John Charles Olmsted and Campus Design in Oregon

WITH HIS 1903 PORTLAND PARKS report finally published and his design for Portland’s Lewis & Clark Exposition complete, visiting landscape architect John Charles Olmsted turned to waiting clients for more lasting Oregon work. Unlike the Exposition, which was planned in haste and survived only a few months intact, the work he did at college campuses in western Oregon — principles included — would endure a century of change.[1]

Olmsted’s visits to the Pacific Northwest to design the Lewis and Clark Exposition and recommend purchase of public spaces such as Portland’s Forest Park coincided with a collective vision among western civic leaders to turn newly settled towns into what they considered civilized spaces.[2] By the turn of the twentieth century, Olmsted had been working with his famous stepfather, Frederick Law Olmsted, for more than twenty years. After the elder Olmsted died in 1903, John Charles was considered one of the most qualified landscape architects in the nation. John Charles was the first president of the newly formed American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). After his Yale Sheffield Scientific School graduation in 1875, he had dutifully designed for a growing list of East Coast clients. His younger stepbrother, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was eighteen years his junior, barely a decade out of Harvard and teaching the first landscape architecture course there. John Charles, then, was the most qualified Olmsted to travel widely in the first decade of the twentieth century.[3]

At a time when most train travel in the West was still an adventure and when campus design was far removed from any trustee agenda, three Oregon college presidents invited Olmsted to visit their campuses: Leonard W. Riley of the Baptist-owned McMinn-ville College (now Linfield College), William Jasper Kerr at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis (now Oregon State University), and William N. Ferrin at Pacific University in Forest Grove.[4] McMinnville’s Riley was the first to contract with Olmsted, and the two men had a cordial relationship. Kerr kept up correspondence with Olmsted longer than the others and sought Olmsted’s advice later, long after his two campus visits. Both Riley and Kerr had been recently installed and were intent on drawing bold strokes as campus administrators. At all three campuses, Olmsted’s observations and plans came at such an early phase of each institution’s design development that the effect of his professional opinion was immediate and lasting. Saving swaths of greenswards as dignified campus approaches, for example, was easier then, when land was already open. Few buildings crowded one another on the campuses, so his advice to face groups of buildings around open squares or quadrangles was easily followed.

Figure 1
The worn earthen paths and wooden boardwalks cutting across Pacific University’s campus — shown here in 1906 — caught Olmsted’s eye during his December 1908 visit.

Courtesy of Pacific University Archives

The venerable old Pioneer Hall stood almost alone on the oak-filled McMinnville campus, and the handsome newly completed Marsh Hall dominated the demure Pacific University campus above a tree-filled ravine; but the sprawling Oregon Agricultural College was bursting with new buildings in 1909, when Olmsted was called in to give his advice. Trustees at the private western colleges believed they needed Olmsted’s prestige as a well-known eastern campus and park planner in order to raise profiles — and funds — for more stability, while the publicly supported college just needed to pause for a proper plan to fit so many new puzzle pieces in place. The timing of Olmsted’s western visits for his Seattle Exposition and park work coincided with these visionary times, and Olmsted delivered plans for all three college presidents in different ways.

Figure 2
John Charles Olmsted works at his desk in his Brookline, Massachusetts, office, which is now preserved as a National Park Service site.

Courtesy of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site


“Mayor Lane tells me that you are soon to be in Portland, so I address you here,” McMinnville’s newly appointed president wrote Olmsted on October 29, 1907. “McMinnville College has a Campus consisting of 30 acres which we are desirous of having properly laid out before we proceed with the new buildings which we are hoping to erect in the not distant future.”[5] While Riley waited another three weeks for Olmsted to arrive in McMinnville, he quickly hired Portland surveyors Elliott and Scroggin to prepare a contour map of the campus grounds for Olmsted to use in his later design work.[6]

Riley had the reputation for being persistent and for having pluck, which may be why McMinnville survived that bleak era. One campus history tells how he became president. The trustees were looking for a new president and had been unable to find a candidate for the position. They had practically given up in despair when the Reverend James Whitcomb Brougher, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Portland, and the Reverend Leonard W. Riley, general missionary of the Oregon Baptist Convention, met one day on a Portland street. Both were members of a committee to find a president for the college.

Brougher: “Do you know, Riley, what the Portland bunch of trustees are going to do at the January meeting?”
Riley: “No, what?”
Brougher: “They are going to move that the college be closed and the income from the endowment be devoted to the payment of debts.”
Riley: “Not much! We must have a college in the Northwest. Before I’ll see that done I’ll take it [the presidency] myself.”
Brougher: (laying his hand on his companion’s shoulder): “Old man, you are elected.”[7]On January 10, 1906, the trustees “elected Riley as president and told him to get the college out of the hole, if he could.”[8]

The following year, Riley wrote Olmsted asking for his help in creating a campus plan. Leaving nothing to chance, he told Olmsted about what to expect in train travel between Portland and McMinnville. “McMinnville is thirty-nine miles south of Portland on the Yamhill Division of the Southern Pacific and fifty miles on the West Side Division,” he wrote Olmsted in October. He elaborated on November 22: “You will note by the enclosed time card that you can leave on the Yamhill Division forty minutes later, travel eleven miles less and reach McMinnville but ten minutes later than by the West Side Division.”[9] The determined college president was about to meet the observant visitor from Massachusetts.

On the night of November 25, Olmsted wrote his wife from the Hotel Elberton in McMinnville:

Here I am in a little country town, the county seat of Yamhill County and I dare say the largest in population in the county.
It claims a population of 2500 but hardly looks it … plenty of stores though for it supplies a large district of pretty thriving farms and villages. It is I think 40 miles from Portland and the train takes 2h 15m.
Coming from Portland the railroad follows the river to Oswego, 7m. Most of that distance the river scenery is picturesque. At one place are high rocky cliffs & rocky islands. From Oswego it turns away from the river & follows lakes and streams over this way. This is a valley tributary to the Willamette. It is the Yamhill River. S. of here is Yamhill Mountain. I don’t know why they have both hill and mountain in the name but perhaps it is an Indian name and didn’t mean Yam nor hill in English. Mr. Riley says English walnuts are going to be planted very extensively. There are already 1000 acres of them in the county. He is very fond of them to eat himself.
The college is a Baptist institution. It had run down financially, was soon to be closed as have been four others in Oregon and Washington, Idaho and Montana. He [Riley] has taken hold and in twenty months has made income balance expenses and has collected enough to cancel 1/3 rd of the debt. They have now only one bldg. and a wooden gym and a wooden observatory.[10]

Trained by his father to observe and then record each day’s landscape “catch” before his memory dimmed, Olmsted then wrote his office field notes, outlining for office draftsmen the reality of the situation on the ground.[11] Months later, an official report would reach clients, based on precise first field notes such as these from McMinnville on November 25–26, 1907:
At present they are much crowded in the present building. This building [Pioneer Hall] is a common brick 4-story building, with trim in jigsaw style of the ’60s and early ’70’s? very ugly. The basement is of stone and almost wholly out of ground, making the four stories. The gymnasium is the cheapest possible barn construction. The observatory is of wood and very cheap, but the telescope is said to be one of the largest, if not the largest, in the Pacific Northwest. The students use the Baptist Church for services and also certain social functions…. [12]

Of the wooden building across the road, which the school hoped to purchase for a music building, Olmsted wrote: “I should think it too flimsy. Ought to be solid and sound-proof, as nearly as possible.” The extensive oak woods and stream-fed ravines came in for favorable comment, as did the view of landscape seen from the top of the lone stone campus building.[13]

On November 24, the same day that Olmsted explored McMinnville with President Riley, the Oregonian reported on Olmsted’s Portland work still in progress: “Leading Landscape Architect Says Portland Should Extend System of Playgrounds to Give People Fresh Air.” The next day, he was mired in a muddy McMinnville field, scouting college land. “I spent the morning walking about and pacing some distances,” Olmsted wrote his wife on the November 26.
I got in a wheat field where it was muddy in places. I got my foot out of one of my rubbers, but fished it out and got it on while standing on the other leg. Later I had to stand in the edge of a puddle & wash the accumulated mud off my rubbers. That was about the only “adventure” I had.
Earlier in the day, he reported:
In pacing off some properties back of the campus I took pains to conceal what I was doing from an interested man who watched me from in front of one house. I paced on the opposite side of street & stopped at trees and stared at them while making notes so he would think I was only pacing the college land & locating trees. If the owners got the idea the college was after their land they would no doubt ask a higher price thinking the college must have their land.[14]

The following May, when he learned Olmsted was staying at the Savoy Hotel in Seattle, Riley asked him to prepare a preliminary report for the McMinn-ville trustees meeting in June. Within a week, Olmsted submitted thirty-one pages, typed.[15] “McMinnville College will on no account permit itself to become a university,” Olmsted acknowledged at the outset, guiding the smaller size and shape of the grounds. Trustees at McMinnville had no intention of competing with larger universities for students, Olmsted had learned. The preparatory school that was on the property should eventually be phased out, Olmsted advised, reporting that “our plan shall make no provision for a building for the preparatory department.”[16]

For any future campus buildings, the threat of fire should be considered: “As few, if any of the buildings can be made fireproof, owing to the expense, and as land is cheap, it is clearly advisable as a means of lessening fire risk that the buildings should be of moderate size and isolated to a reasonable extent from each other.” Olmsted then gave advice on the overall architectural approach:
As the buildings will be erected one or two at a time over a period of many years, it is altogether likely that different architects will be employed and it is probable that the buildings will not be in very marked harmony with each other. Hence they will look better, as a group, if they are somewhat openly spaced.

Olmsted then turned to existing land forms and the fitting of buildings on the McMinnville site:
We have no hesitation in advising a formal general plan with as much symmetry in the location and design of buildings as possible … although there is a fine large ravine or small valley, well wooded, there is no space for grouping college buildings in connection with it….
Olmsted listed twenty-three buildings that were needed, with administration and library as top priorities, and recommended three quadrangles, surrounded by either “stately” or “working” buildings.

Dormitories for women and men received separate treatment. Large windows should face east and west for best sunlight into the rooms, Olmsted advised, adding that “no architect should be permitted to plan rooms with only north exposure.”

Large assembly hall space and its great ground requirement also were considered. “The classical school architects usually attempt some stately plan for the interior of such an auditorium but the best plan seems to be that usual in a theatre where the problem has been to seat at the least cost the largest possible audience where all can see and hear to the best advantage,” Olmsted wrote trustees. “The acoustics of most theatres seem on the whole to be more uniformly good or fairly good than in churches and halls in which architects have broken away from the typical theatre plan.”

In his recommendations for another large building, Olmsted showed a lifelong inclination to draw parallels between a student’s immediate surroundings and later lessons learned. Although preaching to the choir, Olmsted let the trustees know part of his philosophy about education:
Art should receive much more attention in our colleges than has usually been the case. It is assigned to an important site in the front row because it should be a particularly good looking building and with the idea that more women students than men students will feel that they can afford the time for some study of art. It is of great importance that all civil engineering students should have a good grounding in art in order that they may have a fair appreciation of its importance in the many conspicuous works which they may subsequently be called upon to design or at any rate in order that they will not so thoroughly despise art as most civil engineers appear to do. The Art School ought to be one of the most important departments of the college, for an appreciation of beauty can best be cultivated at the student age and will do much to make life enjoyable even if the ability to create beauty be deficient. It is as uncertain and undesirable to leave the appreciation of beauty or good taste to be picked up after life as it is to leave religion or efficient business habits to be picked up casually in after life.

Figure 2
This portrait of long-serving McMinnville College President Leonard W. Riley appeared in the campus yearbook, Oak Leaves, in 1921, the year before the college changed its name to Linfield.

Courtesy of Linfield College

Even his recommendations for the gymnasium reveal Olmsted’s “everyman” philosophy:
We feel convinced of the importance of careful physical development for the majority of the students…. It is a pity that the traditional idea still prevails to some degree that the gymnasium is a place containing trapezes and other apparatus for performing difficult show feats which only a small minority of students would try to learn, and that it is a building presided over by an ex-prize fighter or a retired professional athlete and implies more or less sporty inclinations on the part of students who voluntarily patronize it. But a gymnasium should be a scientific school of physical culture in which the students should learn their physical deficiencies and how to cure or minimize them; in which they should exercise in certain definite ways for certain definite purposes and mainly to the end that they may become or keep healthy by proper exercise and diet.

He recommended uniformity of materials and trim color on the campus, even if “common” red brick is the choice. Temporary buildings, Olmsted suggested, might be of wooden materials, easily moved to make way later for permanent, “dignified” buildings.

Finally, Olmsted turned to the greensward:
As the college develops architecturally, the woods should be somewhat thinned and particular views should be opened across them to provide pleasing glimpses … we propose to leave all the land at present owned by the college north of the main row of college buildings as a sort of park or large front door yard.

The McMinnville board of trustees appointed a committee to oversee Olmsted’s report and recommendations, and the committee chose the overworked Riley to see it through. But campus funds were low. Not until 1910, after months of Riley sending Olmsted heartbreaking stories of faculty salaries long overdue, did McMinnville finally settle accounts with the landscape architect and, gradually, turn to Olmsted’s advice of 1908. Riley reported to Olmsted that ten acres had been added to the original thirty acres, and within a decade the administration and music buildings were built. The buildings that followed mostly kept to Olmsted’s requested low profile, each well spaced in formal groupings. The college resisted the temptation to build on the oak woodland, as Olmsted advised, and it still provides the dignified “front door” to the campus.[17]


On December 1, 1908, Pacific University Trustee Milton W. Smith approached Olmsted in Portland, asking him to consider a site visit to the campus. Portland Park Board member Ion Lewis — a partner in the architectural firm that had designed Marsh Hall on the campus — had recommended Olmsted to the university trustees.[18] Smith wrote Olmsted at the Portland Hotel on December 1, 1908:
Pacific University which is situated at Forest Grove, Oregon, about twenty-five miles west of Portland, would like to know whether you would be willing to undertake to formulate a plan for the location of its buildings and the laying out of its grounds. It has about thirty acres of campus. It is a very beautiful location, and it is thought that there may be some additions made to this campus if necessary. If you are willing to undertake to do this matter for the University, I shall be very glad to either call on you or have you come to my office and we will talk the matter over….[19]

A week later, on December 7, Smith visited Olmsted and drew a rough sketch of the campus, recognizable even today with the swale cutting across the southeast corner of the rectangular acreage. “Called about 2:15 and stayed till 3:20,” Olmsted reported in his field notes. “Arranged to have me make a preliminary visit without report for $100 and traveling expenses.” Olmsted had given the trustee two suggestions for a campus plan, including a full written report and sketch, but for now only the site visit had been approved.

Four days later, Olmsted boarded the train for Forest Grove. “It was so dark at 7:05, as the electric lights had just been turned off,” he wrote,
that I could not read the street signs more than 2 yards away. It was cloudy and slightly foggy so I did not get any mountain views, but as we climbed the hill I could see across the river. The R.R. is very steep. I should think it climbed over 500 ft maybe 700 feet in 4 miles. Then it gets on a rolling plateau & runs easily 20 miles more to Forest Grove.[20]

Another mile-and-a-half journey in connecting electric car from the station to campus brought Olmsted to Pacific University, where President William N. Ferrin met him and escorted him around campus. “Pleasant people, as most college people are,” Olmsted wrote his wife that night. During lunch, Olmsted observed students who he considered poorly dressed “but fresh & in earnest.” The campus “has two brick buildings,” he continued, “& 3 small wooden ones. Fine oaks. Said to be fine views.”[21]

Calling at Ferrin’s office, he
discussed various matters of detail with him and then gave him my general ideas as to the proper relation of college buildings…. As I was to make no written report, he made a few notes of what I said and said he would make more that evening. I felt that he would fail to remember most of it, however.
Olmsted noted with interest a
plan, neatly drawn and colored in the German style framed and hanging on wall…. It was by M. Scheydecker. The area is staked at 28.5 acres. On each margin is a profile to scale. Roads and walks are all on curves and not very logical I thought for shortcutting and cutting the grounds up too much. Existing buildings are shown and sites for new ones, but these … are not placed on axes nor symmetrically, but are all oriented parallel with boundaries. I could see no system as to facing of buildings and no consistent rule as to drives to front or rear doors.[22]

Figure 4
Pacific University Trustee Milton W. Smith sketched this sketch of the campus for Olmsted, who was staying at the Hotel Portland the week before his visit to Forest Grove.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates Papers

Figure 5
Marsh Memorial Hall — named for Pacific University’s first president, Sidney Harper Marsh — had recently been completed when Olmsted visited the campus in December 1908.

Courtesy of Pacific University Archives

The plan had been sketched by a Mr. Scheydecker, who according to Trustee Smith, had been a gardener to the Ladd family in Portland and had apparently supervised improvements at Riverview Cemetery. Olmsted reported: “The President said they had done nothing toward following Scheydecker’s plan.” He continued:
It was clear to me that the college is very poor and will be wholly unable to execute any far seeing plan and must therefore pursue the usual higgle de piggledy way of putting each building as it comes in the next best site. Donors are hardly likely to consent to have their building put away off in a distant and lower site.

With the knowledge that the previous plan had survived as only a sketch on the president’s wall, Olmsted gave his advice to President Ferrin in four pages of field notes, which he sent back to the firm’s office.[23] Purchase the southeast corner, he wrote, save the center space for important working buildings, keep the dormitories farther away, replace wooden boardwalks with more dignified materials, urge supply deliveries to building backs rather than on rutted lawns nearby, and place the library near corner of campus for possible combined city funding. The following February, the board appointed a committee to study Olmsted’s suggestions.[24]

Soon after the trustees met in early February 1909, Trustee Smith wrote Olmsted to ask for a second site visit, suggesting in a disapproving and unpleasant tone that there had been “misunderstanding” the previous December.[25] Olmsted sent a dignified reply on March 10, suggesting a complete campus report rather than another trip to Forest Grove. Before additional correspondence or campus visits ensued, however, Smith was quietly asked to resign from the board. “Members of the Board of Trustees of Pacific University think you ought to tender your resignation, both as member of the Board and as attorney for the corporation,” Harvey Whitefield Scott, president of the trustees, wrote Smith on December 24, 1909. “Your name, in connection with the affairs of the Pacific University is a hindrance, not a help.”[26]

President Ferrin — “never popular with the trustees,” according to a campus history, Splendid Audacity— would meet the same fate a few years later, leaving Olmsted with no champion to carry out his plans at Pacific University.[27] Unlike the situation at other regional campuses such as the University of Washington in Seattle and Whitman College in Walla Walla, where enthusiastic sponsors carried through with Olmsted’s recommendations, in 1908–1909 no one at Pacific University was willing to take hold of the landscape architect’s vision, although remnants of his advice remain today.

Figure 6
Pacific University President William N. Ferrin, from a 1902 university publication, Heart of Oak (Courtesy Pacific University Archives)


On June 9, 1909, soon after the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE) opened in Seattle, a telegram from the Oregon Agricultural College president arrived at the Seattle Exposition office for its designer John Charles Olmsted: “Would like you to visit College earliest convenience for investigations and preliminary report. Wire. W. J. Kerr.” Olmsted replied immediately: “Telegram received expect me Thursday fifteenth one thirty pm.”[28]

President Kerr had only recently arrived in Corvallis from Salt Lake City, but he would provide the continuity that would allow him, along with newly arrived Professor Arthur Lee Peck, to carry Olmsted’s campus vision through a decade of rapid growth.[29] Not unlike the continued support of President Thomas F. Kane and Professor Edmond S. Meany on the University of Washington campus, the Oregon agricultural school was able to tap public funds that neither McMinnville nor Pacific University had.[30]

Figure 7
When he asked Olmsted to consult on campus design, William Jasper Kerr had only recently been named president of Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis.

Courtesy of the Oregon State University Archives, P1–34.

On the night of June 15, Olmsted wrote his wife from the Hotel Corvallis:
I came along up here in a slow train changing cars at Albany and waiting there quite a while 3/4ths of an hour at least. Upon arriving here I came first to this hotel & secured a room and then walked most a mile I should think to the college which I had seen from the train. They have gradually got the grounds planted and walks laid out and lawns are mowed & some flower beds planted so it looks quite civilized. Two of the buildings are of stone but not large enough and three are of brick, one of the three the oldest plastered over and the rest are of wood. They have had a very sudden growth since 1903 or 4, graduating then 50 or 60 and now 122. As usual their buildings and teaching force are entirely inadequate. I happened here at commencement time & so cannot get much of President Kerr’s time. Still he briefly told me the problems he had in mind and drove me around some and one of the professors drove me some more when Pres’t. Kerr was called off.[31]

Olmsted was invited to the alumni dinner that night, when he formed even more impressions of the people and the place: “I sat between Pres’t. Bryan of the Washington Agricultural College with the wife of one of the Regents on my other side. I got on fairly well in the matter of conversation more particularly with Mr. Bryan.”[32]

The following day, Olmsted, engrossed in conversation with the president, missed by a few minutes his train connection to Portland but turned his distraction into an Oregon country adventure.
had to hire a buggy at an expense of $2.50 to drive 11 miles over to this town which is on the main line — I was conferring with Pres’t Kerr, and the sun was so high that I did not think to look at my watch until 6:01 and the train left at 6 & it would have taken me 8 minutes or so to get to the station. However it is a pretty country & it was a very pleasant ride. 11:30 p.m. I have now arrived at Hotel Portland.[33]

Olmsted’s sixty-page typed report to President Kerr followed on October 1. With an even greater grasp of western campus requirements in 1909 than on earlier trips and with more money on hand and two men at the college willing to carry through his recommendations, Olmsted filled his report with exacting details. Kerr immediately responded: “I have carefully examined your report on the Oregon Agricultural College and am very much pleased with it. The recommendations you make will be very helpful in planning future improvements.” Kerr was especially supportive of having a panel of “disinterested experts” to advise on overall architecture and siting, making sure delivery roads are separate from paved walkways, and purchasing land immediately to widen the campus footprint.[34]

That winter, Olmsted was in Seattle on business, and Kerr tracked him down at the Hotel Washington Annex to ask for a second campus visit. Olmsted rarely agreed to more than one campus visit, but Peck had offered to sketch out Olmsted’s advice on an existing map. Olmsted, traveling without draftsman, reluctantly agreed. On January 31, 1910, he returned to Oregon Agricultural College. “I left for the college at 8:30 [a.m.] and was there until 5:40,” Olmsted wrote his wife that night after supper at the Hotel Revere in Albany, while waiting for his train. “Professor Peck is drawing my ideas out and I criticized his plan & made him & Dr. Kerr various suggestions. Both seemed to be gratified by my ideas. The President of the Board of Regents was there in afternoon and I explained my ideas to him. He treated me very respectfully.”[35]

To his office, he relayed four pages of field notes of his trip to campus, recording the details of the day’s discussions:
President Kerr said the main thing was that there was to be an important reunion of Alumni and he wanted to get as many of the walks and drives done as possible before then and the land cleaned and smoothed and seeded. The President of the Board of Regents came from Albany in the afternoon and heard what was proposed. It appeared that we were not to be employed to make plans but to be consulted as to plans made by Professor Peck. He had a plan drawn out in pencil on tracing paper, following pretty nearly the suggestions made in my report … President Kerr had instructed Professor Peck to make his plan with drives and walks combined, for economy and simplicity, but I objected strongly to it and I gathered that he was disposed to yield….[36]

In 1914, Kerr asked for another round of advice. “You will recall having done some work for the College during the year 1909. Since you were here we have completed a number of comparatively large buildings,” Kerr boasted and enclosed a birds-eye view of the campus. Oregon Agriculture College was thriving. But by then, Olmsted had given over his western work to junior partner James Frederick Dawson, “who did much of the most attractive work on the Alaska–Yukon Exposition Grounds,” Olmsted wrote Kerr on February 17, 1914. Kerr and Peck decided to rely on Olmsted’s earlier plan, which became the standard for decision-making on the design of the campus until 1926.[37]

Figure 8
Birds-eye views of the Oregon Agricultural College campus, such as this 1912 version, were used to illustrate landscape features and new buildings during the early twentieth century.

Courtesy of the Oregon State University Archives. notes

Peck became full professor at the college in 1912 and is credited with “introducing formal education in landscape architecture to the Pacific Coast.” His association with Olmsted was certainly a life lesson for the young scholar, who had only recently attended Massachusetts Agriculture College. Peck remained at the college for thirty-eight years, and Kerr stayed on as president until 1932.[38]

WITH MORE THAN three hundred school and college consultations to their credit — almost a hundred of them before John Charles Olmsted’s death in 1920 — the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm at the turn of the last century was the leading advisor to American college presidents. Yale graduate John Charles, with his Harvard-educated younger brother, became campus planning experts even before city planning was established as a profession.

The Olmsteds’ expertise, accumulated with each campus visit in the East, easily transferred to western college presidents seeking advice on campus size and shape and the challenges ahead. John Charles’s insight into the western landscape grew with each campus consultation in the region — the first for him alone in 1903 for the University of Washington, the same year he advised on Seattle and Portland’s park systems. This was followed in 1906 by a visit and report to Whitman College in Walla Walla and then to the University of Idaho. Within three years, Olmsted would write reports and make sketches for two of the three Oregon schools and give verbal advice to the third.

With his interest in the architecture and landscape design of each campus, and his abiding interest in the students and scholarship, Olmsted’s campus reports provide important documentation of his trips and his vision. His descriptions of why each building ought to sit north or west, why paths should follow a curved or straight line, why buildings should have both a front and back dignified entry, and why and where each building should expand offered administrators insight as well as an image of the greater needs of the design of their campuses. Olmsted was able to quickly judge space and student needs and to explain how other campuses worked out similar problems.

Continuity and loyalty worked to the advantage of both Olmsted and the colleges he visited. Both President Kerr at Oregon Agricultural College and President Riley at McMinnville urged Olmsted’s continuing consultation, even after each campus report was finished. Had that same continuity or longevity or interest held at the time on the Pacific University campus, Olmsted might have stretched his relationship there as well.

Physical reminders of Olmsted’s advice and design remain on all three campuses. At McMinnville, the open informal woods in front of Pioneer Hall and the formal quads directly behind Pioneer and Riley halls show Olmsted’s two design elements — informal where appropriate, formal near inner campus groupings. On the Pacific University campus, the direct, straight path leading from the west entry toward Marsh Hall is a remnant of Olmsted’s advice, while the west entry wall is a variation on his advice to avoid stand-alone gates unattached to fences or surrounding walls — the long, curved, low brick wall avoids the isolation of one element. Campus growth shifted slightly to the north, as Olmsted intended, although he did not anticipate satellite campuses. Buildings south of Marsh Hall are closer to the boundary line, as Olmsted advised, especially for the library placement nearer the town.

At Oregon State University, more of Olmsted’s direct imprint remains than on the other Oregon campuses. Two quads on the inner campus and the matching materials of buildings in brick with light trim are significant reminders of Olmsted’s advice to harmonize and beautify. The campus’s open vista to the east and the land purchases between the early quads and the railroad tracks follow Olmsted’s belief that landscape features are as important as man-made elements. And in the library on campus, Olmsted’s written report to President Kerr is a reminder of the landscape architect’s conviction of the importance of surrounding students with simple beauty.


1. Lewis and Clark Exposition, Portland, Oregon, Olmsted Associates papers, Library of Congress, Job 2399, John Charles Olmsted field notes, April 9, 1903, through April 22, 1903 [hereafter Olmsted field notes]. See also Park System, Portland, Oregon, Olmsted Associates papers, Library of Congress, Job 2640, John Charles Olmsted field notes of April 10, 1903; and Catherine Joy Johnson, Inventory, Olmsted in the Pacific Northwest, Private Estates and Residential Communities, 1873–1959 (Seattle: Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, 1996). In Oregon, Olmsted opened forty-one private client files, some containing extensive correspondence and plans, others with inquiry or minimal consultations only.

2. National Association for Olmsted Parks in conjunction with the Massachusetts Association for Olmsted Parks, The Master List of Design Projects of the Olmsted Firm, 1857–1950, ed. Charles E. Beveridge et al., 1987. See especially Olmsted Associates park projects, by state, by city, and by year, pages 1–27.

3. John Charles Olmsted was the son of Frederick Law Olmsted’s brother, John Hull Olmsted, who died in November 1857 while traveling abroad. Frederick Law Olmsted, a bachelor, married the widow and took in his brother’s three young children, including John Charles. The affection and respect between “father” and “son,” in partnership from the mid-1870s onward, is evident in volumes of correspondence at the Library of Congress and at Harvard, where John Charles Olmsted’s personal papers are preserved. See Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999); Charles C. McLaughlin et al., ed., The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, vols. 1–6 and supplementary series I, (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977 to present); and Laura Wood Roper, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

4. Both McMinnville and Oregon Agricultural College reports filed in Olmsted Associates papers, Library of Congress, Jobs 3411 and 3699, respectively.

5. “Correspondence on file, McMinnville College, (McMinnville) Portland, Oregon, 1907–1910, Job 3411,” Olmsted Associates papers, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. [hereafter Olmsted Associates papers].

6. Riley is profiled in Kenneth L. Holmes, ed., Linfield’s Hundred Years: A Centennial History (Portland, Ore.: Binfords & Mort, 1956), chapter 2. The original Elliot & Scroggin contour map of the campus is on file at the Olmsted Historic Site, Brookline, Massachusetts, National Park Service.

7. Both campus histories — Holmes’s 1956 Linfield’s Hundred Years and Jonas A. Jonasson’s 1938 Bricks Without Straw— were briefly reviewed in Oregon Historical Quarterly, 57:4 (December 1956): 355.

8. William R. Frerichs, “The Riley Administration,” in Holmes, Linfield’s Hundred Years, 26–42.

9. Letters in John Charles Olmsted Personal Papers collection, Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts [hereafter Olmsted letters].

10. Olmsted letters.

11. As an aid to memory and to office draftsmen in the Brookline office, Olmsted wrote his first impressions on each new job site. He often followed up his initial notes with observations if the situation on the ground, months or years later, merited separate treatment. Few office associates ever matched Olmsted’s ability to absorb so much detail on first client visits.

12. Olmsted field notes.

13. Ibid.

14. Olmsted letters.

15. Olmsted Associates papers, Job 3411.

16. In order to graduate enough college students, western schools at first taught younger students in nearby academies or preparatory schools, which were gradually phased out as students learned the basics. The first graduating class at Pacific University in 1863, for example, consisted of only one student, Harvey Whitefield Scott, who later became the editor of the Oregonian, trustee at Pacific University, and founding president of the Oregon Historical Society. See Gary Miranda and Rick Read, Splendid Audacity: The Story of Pacific University (Seattle: Documentary Book Publishers, 2000).

17. Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates, McMinnville College, Job #3411.

18. Correspondence on file, Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates Job 3595, labeled “Pacific University, Portland, Oregon.” Olmsted to Trustee Milton W. Smith, Failing Building, City [Portland], November 30, 1908.

19. Olmsted Associates papers, Pacific University Job 3595.

20. Olmsted letters.

21. Olmsted letters.

22. Olmsted field notes of December 7 and December 11, 1908, Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates, Job 3595.

23. Ibid.

24. February 2, 1909, winter trustee meetings, Pacific University archives.

25. Correspondence on file, Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates Job 3595. Trustee Smith to Olmsted, February 17, 1909.

26. Pacific University archives, President William N. Ferrin papers.

27. Miranda and Read, Splendid Audacity, 75. For previous articles on Pacific University history, see Oregon Historical Quarterly 6:2 (June 1905): 109–46 and Oregon Historical Quarterly 21:1 (March 1920): 1–12.

28. Oregon State University archives, President Kerr correspondence. The Kerr-Olmsted letters and telegrams leading up to Olmsted’s October 1909 campus report are now housed on film on the OSU campus, rather than with the Library of Congress Olmsted papers, Job 3699. The original sheets of pre-October 1909 correspondence are missing in Washington, D.C., and in Corvallis.

29. Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates papers, University of Washington Jobs 346 and 2739. For a full account of the controversy surrounding the hiring of a Mormon as Oregon Agricultural College president, see Don E. McIlvenna and Darold D. Wax, W.J. Kerr: Land-Grant President in Utah and Oregon, Oregon Historical Quarterly 86:1 (Spring 1985): 4–22. See also Edwin Thomas Reed, William Jasper Kerr, a Biography (Corvallis, Ore: Office of Publications, 1948); and John B. Horner, “History of Oregon State College, 1865–1907,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 31:1 (March 1930): 42–50.

30. For a brief overview of Oregon’s public and private funding priorities at the turn of the last century, see Albert E. Williams, The Olmsted Influence: A Historical View of Landscape Architecture and Campus Development in Oregon (Eugene: University of Oregon Department of Recreation and Tourism Management paper, November 12, 1991) in OSU campus archives.

31. Olmsted letters.

32. By this time, Olmsted had already prepared campus reports or plans for the University of Washington, Whitman College, the University of Idaho, and McMinnville College; he had also given on-site advice to Pacific University and been contacted by the president of the University of Oregon for a plan, which was not yet funded. See Master List of Design Projects of the Olmsted Firm, 1857–1950, for the complete list, by state, city and date, of college work across North America.

33. Olmsted letters.

34. Library of Congress, Olmsted Associates papers, Job 3699, Oregon Agricultural College campus report, October 1, 1909.

35. Olmsted letters.

36. Field Notes, Library of Congress.

37. Cleveland, Ohio, Landscape Architect Albert D. Taylor presented Oregon Agricultural College its second master plan in 1926, six years after John Charles Olmsted’s death. Three years earlier, a Denver landscape firm had asked to present a plan, but the college replied: “Such a plan has already been worked out by the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, and or own professor of landscape gardening, A.L. Peck.”

38. Oregon State University campus archives, Valley Library, Professor Arthur Lee Peck papers.