Vassar Campus as Arboretum

Vassar Campus as Arboretum

While the Vassar campus has long been characterized by its verdant tree canopy, the central campus was originally a treeless plain, cleared as the site of an earlier racetrack. Matthew Vassar’s original conception for the college called for a varied terrain planted with ornamental trees, conifers, fruit trees, flower gardens, and a Botanical Garden, although these wishes would take decades to materialize. 

It was during Beatrix Farrand’s tenure as Consulting Landscape Gardener to the College, from 1925-29, indebted to her ideas, that Vassar established an arboretum as a campus-wide entity. Farrand variously described the arboretum as a museum, a gallery, or an out-of-door exhibition. She saw it as a multivalent vehicle for the propagation of trees and shrubs — native and foreign — for practical, educational, and aesthetic reasons. After Farrand’s departure, Henry E. Downer (1885-1968), Superintendent of Grounds at Vassar from 1921-1952, shamelessly took credit for her ideas for the arboretum, and its initiation; and worked with her successor, Percival Gallagher, partner in Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects, and Consulting Landscape Architect to Vassar from 1929-1933, to expand the arboretum. An ongoing project is tracing Gallagher’s contributions to campus landscape.  

In 2019, the campus was accredited as a Level II Arboretum by Arbnet.

Participants: Yvonne Elet, Virginia Duncan (VC ’16), Colin Croghan (VC ’21), Margaret Ronsheim, Sienna Ropert (VC ’21), Chloe Williams-Searle (VC ’21), Mark Schlessman
Contacts: Yvonne Elet, Margaret Ronsheim, Mark Schlessman
Category: Landscape
Status: Ongoing
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