A nurturing vision

The medical school’s external face owes a great debt to a pioneer of American landscape design.

Inside Sterling Hall of Medicine, brain specimens from Harvey Cushing’s collection share shelf space with 19th century physicians’ implements, historic photographs and aging tomes on the healing arts. But the medical school’s wealth of notable specimens is not confined to the great indoors.

Outside its walls, an observant visitor can spot the sycamore tree the grounds crew calls the Hippocratic Growth, which grew from a seed that came from the birthplace of Hippocrates in Greece. Within its courtyards grows one of the only American elms to survive New Haven’s Dutch elm outbreak in the 1930s. And the landscaping for the medical campus—for much of the university, in fact—is the design of Beatrix Jones Farrand, one of the first American landscape architects. Farrand studied landscapes and plants during an apprenticeship at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, and as a young woman made several grand tours of Europe—one with her aunt, novelist Edith Wharton—where landscape paintings and vistas of the Old World informed her sense of design.

Before coming to Yale in 1922 to start almost a quarter-century of landscape consulting, she designed gardens at Princeton and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington. At Yale her first project was the Memorial Quadrangle, now Branford and Saybrook colleges. She went on to design grounds at the divinity school, the president’s house, the residential colleges and the medical school.

Although many of the gardens at the medical school remain out of view to the public, Channing C. Harris, senior associate with Towers/Golde, Landscape Architects and Site Planners, and a longtime landscape consultant to Yale, said that horticulture helps to shape life on Cedar Street. On the large lawn outside Harkness dormitory students receive their white jackets in the fall, their medical degrees in the spring, and in between bask in the sunshine enjoying pad thai and other treats from street vendors. The narrow planting beds along the street pour color into the neighborhood, along with the honeyed fragrance of Russian olive.

Towers/Golde has done site and landscape design for new building and renovation projects, courtyards, rooftop gardens and streetscapes at Yale for 25 years. This work often involves efforts to preserve older trees and mature plantings, or recreate Farrand’s original landscapes. Where possible, Harris said that he tries to be true to Farrand’s philosophy, but practicality can dictate change. For example, Farrand loved climbing vines, many of which damage buildings. So the wisteria has mostly gone.

Farrand believed that the landscape was as important to university life as the classroom: “We all know that education is by no means a mere matter of books, and that the aesthetic environment contributes as much to growth as facts assembled from a printed page,” she told the alumni weekly at Princeton in 1926.

When the roof of the Yale Animal Resources Center, then located in the B wing of the Sterling Hall of Medicine, developed leaks in 1986, the School of Medicine restored a rooftop garden in keeping with Farrand’s original vision. Using historic photographs, Norman Brody, the medical school’s associate director of buildings and site services, and his team of carpenters recreated original trelliswork, and roses and weeping cherries now complete the genteel scene. There is even some wisteria, a maintenance nightmare that Brody restrained himself from clipping back for two full years.

Throughout Yale, many gardens have been lost to new buildings and renovations. At the medical school new construction constantly encroaches on the flora. But great care is taken to preserve important specimens and to expand plantings wherever possible. The more venerable and fragile trees in Farrand’s gardens give Brody “a white-knuckle ride every winter,” he said. By and large they make it.

A number of improvements that would bring more blooms and greenery to Cedar Street between York Street and Congress Avenue are under consideration. Farrand favored spring- and fall-blooming plants, reasoning that no one would be on campus during the summer. But the new plantings would extend floral displays into the summer months in recognition that life on Cedar Street is now a 12-month affair.

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