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portrait of Frederick Law OlmstedIn the spring of 1895, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) made his first visit to Bryn Mawr College at M. Carey Thomas's request. Under her proprietary eye and in association with the campus architects, Cope & Stewardson, Olmsted began to work out a general plan for the campus. Although mainly retired from professional practice by 1895, Olmsted played a major role in working out the plan's basic principles, after which, it was his nephew, stepson, and later partner, John C. Olmsted (1852-1920), who supervised the project.

Despite concerns over cost and practicality, Thomas believed in hiring the best and profiting fully from their advice, a view she confirmed later in her November 4, 1908 letter to John Olmsted: "Of course we cannot afford to do much in any one year, but what we do ought to be done right."

map of Bryn Mawr College campusThomas turned down the Olmsteds' offer in 1897 to have their general plan lithographed, and instead sketched a reduced version of it herself, which could then be inexpensively reproduced and used for fundraising purposes. Although the Bryn Mawr College Trustees had informally approved the plan in December of that year, formal approval was contingent on the resolution of budgetary issues as well as the architects' determination of the final shape of the new library and gym enlargement.

With his 1897 general plan, F. L. Olmsted developed a new overall concept for Bryn Mawr's campus. When he began the project, the number of buildings had grown substantially from the time of Vaux's original plan. In addition to Taylor, Merion, the gymnasium and the Deanery, the grounds now included Cartref, President Rhoads's house and now the comptroller's office; Dolgelly, today known as Helfarian; Dalton, the new science building; and three new dormitories - Radnor, Denbigh and Pembroke.

With Denbigh's construction in 1891 and the acquisition of the plot of land west of Yarrow Street, enabling Yarrow to be closed, Vaux's original concept for the campus was rendered obsolete. Instead, the new focus was on placing buildings around the perimeter, providing open space in the center for outdoor activities and attractive, unobstructed views. Olmsted's plan continued this focus, primarily through the use of what he referred to as "border" or "screening" plantations and his strongly urged proposal for the "obliteration" of the two rows of maple trees north of Taylor Hall, otherwise known as Senior Row.

Olmsted General Plan of Bryn Mawr College Campus, 1897 (revised 1898).Further reinforcing the new concept for the campus, Olmsted worked closely with Cope & Stewardson regarding the placement of Rockefeller Hall and the library. Rockefeller was designed to adjoin the west end of Pembroke and thereby continue to line the edge of campus. The joining of these two buildings was also designed to complement the internal positioning of the library. Discussion of the library site originated in a conference between Olmsted, Stewardson and Cope, in which Rhoads and Thomas also participated. It was decided then that the library's placement would form an open quadrangle with Taylor and Pembroke, with its front entrance centered on the tower of Taylor Hall and its front line aligned with the projection of Pembroke. Evident from the way that Olmsted has shown them, the precise footprints of the library and Rockefeller had not yet been resolved at the time this plan was drawn.

There are several other notable recommendations apparent on this original plan. These include a square plaza to aggrandize the College's main entrance at the corner where Rockefeller Arch now stands, a formal flower garden and an aquatic plant basin at the far end of campus near the present gymnasium, and an evergreen garden next to the future extension of Pembroke.

Although some of these individual projects were never implemented, Olmsted's general plan was followed fairly faithfully until 1928, when proposals for Goodhart Hall and later, Rhoads Hall, no longer heeded the pattern. Thomas, who had retired in 1922 but still maintained a strong presence on campus, strongly objected to the placement of these new buildings, feeling that the College should continue to adhere to the original Olmsted concept and plan.

Bryn Mawr College athletic field.
Photographer unknown.In the area of the present-day athletic fields, Olmsted designed a quarter-mile oval bicycle track, with a tree-lined "pleached walk" along one edge and a central space intended for tennis and basketball, as well as skating in the winter. Expense and logistical problems did not allow for the center to be flooded in a controlled manner to create the skating pond. However, this area did tend to flood and freeze during the winter months, thus on occasion creating an impromptu version of Olmsted's idea.

John C. Olmsted arrow icon

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  Bryn Mawr College
 Campus Plan - Hutton, Vaux & Olmsted
 Collegiate Gothic - Cope and Stewardson
Details & Interior - De Forest
Paving Tiles - Mercer
Decorative Sculpture - Ashbee & Miller

Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections. September 21 - December 20, 2001