Anyone interested in a pleasant walk on a spring day could do worse than the 700-acre campus of the Lawrenceville School. The campus was designed in the late 19th century by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect also responsible for New York’s Central Park and Trenton’s Cadwalader Park, among many other landmark projects.
One of the first students to be inspired by it was Aldo Leopold, who attended Lawrenceville in 1904 and 1905, keeping journals and notes of his many walks around the campus and the surrounding woods. In 1949 he wrote “A Sand County Almanac” and established himself as one of the seminal figures in the environmental and wilderness conservation movements.
More recently the campus landscaping has been described in a pamphlet, “The Trees of Lawrenceville,” that also includes a map and guide to the location of the prominent trees on the campus, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Now in its fourth edition, the booklet is available for free at the school’s Bunn Library.
From the introduction, written by Elaine Mills, a landscape architect and wife of a former faculty member:
All who enter the gates of the Lawrenceville School can immediately see and feel the effects of a gifted imagination and a broad plant palette, creative elements so often lacking in many modern landscapes.
Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., America’s premier landscape architect, was hired in 1883 by the trustees of the John Cleve Green Foundation to plan the expanding campus of an all-boys boarding school fashioned after the great English institutions. It is Olmsted’s vision which we enjoy today.
Olmsted’s preference for a park-like setting surrounded by large trees prevailed over an initial row house plan along Route 206. How lucky we are! As we stand in the middle of “The Circle,” dwarfed by the magnificent trees, it is difficult to imagine that many of the 371 trees Olmsted planted were saplings only four or five feet tall, leftovers from his works at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.
In general, Olmsted planted different species of the same genus in clusters around campus for comparison. Remnants of these teaching collections can still be seen today: Magnolia at Foundation House, Linden in front of Hamill, and Kennedy, False Cypress at Dickinson, Catalpa and Elm at Cleve, Oaks behind the Chapel, and Sycamore behind Irwin. Other collections have been lost over time. After Olmsted’s initial campus plan (1883) and landscape plan (1886), the Olmsted firm continued to be consulted through the early 1900s.
. . . The Lawrenceville School is alive with master teachers and students eager to learn and grow in the great tradition of many who came before. It is also a living museum, a collection of rare and unusual trees from around the world. With each storm or new construction comes a loss to our collection. I hope this booklet will increase awareness and appreciation for the rare beauty which surrounds us. Look at our trees, touch them, know them.
#b#Letters from Olmsted:#/b#
The work of Olmsted and the Boston-based architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns, came at a propitious time in the history of Lawrenceville, when it was being transformed from a proprietary school, owned by the headmaster and then sold to his successor, to a modern-day private preparatory school.
The first headmaster of the reconstituted school was James C. Mackenzie. Olmsted sent him various letters during the planning and execution of the campus plan. Excerpts, provided by Lawrenceville archivist Jacqueline Haun, follow:
To J.C. Mackenzie, April 28, 1883
I believe that it was understood by members of your board at the meeting yesterday that the topographical survey of the school property with contours showing variations of level of one foot, was to be at once completed.
. . . There are two questionable points in the general plan as it stands that I had overlooked, and that were overlooked by all yesterday.
1. Mr. Peabody’s plan for the main school building is designed to have the corridors on the north side, and all the school rooms open to the sun on the south. As the plan now stands these rooms face southeast. To swing the building round so as to give them a south facing would compel a radical change of general plan — the more radical because of the instructions of the board to make the whole arrangement more compact.
How important do you consider it to be that the rooms should open directly to the south, so as to get the afternoon as well as the morning sun?
It is a question with me whether it would not be better, with a view to study, to writing, drawing and demonstrations, that these rooms should face away from the sun — on the same principle that leads architects, engineers and artists to choose a north light.
For living or dormitory rooms it is desirable that at some time of the day the sun should enter them directly . . .
May 21, 1883
. . . Of various arrangements there we have devised for solving this somewhat complicated problem, that of which I give you a sketch, best combines the required conditions. It shirks none. It meets each fairly well. E.G., it gives the morning sun on one set of the masters’ house bedrooms, the evening sun on another. It gives each family a fairly direct and short course to the main school building and chapel. It places the school rooms squarely to the south. It leaves room for large dormitories in such position that the rooms on either side of a central corridor would be facing the sun either forenoon or afternoon.
It meets all the other requirements but provides for a sixth master’s house beyond the 800 feet limit. It is practicable but not advisable that all should be squeezed within the 800 feet.
It presents the principal buildings, Mr. Peabody considers, to the best advantage and in the relation to one another, and to the sun that was had in view in their original design. It leaves considerable additions to them practicable without much curtailing a general effect of spaciousness and seclusion of the primary group.
February 6, 1886
We are now so far advanced with the study that I can say that it appears possible to have upon the property a complete collection of all species of trees that it is known can be successfully cultivated in Central New Jersey. The idea we have is that aside from any value such a collection would have with reference to direct scholastic instruction, as to which it would serve as a combined library and Museum of Botany and Dendrology if each tree should be conspicuously labeled with common and scientific names, native ancestry, etc., boys would gradually, during their stay with you, absorb, as from object lessons, a good deal of information of a kind that is soon to be in a growing demand.
To work out the project to its last details, find the trees and have them properly planted, cataloged, labeled, etc., will be a good deal of trouble, and it will probably cost a little more than to plant the ground simply with reference to scenery. I should like to know how the idea strikes you, to know if you would think it likely to be acceptable to the trustees and, in short, worth the trouble.
Very truly yours,
Frederick Law Olmsted