Iowa State’s Central Campus: A Brief History (and a Myth)

Central campus (more or less the area around present day Curtiss Hall, Beardshear, Catt Hall, and the Campanile/Memorial Union)as it appears today.

Fall Semester classes began almost a month ago now!  New Iowa State students have hopefully become more familiar with the campus and its buildings, and may have even established their favorite places to study, relax, or chat with friends.  Most students have probably hurried mulitiple times through central campus on their way to a class, meeting or campus event.

As a new or long-time Iowa Stater you may or may not have taken the time to ask how and why our central campus was designed the way it is.  If you did…and you are still wondering…or if you never did, and now would like to know…the Olmsted Brothers’ recommendations for campus design and improvements has recently been made available online.  The report might shed at least a little light on the history of central campus, and at least one impassioned controversy involved in its development!

Iowa State’s central campus area in 1904.  In the distance one can see Margaret Hall (girls’ dormitory) to the left and Catt Hall (then Botany Hall) to the right.

The Olmsted Brothers (landscape architects and son and stepson of the famed Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York City’s Central Park – and not Iowa State’s campus, as one century-old myth goes) were hired as consultants in 1906 to to give recommendations on the future plans for the campus design and layout.  In A. T. Erwin’s 1966 reminiscence (Professor of Horticulture, and member of the Public Grounds Committee) entitled “The Days of Yore at Iowa State”, Erwin related that the passage of a mileage tax around 1900 had provided funds for major buildings of Iowa State’s central campus (the reminiscence can be found in the Arthur Thomas Erwin Papers, RS 9/16/16).

According to Erwin, the number of students attending Iowa State had grown drastically from its beginnings almost fifty years ago, and even in just the previous ten years.  He says that the student body was approaching the 1,000 mark in 1900, and had only been at 300 about ten years before.  The campus needed additional buildings for the increased size.  Erwin relates that the Buildings and Grounds Committee had discussed an overall landscape plan for an orderly development of campus, and an agreement had not been reached.  Erwin then suggested to President Storms that an “outstanding landscape architect” be hired, and the Olmsted Brothers were chosen to provide recommendations.

Another view of central campus (a campus horse carriage can be seen in the foreground) in 1906, the year the Olmsted Brothers submitted their report.

Their report, which recommended that the proposed location for the Agricultural Hall be moved so that it lined up with Beardshear and recommended modifying the location of campus roads and the railway to create a more pleasing aesthetic, upset many in the campus community.  In addition to the report itself, the University Archives holds the records of the Public Grounds Committee (RS 8/6/69) which contains reactions to the report, correspondence with the Olmsted brothers, and a summary of a conversation held with the Olmsted Brothers.  Included is “An Appeal to the Alumni” from the Alumnus, which is the “bearer of unwelcome news” and decries the proposed changes and the destruction of the beautiful campus.  The article states:

“Every graduate of the college must regret the radical change in plans for our loved, beautiful campus.  This change from the natural or English-park style so carefully planned, and tried for nearly forty years on our grounds, to the formal or French style, so artificial and as we believe so unsuited to a room situation like our own, has been accepted by the authorities and the first ground was broken the latter part of September.”

The controversy involved in the Olmsted brothers’ report not only sheds light on people’s love for the campus in the early part of the 20th century (which definitely continues today!), but is also an interesting window into one of many debates which probably occurred in this country when architectural and landscape changes were taking another major shift.

Above is a well-loved image of sheep on the central lawn near the Campanile.  The photograph was taken around 1905, close to when the Olmsted Brothers wrote their report.  Even though this photograph was taken over 100 years ago, when major changes were taking place on campus, one can almost picture a similar scene in the same place today.  Despite all the changes, new buildings, and major increase in the number of students attending Iowa State, the central lawn has remained for students to enjoy!

In conclusion, I must point out one major misconception often stated about who designed Iowa State’s early campus.  Myths will inevitably start about an institution, and Iowa State is no exception!  In the “Appeal to Alumni”, the author mentions that the Iowa State campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  As stated above, this is in fact not the case.  Iowa State’s first president, Adonijah Welch, designed much of the original campus.  It is interesting, however, to see the long-standing assertion in an article written over 100 years ago.  This myth still continues to this day, but hopefully readers of this blog post can help straighten the record!  It is just one example among many of how people need to double and triple check their facts, no matter how much closer a statement was written to when the supposed fact occurred!

Another view of central campus, this time from 1897.  In the distance Old Main, which burned in 1902, can be seen to the left. Morrill Hall is to the right.

To find out more about the history of the Iowa State’s central campus, please take a look at the Olmsted Brothers’ report now available online.  The University Archives has a variety of resources for finding out more about the history of this report and other campus plans including news clippings and articles about the campus located with the Public Grounds Committee Records (RS 8/6/69), minutes of the Public Grounds Committee, 1911-1928 (RS 8/6/69), K. A. Kirckpatrick’s bachelor’s thesis from 1909 entitled “A Landscape Plan for the Campus of Iowa State College,” (call number C Ob 1909 Kirckpatrick) and reminiscences written by Public Grounds Committee member and Professor of Horticulture Arthur Thomas Erwin which can be found in his papers (RS 9/16/16).  A wonderful resource on the history of the campus and its buildings prior to 1979, H. Summerfield Day’s Iowa State University’s Campus and Its Buildings, 1859-1979, can be found online.  We also have a collection of articles, news clippings, and other publications on campus buildings (RS 4/8/4).  Writings by Iowa State’s first president, who had a significant role in planning Iowa State’s original grounds, can be found in the Adonijah Strong Welch Papers (RS 2/1).

5 thoughts on “Iowa State’s Central Campus: A Brief History (and a Myth)

  1. Pingback: Navigating Your Research Using Special Collections and University Archives Resources « Special Collections Department Blog, Iowa State University Library

  2. Stacy Kaminski

    During a park design class about 1992 we were told that Frederick Law Olmsted designed the campus. I’m just watching a PBS special about Olmsted and decided to look it up. I’ve always been proud of our beautiful campus and probably told a lot of people this myth. Oops! I’m so glad I know now.

    • Laura

      Thanks for letting us know, Stacy. You’re not alone in helping spread the myth…therefore the post. We’re glad to hear you found it useful!

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