A digital repository for research on the history of the architecturelandscape, and soundscape of the Vassar College campus

The Cornaro Window

The Great Window that is the visual focus of Thompson Memorial Library represents Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctorate, defending her thesis at the Cathedral of Padua in 1678—a fact familiar to all Vassar students, past, present, and prospective. But the style and layered meanings of the work are little understood. The window combines the Gothic revival style with motifs from Medieval and Renaissance art to depict Elena both as a celebrated scholar and model of religious and intellectual virtue–an example meant to inspire Vassar students at the forefront of women’s education.

Is Vassar an Olmsted Campus?

There have long been unsubstantiated statements that Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape architecture, 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?

Emma Hartman Noyes House, architect Eero Saarinen

Many people consider Saarinen (1910–1961) the finest American architect of the mid-20th century. Born in Finland, he came to the United States in 1923 with his father, Eliel, also an architect. Although at home in the world of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, Saarinen was raised in the Scandinavian tradition of fine craft and natural materials. His wife, Aline Saarinen (VC’35), a noted architectural critic, was the person who brought him to Vassar where, in addition to designing Noyes House (1958), he prepared a series of designs for the campus as a whole.

Spaces for GIs

A POSSE veteran at Vassar interested in the issue of campus spaces for veterans today set out to study spaces for the GIs who had studied here in the late 1940s — Vassar’s first male graduates. His research revealed that there actually were not many such spaces –just one lounge for the men to get away from the “girls”. In the process, he chronicled some of the experiences of those first male graduates on the Vassar campus.

Jeh V. Johnson, FAIA

We are tracing the activities of this important architect-professor, who employed design as a tool of social justice, designed many buildings on campus and in the community, and was an especially beloved teacher and mentor to generations of Vassar students who have gone on in the fields of architecture and design.

Percival Gallagher, Olmsted Brothers, at Vassar

In 1929, with most sections of the campus and buildings in place, and the arboretum recently established, Vassar once again called on the Olmsted firm to advise on campus landscape. Percival Gallagher, Olmsted partner, would serve as Consulting Landscape Architect to Vassar from 1929-33, contributing plans and planting ideas for many areas of the campus.

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. Several research projects are tracing the development of the Vassar campus as arboretum, as initially conceived by Beatrix Farrand; its expansion by Percival Gallagher, partner in Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects; down to the recent accreditation of the campus as an Level II Arboretum by Arbnet.

Williams Hall

At the news of the planned demolition of Williams Hall to make way for the Vassar Inn and Institute, Cassie Jain (VC ‘20) shot black and white film images of the building, pairing her own photos with historic images she found in the Vassar archives. The resulting zine is an eloquent eulogy to the building, in text and image.

Beatrix Farrand, Consulting Landscape Gardener

In 1925, Vassar hired Beatrix Jones Farrand, the foremost woman landscape architect in the United States, as Consulting Landscape Gardener (her preferred term). She remained in the post for less than four years, but contributed designs and ideas that shaped the campus in significant ways. This project was the first analysis of Farrand’s little-known designs for the Vassar campus; it chronicled her involvement on campus, as well as the quagmire of obstacles she faced, and set her work in the context of contemporary issues about women’s roles and environmental issues, on the grounds and in the curriculum.

The Campus Green

An exhibition in the Vassar Art Library, April 11- June 6, 2022. Organized to mark the bicentenary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth on April 26, 2022, this exhibition presents the results of new archival research, revealing what Olmsted and his associates did—and did not—contribute to Vassar’s campus.

Campus Soundscape: The Vassar Carillon

Striking every hour, on the hour, with two concerts at 12:30 and 5:00 pm, the Vassar “bells” have been an essential part of college life since 1904. Although the music that streams from the Chapel tower may seem like a consistent element of the soundscape, it has been produced by several different types of instruments over the past century, which have played a varied repertoire. This project traces the ongoing history of the Vassar Carillon, including the recent installation of a new instrument that is enabling some very different music.

Ruth Maxon Adams (1883-1970)

Ruth Maxon Adams was an architect and interior designer who played a significant role in shaping the Vassar campus in the years between the wars. Most of her work was centered on interior design but as a result of friendships formed at Vassar she was able to build a number of faculty houses, in Arlington and in the summer colony of Yelping Hill, CT.

Sustainable Wastewater Treatment

From the early practice of dumping wastewater into the Casperkill to Ellen Swallow Richards’ novel proposal for a “sewage farm” of filtration beds, this project traces the history of Vassar’s wastewater treatment systems, raising questions about progressive ecological initiatives the college could consider going forward.