Students walking west of Thompson Library today are likely unaware of just how drastically different the campus landscape appeared in the past. Starting in the 1920s and 1930s, the University Horticultural Gardens blanketed the campus west of Neil Avenue, presenting an array of plants, flowers, hedges, a lily pond and a number of exotic plants.
As a University largely based in agriculture, it’s no surprise that the school began to set aside a portion of the campus, as early as 1884, to be slated for garden space. Much of the campus grounds were already covered in farmland when the school officially opened to students in 1873. However, plans for a formal University Horticultural Garden did not surface until the 1910s, when a number of University Departments began laying out a scheme for the gardens.
The gardens presented a nearly perfect learning opportunity for students across a variety of colleges, as it served as an extension of their class work. Landscape Architecture students were involved in the creation and formation of the gardens; Horticultural students grew experimental types of plants and recorded their results; and Botany and Zoology students were often devoted to plant-breeding experiments and the study of pest control.
The purpose of the gardens was two-fold: it not only provided hands-on experience for students, it also served to beautify the campus. In fact, many gardening clubs and members of the public visited the gardens to learn about flowers and take a peek at unusual plants. Some of the plants that were being tended were quite rare, reported the Lantern in 1922. One species of gladioli had been imported from the Pacific Coast, and the bulbs cost $10 each. Other plant species were brought from Holland, Asia and a number of other countries.
Students must have also enjoyed strolling through the gardens, especially at summer’s peak when the flowers were in full bloom. A July 15th 1927 Lantern editorial author writes: “One follows with amazement the intricate and perfectly executed designs in which the beds are planted and sighs as he recalls the bedraggled and wandering little rows which he has accomplished in the old garden at home – and asks himself if a course in horticulture wouldn’t be a valuable part of one’s education, after all.”
However, as the years wore on and campus construction progressed, the gardens were downsized. “As size diminished, interest in the garden waned as well”, according to a 1968 Lantern article. By the 1970s, the gardens were almost entirely gone.
Please see our Flickr page for more images of the University Horticultural Gardens.