Uncommon Beauty: Scripps’ Lasting Landscapes and the Getty’s Campus Heritage Initiative

by Eric T. Haskell

In our times, landscape architecture is most often relegated to the position of the poor stepsister of architecture. By the time the roof is on, cost overruns on construction have usually decimated landscape budgets and the gardens eventually installed are but a faint shadow of what was initially proposed. Fortunately, this was not the case at Scripps.

In 1926, when the College was on the drawing boards, architect Gordon Kaufmann and landscape architect Edward Huntsman-Trout, inspired by the vision of Ellen Browning Scripps, sought to create a unique environment for learning. Their dynamic collaboration produced an academic Eden whose scale was residential and whose hallmark was elegant simplicity. The unity between buildings and grounds was stressed, and their shared aesthetic vocabulary was from the outset intended to speak the same language.

Seventy-nine years later, this language is still one of the College’s most distinguishing features. It speaks to our students, alumnae, faculty, staff, and trustees, as well as to every visitor who comes onto campus, including prospective students. It is a language understood and revered by all who love Scripps. And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to spend a significant amount of time on campus, it is something that is forever with us as a benchmark of good taste and a model of uncommon beauty.

The 1979-82 refurbishing of the four original residence halls demonstrated that Scripps valued its rich architectural heritage and that the College was on the national forefront of architectural preservation, especially in terms of campus buildings. Since that time, a systematic program has been established to preserve the College’s structures, exemplified by the rehabilitation of Balch Hall in 1991-92 and of Balch Auditorium in 2004.

But what about Scripps’ historic landscape? What about the serene courtyards, the magnificent lawns and the venerable trees that immediately come to mind when we think about the College? How do these players—so imperative in the fabric of Scripps’ sense of place—figure in the scenario of preservation? This is the question that I had long pondered.

I well recall having been entranced by the beauty of the campus upon my very first trip to Claremont more than 40 years ago. I had tagged along that day on a college visit initiated by my father and intended to interest my older stepbrother in what was then Claremont Men’s College. After seeing CMC, my father suggested that we visit his stepsister’s alma mater, located just across Ninth Street to the north. We entered Seal Court, crossed Elm Tree Lawn, and ventured into the Margaret Fowler Garden. I was but a grammar school student at the time, yet I instantaneously knew where I was going to college, even if my stepbrother didn’t have a clue! Years later, I attended Pomona College, spent an inordinate amount of time at Scripps, was the first man to attend the College’s Year Abroad in Paris, and was elated, upon completion of graduate school, to land a professorship at Scripps in 1979.

In the meantime, there had been changes to the College’s landscape. The Elizabeth Monroe Wood Steps, referred to by our students as the “Miss America Steps,” had at once altered the graceful proportions of the original Oak Tree Terrace and ruptured the once-elegant transition from the upper lawns to the Bowling Green. This 60s modernist manifesto seemed hopelessly at odds with the subtle poetic phrasing of the original. Next to go was the Sicilian Court, between Balch Hall and Denison Library, which was notable for its antique wellhead, shaded by the majestic canopy of an ancient oak. Then, in 1982, came the cumbersome intrusion of the Mount Baldy boulder, which recognized gifts to the residence hall restoration campaign but ultimately defaced the entrance to Toll Hall and detracted from the historic integrity of the College’s residential precinct. Little by little, the physiognomy of the campus was changing, additions were not always in sync with the original aesthetics of Huntsman-Trout, and the defining characteristics that made Scripps so very “Scripps” were being violated. In other words, the “language” of unity between buildings and grounds was increasingly in danger of becoming muddled.

Because garden history is a relatively new discipline, as is the field of historic landscape restoration, almost no thought had been given to the importance of university campus landscapes as barometers of American cultural history. I continued to reflect on possible long-term solutions to this predicament. During this period, the Getty Grant Program began developing a new philanthropic initiative focusing on the unique challenges facing colleges and universities in their preservation efforts. These Campus Heritage grants would enable schools to plan more comprehensively for the care of their important cultural and communal landmarks by funding planning studies that include historical research, structural analysis, and cost estimates to pave the way for conservation and renovation work. Scripps was honored by an invitation to submit a proposal for the first round of grants for this new initiative. Such a grant would assist the College in taking the first steps toward creating a comprehensive “blueprint” for the future which was intended to preserve the campus’s unique landscape, already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but sorely in need of a long-range preservation plan.

With the accord of President Bekavac, vice presidents James Manifold and Martha Keates assembled a campus committee composed of faculty and staff to oversee this project. Together, this Blueprint Committee worked during the 2000-01 academic year to formulate and draft a grant request that proposed an in-depth study of the past, present, and future of the Scripps landscape. The first phase required the complex and time-consuming task of identifying a partner for the process of developing project strategies. Historic Resources Group, a Los Angeles-based firm headed by Christy Johnson MacAvoy, was retained. We felt fortunate that her staff included Jennifer Minasian Trotoux, of the class of ’92, and that our consulting arborist was to be none other than the former Scripps director of grounds, Cy Carlberg. Dr. Carolyn Ditte Wagner ’72, then Scripps director of corporations and foundations, wrote the Getty proposal with her special brand of clarity.

In 2002, Scripps College was the proud recipient of a Getty Campus Heritage Initiative grant! With Scripps’ 75th anniversary underway and the Campaign for the Scripps Woman reaching closure, the grant arrived at a fortuitous moment in the history of the college. Over the two-year period that ensued, the Blueprint Committee met regularly, either in closed session or with Historic Resources Group, to produce the Scripps College Landscape and Architectural Blueprint, which was completed in April of 2004. This massive document has far-reaching effects on the ways in which we have thought about the campus in the past and on the ways in which we trust it will be regarded in the future. Based on the rich history of the campus landscape, standards were codified and set in place for thoughtful and appropriate stewardship of the grounds as we move into the new millennium.

Our discussions over the two-year period of the grant covered a vast range of topics associated with Scripps’ “built environment” (art, architecture, landscape architecture) that eventually gave shape to the Blueprint. After an introduction which states the purpose and goals of the document, a considerable segment devoted to site history carefully chronicles changes made to the landscape over time. This exercise facilitated our division of the campus into various precincts: the historic core constructed by the original architect and landscape architect (1927-39), the east campus (1958-71), and the west campus (1990-present). Since the historic precinct was central to our concerns because its aesthetics have had the most profound effect on how we envision Scripps today, we privileged it by paying special attention to Huntsman-Trout’s masterpiece. Although the renowned landscape architect left a rich archive of drawings and blueprints of the campus, there is little written comment concerning his specific work at Scripps, one of the few non-residential projects of his career. Thus, the Blueprint points out the characteristics that define the landscape— the myrtus hedges that serve to frame walks and lawns throughout the campus, for example, or the water features that almost always animate a Scripps courtyard—and then codifies them in order to define the vocabulary of his design, all of which contributes to what we have called the language of the landscape.

The Blueprint continues with an exhaustive site by site inventory of the campus grounds, from such “sacred spaces” as the Margaret Fowler Garden and Elm Tree Lawn to lesser-known places such as Browning Hall’s Turtle Court.The study of each site establishes its historical significance, assesses its present condition, suggests a treatment approach, and outlines action steps for rehabilitation or preservation. Furthermore, each site is rated in terms of its priority in the overall plan for the future treatment of the campus landscape. Some suggestions are relatively minor. For example, the courtyard of Dorsey Hall’s only flaw is that the exterior of its fountain shows signs of deterioration. Restoration, using appropriate concrete and stone guidelines, is the Blueprint’s suggestion. However, the original spaces now occupied by Edwards Courtyard (formerly Sicilian Court) and the “Miss America Steps” (formerly Oak Tree Terrace) are deemed to be such significant contributors to the historic precinct of the campus that major recommendations are prescribed for their restoration to be based on Huntsman-Trout’s blueprints, sketches, surviving physical evidence, or period photographs. Thus, while some of the Blueprint’s suggestions are quick-fix solutions, others are so complex and costly that they will require further elaboration and consideration. The ultimate goal of the document we crafted is to recognize and define the historic integrity of the Scripps landscape so that it will retain its original authenticity.

The learning curve for the on-campus Blueprint Committee was often considerable. What appeared to be simple terminology, such as the difference between “restoration” and “rehabilitation,” oftentimes proved challenging. For example, according to the strict terms of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, complete restoration of the Margaret Fowler Garden would mean the removal of its four handsome olive trees so that the floral display, an original element of the central court, could receive enough sunlight to once again flourish. Not for a moment did the Committee entertain such a recommendation. Rather, ours was a tempered approach that continuously opted to retain the essential configurations of a particular site’s atmosphere that gave it the quintessential “Scrippsness” we all recognize and admire. Drastic measures were rarely a part of our recommendations. An example of this, following the Standards mentioned above, might even extend to the removal of the Martinez mural, which was not original to the Margaret Fowler Garden. In navigating an often complex terrain, the Committee always attempted to make the wisest decisions for the future of the campus so that its unique character could be at once retained and enhanced.

During our Committee deliberations, many problems were identified. Not all were solved. For example, how the campus extension toward the west (the Performing Arts Center, Baxter Hall, the Williamson Gallery, and Steele Hall) could be more seamlessly incorporated into the campus core proved to be a tough challenge. However, other goals, such as the creation of a historic plant palette appropriate for Scripps and setting standards for such details as hedge replacement were achieved.

Although barely off the press, the Scripps College Landscape and Architectural Blueprint has already impacted Scripps in positive ways. The Getty imprimatur facilitated one of the objectives of the College’s strategic plan: that of further bringing Scripps into the light of national recognition. The gift also helped the recently completed Campaign for the Scripps Woman. It has, in fact, led to a second Getty Grant, from the Los Angeles Archives Project, which is presently being used to organize and preserve archives related to the built environment of the College, housed in Denison Library and the Williamson Gallery. This important need was identified by the Committee early on in its deliberations during the research phase of the project. The Committee’s document further allows us to make informed decisions about the landscape that are appropriate to the original aesthetic underpinnings of the campus design, and it articulates our needs with lucidity.

Because the Blueprint offers specific recommendations, it also serves as an invaluable tool for the Development Office by identifying projects that match the interests of prospective donors. The Folger Shakespeare bas-reliefs, so crucial to the aesthetics of Sycamore Court and cited in the Blueprint as high priority, are already in the process of being restored due to the generosity of former trustee Victoria Andrew Williamson ’58. Another alumna has kindly provided an internship in conservation for student Amanda Batarseh ’05, an art history major at Scripps, who is assigned specifically to this project and has already begun to work with sculpture conservator Donna Williams. [See related story, p. 21].The painstaking care by which the Board of Trustees has so sensitively approached the forthcoming rehabilitation of Elm Tree Lawn is yet another indication of our continued commitment to the integrity of the Scripps grounds. Finally, the recently established Jean Bixby Smith Campus Heritage Fund sets the tone for the long-term preservation task before us with élan and verve.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Getty’s Campus Heritage Initiative grant to Scripps is the fact that it has helped further the mission of the College by beginning to educate our entire constituency about the importance of campus preservation. As we approach future problems related to growth and density, the significance of landscape as a frame for structures, the critical role it plays in creating the unity between interiors and exteriors, and the necessity to consider it as an essential component of the College’s built environment are all issues that have been brought to the forefront of our concerns. Similarly, treating the landscape with the same respect and care that have been traditionally lavished on our buildings seems more pressing than ever if we hope to retain the distinctive flair that makes the verdant enclaves of Scripps a Paradise Found.

In 1926, Ellen Browning Scripps related: “I am thinking of a college campus whose simplicity and beauty will unobtrusively seep into a student’s consciousness and quietly develop a standard of taste and judgment.” Dream became reality when the first students inhabited Toll Hall in 1927, and this prophetic musing by the College’s founder had inspired one of the premier campus settings in the world. As I look out my office window to the upper lawns on this cold mid-winter morning three-quarters of a century after the founding of the College, I am ever amazed by the breath-taking beauty of this place. How fortunate we are to be the stewards of such a gorgeous legacy as well as the beneficiaries of the Getty’s Campus Heritage Initiative, which will help guide us on our path to honoring the integrity of the campus and its lasting landscapes.