The turn-of-the-century ushered in new initiative for improving the landscaping at the University. Once the initial phase of construction was completed the trustees could finally begin to consider developing the grounds.
The first landscape architect employed by the University was Ossian Simonds. Simonds emphasized a picturesque and bucolic aesthetic in his work as is evident in his design of the Graceland Cemetery north of downtown Chicago. Simonds plan for the University campus echoed his earlier projects. His romantic sensibility was manifest in the meandering paths and undulating terrain of the Cemetery and in his similarly idyllic design for the University. However, members of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds were critical of Simonds design. They objected to his excessive use and awkward placement of shrubbery, to the impractical curvilinear arrangement of walks, and to the lifelessness of new plantings due to insufficiently prepared soil. And so, Simond’s design was never fully completed. He was promptly dismissed by the Buildings and Grounds Committee in 1902 - his style, they felt, was inappropriate for the University setting they and their predecessors had envisioned.
Simonds was replaced by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted’s stepson John C. Olmsted and younger son Frederick Law Jr. John C. had become increasingly more involved in his father’s business affairs since 1872 when Olmsted and Vaux dissolved their partnership. Owing to Frederick Law's failing health, John’s participation in the design and implementation of the Boston park system as well as many other projects taken on by his father in his final years enabled him to preserve the Olmsted legacy.
In 1902, the Olmsted brothers visited the University for the first time making a meticulous, though tactful, assessment of Simonds’ modifications to the grounds. Paying due respect to the relationship between the existing architecture and landscaping, the Olmsted's prepared an alternative plan for the system of walks, drives and plantings on the University campus. The Olmsteds’ emphasized the importance of axial vistas within each of the quadrangles. They felt that incorporating linear elements into the landscape design would compliment the purity of Henry Ives Cobb's architectural design and the simple block plan he set down according to strict architectural principles. They further recommended that any trees and shrubbery planted should not obstruct axial vistas nor upset the fundamental simplicity of Cobb's original plan. With the support of Shepley, Ruttan and Coolidge, the architectural firm engaged by the University at the time, the Olmsteds proposed a formal and linear layout of drives and walks which would effectively separate horse, vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The Olmsteds were also assigned the specific task of revising Hull Court, Hutchinson Commons and the Hitchcock/Snell quadrangle. For Hutchinson and Hitchcock, they designed modified, sunken gardens, which were encircled by rectilinear drives and doubly bisected by diagonal walks. Since Hull Court was an integral part of the Botany Department's compound, the Olmsteds devised appropriately naturalistic landscaping for the area. Botany Pond along with the addition of an abundance of plant life greatly enhanced the charm of Hull Court. As a result of the Olmsted Brother’s skillful designs and practical considerations, renewed renovations on the grounds were able to begin at once.
John Coulter, the first director of the University’s Botany Department, was actively involved in the design and execution of landscaping in Hull Court and Botany Pond. He was exceptionally well suited to the task of selecting plants and devising an attractive and naturalistic layout in collaboration with the Olmsteds. Since coming to the University in 1894 Coulter had requested support from the University to set up a botanic garden for the pleasure of students and faculty as well as for the benefit of the Botany Department's research. Though Coulter's ambitious plan was not realized, he was able to make certain Hull Court was not a ‘commonplace’ garden. Coulter's extensive knowledge of local and exotic plant varieties and species was put to use in the elaboration of a planting scheme for Botany Pond.
One final figure, crucial to the landscaping history of the University, was the gardener and landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand. After of the construction of a utility tunnel network and an increase in automobile traffic, the campus by 1929 was greatly in need of renovations. The onslaught of dangerous and bothersome auto traffic made the Olmsteds’ system of walks and drives anachronistic. In an effort to modernize and beautify the campus the University consulted Beatrix Jones Farrand. Farrand was requested to resolve the traffic problem and to lend her artistic sensibility to a new campus design. Accordingly, Farrand devised a plan of diagonal walks which eliminated the center circle of the main quad. Her intention was to restore a sense of unity between architectural and landscaping elements while concurrently reducing campus traffic. Ultimately, she felt the University ought to do away with automobile drives all together.
However, Farrand’s plan was received by a flurry of controversy. It was a popular custom to gather around the center circle of the main quad. Students, faculty and the wives of faculty members were not inclined to relinquish the tradition without a fight. And so, though unanimously approved by the Buildings and Grounds committee, Beatrix’s plan for the “university of the future” was never implemented - the center circle prevailed. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that her plan went unfulfilled not simply on account of the vociferous complaints of the University community but also because of financial constraints faced by the University in the depression years. At length Farrand did provide garden designs for Burton-Judson court and the central courtyards of the International House and the Oriental Institute. With her talent for giving life and beauty to the landscape Beatrix was able to revive these sites with plantings and resourceful designs.
The University of Chicago Archives, Jean Block's The Uses of Gothic and Jane Brown's The Gardening Life of Beatrix Jones Farrand