Rebuilding the Past: Harvard's Beautification Renaissance

Johnston Gate Arts Cover
In recent years, Harvard has increased its focus on preserving its historic landscapes and buildings.

“Harvard hasn’t always been interested in preservation.” Midday shadows darken the Franklin Delano Roosevelt suite in the Westmorly Court building of Adams House. I am sitting with Michael D. Weishan ’86, an acclaimed landscape architect and designer who oversaw the $300,000 restoration of Roosevelt’s rooms. Everything, with the exception of my iPhone on the table, is as it was in 1904, when Roosevelt graduated from Harvard. Weishan and his team have painstakingly recreated the original opulence of the room, and the result is staggering. The setup isn’t larger than that of other rooms in Westmorly, but the level of artistic care and detail, from the meticulously carved linen-fold wooden doors to the sleek Morris chairs, seems impossibly antiquated to my contemporary and begrudgingly utilitarian architectural eye.

After I take in the surroundings, Weishan asks me about my angle for the story. I stumble through something about gardens at Harvard and then improvise about the increasing significance of landscape preservation here. He perks up at this last point. “It sounds like that’s where the story is,” he says excitedly. He’s right. Over the next hour we explore the spotty history of Harvard’s relationship with preservation. I leave convinced that there’s a phenomenon afoot far larger than the recreation of a president’s college rooms: Harvard is experiencing a landscaping renaissance. New ideologies about aesthetics and homage and an unprecedented appreciation of the past have emerged in tandem with modern technological methods to effectively recreate the grandiosity of the University’s historic look.

THE JOURNEY TOWARDS PRESERVATION

Weishan is extremely prolific. In addition to his work on Adams, he has hosted “Victory Gardens,” a weekly gardening show on PBS, and heads his own landscape and design firm. To top it off, he boasts a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the architectural and landscaping history of Harvard and can jump cogently and instantaneously between centuries, Yards, and trends. It is clear that he not only is informed about Harvard’s relationship with preservation but also cares immensely about its significance and the difficulties attendant on it.

"The University actually thought, until fairly recently, that new was also better," Weishan says. "We would routinely bulldoze buildings and put new ones up—Holyoke Center is a perfect example of that. These were buildings that were considered revolutionary at the time, but now are by and large considered dysfunctional."

Weishan primarily uses buildings to point to the morphing focus towards preservation, but he insists that the trajectory of landscape preservation evolved in tandem. According to Weishan, the initial construction of these buildings was followed by “a period of sentimentality for colonial styles in the early 1900s,” and then “a period of modernism where everything old was suspect.” Now, we are in the midst of “a period of appreciation, and some would say reverence, for these historic buildings.”

Weishan is openly critical of the mid-century modernist period. During that time, the prevalence of the brutalist architectural style (think Mather House) contributed to the replacement of various classical landmarks by concrete behemoths and asphalt pathways. “The University actually thought, until fairly recently, that new was also better,” Weishan says. “We would routinely bulldoze buildings and put new ones up—Holyoke Center is a perfect example of that. These were buildings that were considered revolutionary at the time, but now are by and large considered dysfunctional.”

Yet the point of Weishan’s reflections is not solely to show that Harvard has turned a corner or that the present preservationist movement is more novel than it might appear. It also points to the fickle and unpredictable nature of artistic and architectural appreciation. “All this criticism I’ve been giving to the Holyoke Center and William James Hall…. Who knows? In 50 years they may be considered revolutionary,” he says. “I highly doubt it, though.” He becomes more serious and notes that there was a time in the mid-1950s when President Nathan Marsh Pusey publically criticized Memorial Hall and anything with tinges of gaudy Victorian influence.

The imagined objectivity of the present makes the art of preservation all the more challenging. What if we save the wrong things? What if our re-landscaping is just tacky nostalgia? While these questions are impossible to answer in the present, the preservationist movement, particularly in the landscaping world, is somehow finding a tight-rope thin balance in its approach.

THE ARNOLD ARBORETUM

A brief walk from Forest Hills, the final stop on the Orange Line, finds me in an entirely unfamiliar clime: Jamaica Plain. The neighborhood is a bizarre zoning amalgam—smokestacks intermingle with freshly-painted Arts and Crafts homes and ugly 1960s high-rise apartment buildings. One of the first suburbs spurred on by the advent of public transportation in the country, Jamaica Plain was a vibrant immigrant community throughout the first half of the 20th century. However, the plight of redlining, or economically and racially motivated mortgage and insurance restrictions brought a period of economic decline, which gentrification has reversed over the last 20 years. Nestled in the center of the neighborhood is the Arnold Arboretum. Owned and operated by Harvard and partially maintained by the City of Boston, the 281-acre arboretum has been a cultural touchstone in the constantly shifting neighborhood for over 140 years.

Arnold Arboretum 2
A view of Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is most famous for New York City's Central Park.

I meet Jon Hetman, the communications and stewardship officer at the Arboretum, at his office in the red-brick Victorian Hunnewell Visitor Center. Hetman has held the post for 14 years and, like Weishan, appears to be an informational master of his domain. He tosses out dates and plant species with appealing panache. He tells me that the Arboretum, originally bequeathed to Harvard in the early 1870s, is a link in the famed Emerald Necklace, an interconnected series of Boston green spaces designed by landscape architect and co-designer of Central Park Frederick Law Olmsted. Hetman applauds how vigilant the Arboretum staff has been in maintaining Olmsted and inaugural director Charles Sprague Sargent’s initial vision for the space: “We’ve always taken it as a point of pride that we are one of the best-preserved of Olmsted’s landscapes,” Hetman says. He describes Olmsted and Sargent’s decision to organize the plants by their chronological place on the evolutionary timeline. The two men, still less than 20 years removed from “On the Origin of Species,” wanted to have people walk through the Arborway Gate and get a view of how plants developed using the Arboretum’s  own collection.

The Arboretum was faced with a difficult choice when modern horticulture began to disprove Olmsted and Sargent’s understanding of the progression of plant evolution. “The conifers, which are very far into the Arboretum and which I guess they thought were of the more advanced order, are actually the more ancient plants,” Hetman explains. As a result of these discoveries, the Arboretum staff was faced with the question of whether to alter Olmsted’s evolutionarily incorrect aesthetic. “Once you set this landscape up, though, it isn’t easy to move things around. We’ve stuck to that original plan.” Their valuing of Olmsted’s aesthetic and the logistical grace of his set-up over his theory has, in Hetman’s eyes, been integral to the continued beauty and flow of the space.

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