By William Harms
Photo by Jason Smith

The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.”
—Frederick Law Olmsted

Walk down the sidewalk between Hull Gate and Botany Pond and you may need to duck beneath a canopy of aralias that overhang the path leading to Cobb Gate and 57th Street just beyond.

Those rare plants have been thriving in their niche since the beginning of the 20th century and are thought to be a legacy of John Coulter, first chair of the University’s Botany department. But they are young compared to the staid oaks on the Main Quadrangle, which predate the University’s founding.

The lush flora at the heart of campus owes much to Coulter and the vision of legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose heirs helped design the original quads. Coulter began Botany Pond as an outdoor research laboratory for botanists, though he never realized his dream of creating a full botanical garden on campus. Researchers still treasure the richness of species at the little pond, and today the entire campus is an inviting garden with biological and historical significance.

In a neighborhood filled with Olmsted’s grand projects, the campus still reflects his guiding ideals—“The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it.”

Olmsted’s mark on the area reaches back to his designs for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which was just a short walk from where the University held its first classes. With those designs and his neighboring masterpieces—Jackson Park, Washington Park, and the vast Midway Plaisance—he paved the way for his sons to extend the Olmsted aesthetic to the University of Chicago campus.

In 1902, the younger Olmsteds, John C. Olmsted (an adopted nephew) and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., recommended a plan for the axial vistas at the center of campus, and they revised an earlier University plan for Hull Court, Hutchinson Court and the Snell Hitchcock quadrangle. They also joined Coulter in developing Botany Pond.

Coulter’s Dream Comes to Fruition

Rather than create a separate botanical garden as Coulter suggested, modern landscape designers brought that character to the entire campus. In 1997 the American Public Gardens Association gave the University campus an official botanical garden designation. The botanical garden beds, which now number about 20, beautify the space and educate the visiting public about flora with labeled plant selections.

In the years since that honor was given, the beds have continued to grow and change as University groundskeepers introduce new plants and tend to the established ones. The Julie and Parker Hall Botanic Garden Endowment supports the design and maintenance of the garden, and registered landscape architect Richard Bumstead, Associate Director for the Campus Environment for Facilities Services, oversees the garden plantings.

“People respect the campus more when it’s beautiful,” Bumstead said. “Before we began improving the beds, there were pathways across the grass, which turned into mud when it rained. Now we don’t have that any more,” he said.

Bumstead notes that President Emeritus Hugo Sonnenschein supported creating the botanical garden to enhance the distinctive look of campus.

That mandate energized Bumstead, who grew up learning to love gardening. As a young boy, Bumstead was the caretaker of his family’s perennial garden beds in Montana. The University landscape reflects much of his knowledge and insights.

A Few Favorite Things: Trees

“I fall in love with new plants all the time—it’s easy to do,” says Bumstead, who often visits other gardens for inspiration.

One of his longtime favorites is Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii,’ otherwise known as the Camperdown elm and located at the northeast corner of the entrance to Rosenwald Hall. “It replaces an American elm that was removed after it was diagnosed with Dutch elm disease, which has slowly been killing most of the old elms on campus,” Bumstead says. “We have been planting many of the new hybrids on campus with great success.”

Cornus kousa, the Kousa Dogwood, growing in Harper Court at Stuart and Haskell halls, is one of the jewels of the plant world, says Bumstead, and its cousin, Cornus florida, the Flowering Dogwood, often overshadows it. “The campus is at the northern edge of its hardiness zone, so I planted it in a protected quadrangle, and it seems to be doing very well.”

Botany Pond and Beyond

The small-scale ecology of Botany Pond fascinates Michael LaBarbera, Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy and the College. “Botany Pond is a wonderful resource, both biologically and aesthetically,” LaBarbera says.

LaBarbera has photographed and videotaped many animals up close in the pond’s natural setting. He has seen broods of ducklings grow up, and dragonflies catch their mosquito dinners or become dinner for a quick-moving mallard. He also has witnessed what he calls “reptilian bliss”—a species of turtles called red-eared sliders populate the pond and bask in the sunshine on its banks.

“Botany Pond is a really productive environment,” notes LaBarbera in “The Biodiversity of Botany Pond,” a videotaped lecture given to alumni in 2009. “It’s not unique, but what’s interesting is to really look at it up close.” LaBarbera has been a strong proponent of incorporating native species in the plantings on campus as a teaching resource. The west Hull Court garden predominantly includes native species and attracts a diversity of bees and butterflies throughout the summer, he says.

A Return to Olmsted’s Vision

Steven Wiesenthal, Associate Vice President and University Architect, says the campus landscape is an important part of the University’s heritage, forming a connection with the nearby neighborhood and parks by Frederick Law Olmsted.

“As the most influential landscape architect in U.S. history, Olmsted often employed plant material to create naturalistic yet urbane places where the manmade and nature mutually reinforce the use and beauty of spaces,” Wiesenthal says.

The University’s botanical garden continues that tradition, forming inviting spaces for repose and activity, he added.

Olmsted’s influence also is tangible in a construction project begun this summer. Along Ellis and Woodlawn avenues through the Midway Plaisance, the University will be widening the pedestrian paths, creating well-lit spaces that invite people to cross the Midway and appreciate Olmsted’s handiwork.

“The design will reinforce the Olmsted concept of ‘bridges’ across the Midway,” Wiesenthal says, referring to Olmsted’s original plan for a Midway canal dotted with bridges. As with the botanical garden, an old vision will be realized, though in a form the University’s founders never foresaw.

Originally published on September 7, 2010.