Botanic Gardens, Gardens, Landscape History

The Botanic Garden of Smith College

January 14, 2018

The Great Blue Heron by Elliot Offner stands in the small pond next to the Lyman Plant House.

I am working on a presentation about the history of gardens in New England to present at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at the end of the month. To provide a framework for my talk, I am retracing my garden visits of the past several years with a goal of settling on ten examples that either illustrate a particular period of garden design or represent something new, different or unique to share.

One such place is the campus of Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts. Founded in 1871 by its namesake, Sophia Smith, from the beginning the College set out to provide women with an education equal to that afforded men.

Dedicated in 1911 to commemorate the life of Smith College student Mary Tomelson Lanning, “In Memory of a Beautiful Life” by sculptor Jean Gautherin faces Burton lawn.

To support this outcome the campus was sited on pastoral landscape and conceived as a botanic garden for scientific study and research. Modeled after the great Botanic Gardens of the world (including Kew), it is possibly the first of its kind.

Smith College Observatory with President Seelye’s cow in the foreground, 1901. Courtesy of Smith College Archive.

L. Clarke Seelye, Smith’s first president, is credited with the idea. A supporter of science education for women, Seelye envisioned the campus as an ornamental botanical garden with plants and trees selected and grouped according to scientific as well as aesthetic principles.

Undated photo of students in the rock garden. Courtesy of Smith College Archives.

The campus thus became the classroom, an ideal setting for academic enrichment.

As the campus evolved so too did the botanic garden which served as an adjunct to the College’s Botany Department. Botany has been included in the college’s curriculum since the first year of classes and by 1886 Lilly Hall, thought to be the first structure devoted to the study of science in a “female” college, served this purpose.

To accommodate an expanding enrollment, the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot was hired to develop a comprehensive master plan. Within two years of its completion in 1892, twelve hundred shrubs and trees had been planted each bearing labels with their botanical names and native regions. These remain in place today.

The Olmsted plan identified a site on the banks of Paradise Pond for a conservatory complex and the firm of Lord & Burnham was hired to install them.

These were accompanied by the planting of a herbaceous systematics garden (an outdoor laboratory for students) and the development of plans to make the entire campus an arboretum.

In 1895 Edward H. R. Lyman, whose family had owned one of the farmsteads on which the college was sited, donated funds to expand the greenhouses with a new conservatory in honor of his mother.

Expanded greenhouses and glass house built by Lord & Burnham. Courtesy of Smith College archives.

Within the Lyman Plant House were included Temperate, Stove and Succulent Houses.

The Botanic Garden of Smith College has a long association with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and several of the directors and head gardeners trained there. This included Edward J. Canning who in 1898 designed a rock garden on the south slope of the plant house, the first in America.

The rock garden includes embankments which follow a dry stream bed with paths winding through a miniature landscape. Here more than fifteen hundred taxa of plants, native to alpine regions of the world are grown. During my springtime visit the rock garden was full of colorful bulbs.

In 1900 Smith College added the first course in horticulture to its curriculum followed by its first course in landscape gardening in 1914 and the appointment of Kate Ries Koch as professor of landscape architecture in 1919. From 1932 to 1942 the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture was an affiliated graduate school of the college.

Additional gardens have been continually added to the campus including, in 1921, those adjacent to the white Greek Revival Capen House.

Designed by Koch the gardens include a rustic pergola serving that connects a series of garden rooms including a medieval knot garden and cutting garden. The garden renovation plan below, by Landscape Architect Nancy Watkins Denig, is from 2005.

The Lyman Plant House was renovated and restored from 2001–2003. It remains, for many, at the heart of Smith College’s Botanic Garden, connecting to a magical world of glasshouses showcasing exotic plants from throughout the world.

Along with annual exhibitions each year, during the first full week of March (which really isn’t THAT far away) it hosts the Spring Bulb Show.

Each year incoming students are presented with an ivy plant, a gift from the Friends of the Botanic Garden. At graduation a ceremonial planting of ivy by the graduating class takes place gently reminding students of the symbolic renewal of the landscape.

Photographer unknown, “Ivy Day procession, Smith College, 1905.,” Smith Libraries Exhibits, accessed January 12, 2018.

Since its founding in 1895, the Botanic Garden of Smith College has been devoted to teaching, public education, scientific research, and beauty a mission to which it remains committed.

 

Copyright © 2018 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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2 Comments

  • Reply Pam Steel January 14, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    Another great article…with your great balance of visuals with text…It makes me want to go out to Smith to see more and maybe even go to their Bulb show in March. Thank you!

  • Reply Patrice January 14, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    The bulb show is terrific and the perfect antidote to the winter months. I haven’t been for a couple of years and hope to attend this year.

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