed give shape to the campus.

Another sub-project is exploring the work of Percival (Percy) Gallagher, Olmsted partner and Consulting Landscape Architect to Vassar from 1929-33 (right after Beatrix Farrand held the position). Ford Scholar Caleb Mitchell (VC ’22) is compiling and analyzing unpublished archival material on Gallagher’s projects; with research contributions from students in CLCS/Art 120, the Vassar Campus.

In Spring 2022, as part of the Olmsted200 celebration, an exhibition in the Vassar Art Library, organized by Yvonne Elet and Caleb Mitchell, will treat the Olmsted firm’s varied contributions to the plan and plantings of the college.

Letter of Frederick Law Olmsted to his wife Mary, August 4, 1868. Frederick Law Olmsted Papers: Subject File, -1952; School buildings and grounds; Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1868. Manuscript/Mixed Material.

Participants: Yvonne Elet
Contact: Yvonne Elet
Category: Landscape
Status: Ongoing
Dates: 2020-