UChicago Natural History

The University of Chicago is set in a region that possesses a distinctive natural history. Early descriptions of the site reveal how inhospitable the terrain was to initial settlement. Owing to its proximity to Lake Michigan, the University is located on what is known as a lakefront marsh ecosystem. This particular type of ecosystem is characterized by infertile soil - composed of silt and sand deposited by receding glaciers and the repeated flooding of Lake Michigan. Because the surface soil of the area was so lacking in nutrients, it could sustain only a limited variety of plant life. Prior to the University’s construction, the landscape was scattered with hardy shrubbery, short scrub oaks and large tracts of swampland. Consequently, the area of the University and its periphery were actually better suited to suburban settlement than agrarian communities. The settlement of the region was modest before the middle of the nineteenth century. Unlike the fertile plains of more inland regions of Illinois, Hyde Park remained sparsely populated until Chicago’s growing population began to search for the tranquility of suburban life. Even today the often saturated and sterile soils remain a challenge on the campus despite efforts to tame the natural ecosystem with fertile fill and drainage systems.

The mid-nineteenth century inaugurated the deliberate development of Chicago’s southern region. Paul Cornell, a prosperous Chicago resident, launched his grand plan to make the area an attractive weekend resort and suburban village beyond the commotion of the growing metropolis by promoting real estate development in what was then a distant southern region of Chicago. Cornell was also responsible for designating the area Hyde Park after London and New York’s townships of the same name. To encourage traffic flows to the area Cornell made an arrangement with the administrators of the Illinois Central Railroad providing them with land on the condition that they include a stop in Hyde Park on their normal run. This was also the first time in the history of the Hyde Park area that there was a concerted effort to refine the surrounding landscape. Because Cornell was an active and influential member of Chicago’s South Parks Commission, he was able to persuade the Commission to hire the celebrated landscape architecture firm of Olmsted, Vaux and Co. This decision indelibly transformed the ecological and topological character of the University’s site.

Frederick Law Olmsted came in the early part of the 1871 to survey the region and devise a plan to beautify this burgeoning suburban district with an ambitious 1,055 acre park system. Olmsted, one of the preeminent landscape architects of the late nineteenth century, was widely acclaimed for his design of Central Park in Manhattan but was also responsible for other urban park designs such as those of Albany and Buffalo, NY, the Emerald Necklace in Boston and the grounds of the Capitol building in Washington. Olmsted’s project for Chicago’s South side included a dual park system - Jackson Park and Washington Park - linked by a long promenade for leisurely strolls along what is today known as the Midway Plaisance.  F. L. Olmsted has been rightfully praised for his outstanding ability to accentuate and preserve the natural charm of a landscape. In his landscape designs, Olmsted was able to combine utility and decorative concerns with laudable finesse. The designs Olmsted executed were clearly rooted in the English Park tradition, yet his handling of design elements such as waterways, walkways or plant life was marked by a unique aesthetic and practical sensibility. These qualities of Olmsted’s work are unmistakable in the layout of Chicago’s Washington and Jackson Parks.

F. L. Olmsted’s parks plan concentrated on accenting the Lake Michigan’s intrinsic beauty. Olmsted wanted to stress the natural visual motif of the lake by creating a continuous body of water from the shore all the way to Washington Park. A significant part of Olmsted’s Midway Plaisance plan would have transformed the stretch of land between Jackson and Washington Parks into "a magnificent chain of lakes" thereby allowing boat travel between the two parks. The South Parks Commission records specify that the lakes would "take the form of basins about 1300 ft. long and 100 foot wide, connected by straits 40 foot wide at street intersections, at which point they were to be covered with bridges of artistic design." However, after the great Chicago fire of 1871, sufficient public funds were unavailable to realize Olmsted’s vision. The South Parks plan had to be deferred until the World’s Colombian Exposition when Olmsted and Vaux once again took charge of the Park landscaping in collaboration with the local architectural firm of Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. Unfortunately, the Midway waterway was never realized.

Nevertheless, tree planting continued through 1877 along the Midway. In accord with Olmsted's design, Cornell began to renovate the public lands by installing a five-acre nursery and improving the network of roads within Hyde Park. Initiatives to grade and seed the terrain along the Midway from Cottage Grove to Stony Island by the Illinois Central Railroad persisted and elms from the park nursery were also transplanted. During the winter of 1877 “the planting space between 59th and 63rd street for the 1200 square feet east of Cottage Grove Avenue was prepared and, in the spring, surfaced and sodden down. 1000 miscellaneous trees from the old nursery were planted in this space. The oak grove east of this improvement had been cleared of all underbrush, the grass sown and rustic seats [set up].” The repossession of Jackson Park and the Midway by the South Parks Commission in 1894 after the Colombian Exposition, advanced the reparation of the southside landscape. In due course, the temporary structures of the fair were dismantled and disorderly grounds restored as best possible to coincide with F. L. Olmsted’s original plan.

Chicago Historical Society Archives, Jean Block, South Parks Commission Historical Register, University of Chicago Archives and Lee Hall’s Olmsted’s America

The University of Chicago was a welcome addition to Hyde Park. In 1891, President William Rainey Harper and the University’s first trustees negotiated a site for the new University of Chicago along the edge of the Midway Plaisance extending several blocks towards the well-settled Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhoods. Though influenced by majestic campuses such as Oxford and Cambridge, the University’s founders were intent upon creating a unique academic environment befitting the principles of progressive and rigorous scientific study also championed by the institution’s originators. The University of Chicago was one of the first universities with a pre-determined, cohesive plan for its architecture and it was to relate to the surrounding environment. The trustees of the University had a clear vision of an architectural layout that was in harmony with its environs. The system of quadrangles was a deliberate arrangement intended to both delineate the space of the academy from the outside world and to create an architectural complex that was harmonious with rather than obtrusive amidst its adjacent surroundings. The trustees deliberated over a suitable yet feasible architectural plan, ultimately deciding on Gothic edifices of Blue Bedford limestone. They considered Gothic to be a timeless style that would evoke a sense of indomitable religiosity and would generate a visually unified architectural schema but would also be able to embrace diverse architectural styles. Finding an architect who was able to represent their vision was the next challenging undertaking.

After communicating for several months with the renowned architect Henry Ives Cobb, the trustees decided upon Cobb's grand but sober architectural design. Since coming to Chicago in 1881 Cobb had received several significant commissions in the Chicago area including the Newberry Library, the Chicago Opera House and Lake Forest College and was well suited to his charge at the University. The University’s first building Cobb Hall (named for an unrelated financial donor Silas Cobb) was erected simultaneously with the early constructions of the Colombian Exposition in Jackson Park and the Midway in 1892. Cobb Hall was the template for later structures on campus. Internally it was a strictly functional building composed of small rooms for intimate study and originally contained a large lecture hall on the first floor. Externally it possessed the graceful and imposing Gothic facade duplicated in many later structures on campus. Soon after Cobb Hall was built, Gates-Blake and Goodspeed Halls (men’s dormitories at the time) were completed also under the direction of Henry Ives Cobb, followed by the women’s dorms Kelly, Foster and Beecher. This first phase of construction continued for the next nine years. Since the campus was cluttered with construction sites for the first decade after its conception, little attention was paid to the landscape of the University until the turn of the century.

Not surprisingly, the marsh ecosystem upon which the University was constructed proved to be a slight inconvenience in the early years as the first buildings were being erected. Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed in his History of the University of Chicago described how in the first year of the University's history, the southeast quarter and "the western side [were] flat, but dry and covered with young oaks... [and how] these two sides were separated by low ground which was a morass in the spring, being lowest just east of where Haskell later stood, and here there was standing water for much of the year." He continues, "there were a few boardwalks, but only a few... the campus was covered with piles of earth, and with brick stone, iron, lumber, every kind of building material..." Clearly the site remained very much in its ‘natural state’ as a somewhat troublesome marshland.

Goodspeed later remarked that the individual responsible for the initial care of the campus was a Trustee and Chair of the Buildings and Grounds Department, Judge Daniel Shorey. Judge Shorey was also the principle advocate for preserving the existing oaks on campus - oaks that in many cases predate the University. Shorey’s devotion to the campus ground is evident simply in the number of plantings for which he alone was responsible. In 1893, as the Chairman of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds, Judge Shorey ordered double rows of trees - acacia and catalpas - one on either side of the driveway south of the central quad supplying the funds for the purchase himself. In 1894 Shorey planted trees northwest of Kent Laboratory. Once again, in 1895 Shorey was authorized to plant trees in the northern part of the campus. His personal contribution was commendable. Accordingly, when Judge Shorey died it was acknowledged in his memorial service that the “grounds [were] under his care from the beginning. [And that h]is labor in beautifying the campus [had] been unwearied.”

Judge Shorey’s devotion to the black oaks on campus was exceedingly fortunate. Since black oaks are quite hardy and well adapted to the local climate and sandy soil conditions, their longevity and vigor allows them to be appreciated even today. May Theilgaard Watts a well-known naturalist, aficionado of the natural history of the Midwest and friend of the University’s botanical specialist Professor John Cowles, also praised Judge Shorey’s dedication to the preservation of the black oaks. In reference to the oaks, Watts mentioned, “they interrupted the [overall] landscape scheme for the campus,” but added  “it was [nevertheless] decided that as each oak died it was to be replaced by an elm, to match the rest of the campus.” The effort to preserve the original arrangement of trees on campus attests to the founders’ desire to maintain a sense of continuity in the placement of trees on campus. The Committee on Buildings and Grounds ordered elms to be planted wherever oaks were once growing. However, because elms naturally prosper in more fertile soil, it was specified that for each tree, a hole 25 feet would be excavated and the sand replaced with “black earth from the Illinois prairie.” Interestingly, many of these elms were apparently imported from the east coast because New England elms were judged to be more aesthetically pleasing than the local variety.

May Theilgaard Watts, The University of Chicago Archives’ Trustees Minutes, The University of Chicago Archives, Jean Block’s The Uses of Gothic

The turn-of-the-century ushered in new initiative for improving the landscaping at the University. Once the initial phase of construction was completed the trustees could finally begin to consider developing the grounds.

The first landscape architect employed by the University was Ossian Simonds. Simonds emphasized a picturesque and bucolic aesthetic in his work as is evident in his design of the Graceland Cemetery north of downtown Chicago. Simonds plan for the University campus echoed his earlier projects. His romantic sensibility was manifest in the meandering paths and undulating terrain of the Cemetery and in his similarly idyllic design for the University. However, members of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds were critical of Simonds design. They objected to his excessive use and awkward placement of shrubbery, to the impractical curvilinear arrangement of walks, and to the lifelessness of new plantings due to insufficiently prepared soil. And so, Simond’s design was never fully completed. He was promptly dismissed by the Buildings and Grounds Committee in 1902 - his style, they felt,  was inappropriate for the University setting they and their predecessors had envisioned.

Simonds was replaced by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted’s stepson John C. Olmsted and younger son Frederick Law Jr. John C. had become increasingly more involved in his father’s business affairs since 1872 when Olmsted and Vaux dissolved their partnership. Owing to Frederick Law's failing health, John’s participation in the design and implementation of the Boston park system as well as many other projects taken on by his father in his final years enabled him to preserve the Olmsted legacy.

In 1902, the Olmsted brothers visited the University for the first time making a meticulous, though tactful, assessment of Simonds’ modifications to the grounds. Paying due respect to the relationship between the existing architecture and landscaping, the Olmsted's prepared an alternative plan for the system of walks, drives and plantings on the University campus. The Olmsteds’ emphasized the importance of axial vistas within each of the quadrangles. They felt that incorporating linear elements into the landscape design would compliment the purity of Henry Ives Cobb's architectural design and the simple block plan he set down according to strict architectural principles. They further recommended that any trees and shrubbery planted should not obstruct axial vistas nor upset the fundamental simplicity of Cobb's original plan. With the support of Shepley, Ruttan and Coolidge, the architectural firm engaged by the University at the time, the Olmsteds proposed a formal and linear layout of drives and walks which would effectively separate horse, vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The Olmsteds were also assigned the specific task of revising Hull Court, Hutchinson Commons and the Hitchcock/Snell quadrangle. For Hutchinson and Hitchcock, they designed modified, sunken gardens, which were encircled by rectilinear drives and doubly bisected by diagonal walks. Since Hull Court was an integral part of the Botany Department's compound, the Olmsteds devised appropriately naturalistic landscaping for the area. Botany Pond along with the addition of an abundance of plant life greatly enhanced the charm of Hull Court. As a result of the Olmsted Brother’s skillful designs and practical  considerations, renewed renovations on the grounds were able to begin at once.

John Coulter, the first director of the University’s Botany Department, was actively involved in the design and execution of landscaping in Hull Court and Botany Pond. He was exceptionally well suited to the task of selecting plants and devising an attractive and naturalistic layout in collaboration with the Olmsteds. Since coming to the University in 1894 Coulter had requested support from the University to set up a botanic garden for the pleasure of students and faculty as well as for the benefit of the Botany Department's research. Though Coulter's ambitious plan was not realized, he was able to make certain Hull Court was not a ‘commonplace’ garden. Coulter's extensive knowledge of local and exotic plant varieties and species was put to use in the elaboration of a planting scheme for Botany Pond. 

One final figure, crucial to the landscaping history of the University, was the gardener and landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand. After of the construction of a utility tunnel network and an increase in automobile traffic, the campus by 1929 was greatly in need of renovations. The onslaught of dangerous and bothersome auto traffic made the Olmsteds’ system of walks and drives anachronistic. In an effort to modernize and beautify the campus the University consulted Beatrix Jones Farrand. Farrand was requested to resolve the traffic problem and to lend her artistic sensibility to a new campus design. Accordingly, Farrand devised a plan of diagonal walks which eliminated the center circle of the main quad. Her intention was to restore a sense of unity between architectural and landscaping elements while concurrently reducing campus traffic. Ultimately, she felt the University ought to do away with automobile drives all together.

However, Farrand’s plan was received by a flurry of controversy. It was a popular custom to gather around the center circle of the main quad. Students, faculty and the wives of faculty members were not inclined to relinquish the tradition without a fight. And so, though unanimously approved by the Buildings and Grounds committee, Beatrix’s plan for the “university of the future” was never implemented - the center circle prevailed. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that her plan went unfulfilled not simply on account of the vociferous complaints of the University community but also because of financial constraints faced by the University in the depression years. At length Farrand did provide garden designs for Burton-Judson court and the central courtyards of the International House and the Oriental Institute. With her talent for giving life and beauty to the landscape Beatrix was able to revive these sites with plantings and resourceful designs.

The University of Chicago Archives, Jean Block's The Uses of Gothic and Jane Brown's The Gardening Life of Beatrix Jones Farrand

How Do I?

UChicagoSocial: Facilities Services