The Creation and Restoration of Abele Quad

Writer: 
October 20, 2016

In April, Duke’s board of trustees formally changed the name of the campus’ iconic West Quad to Abele Quad to publicly honor the contributions made by the architect Julian Abele, who, as the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, is credited with much of the design for the Collegiate Gothic buildings on West Campus as well as the historic red-brick buildings that line East Quad.

For Mark Hough, who has been the university landscape architect at Duke for the past sixteen years, this well-deserved recognition raises an interesting question: To what extent does a campus quadrangle constitute a work of architecture? Some would say it is merely a landscape that is given form by the surrounding buildings. Here, he argues that a quad is made up equally of architecture and landscape, with each being left meaningless in its context without the other.

GOING BACK AS FAR AS 1937 to William Blackburn’s book, The Architecture of Duke University, there has been much written about the design of Duke’s buildings. The history of the campus landscape, on the other hand, remains a largely untold story, which is a shame. While the architectural façades so carefully crafted by Julian Abele remain virtually unchanged since the buildings first opened, the landscape of the quad now bearing his name has continued to evolve and morph in concert with the culture of the university.

Now, after decades of growth that has greatly expanded Duke’s campus with many impressive buildings and designed landscapes, focus has returned once again to the historic core. In conjunction with recent renovations to Duke Chapel, the West Union, and Perkins Library, Duke’s newly minted Abele Quad is getting a well-deserved restoration that is returning it to a quality befitting that of the university itself.

To many people in the Duke community, particularly those interested in architecture, Trumbauer and Abele are familiar names. Far fewer are likely to recognize Olmsted or Gallagher, who were the original landscape architects for both East and West campuses.

While a long list of potential architects was considered for the design of Duke’s buildings, there is no evidence to suggest the same sort of vetting process was undertaken in the selection of the landscape architect. Olmsted Brothers, which was widely regarded as the best firm of its kind at the time and had helped to create many campuses, parks, and communities across the country, was picked in 1925 to help lay out the new campus and design its landscape. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the namesake son of the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City, led the firm. It was another of the firm’s partners—Percival Gallagher— who, like Abele, did most of the work.

The popular version of Duke’s campus history is tied to the idea that West Campus was carved out of a pristine forest. While this is partially true, a large portion of the more than 5,000 acres purchased for the new university looked like much of the Eastern Piedmont region at that time—perched on the edge of encroaching development and displaying the scars inflicted on the land by human settlement. Farmers had razed existing forests to grow crops and then abandoned the land when it was no longer arable. Some of the hollows were densely wooded, but the landscape largely existed as a patchwork of properties that had been scraped clear and were in various stages of natural succession, containing fields of grasses and stands of young pines and cedars. The site selected for the new campus sat atop an existing ridgeline, with a high point designated as the location for what would one day be Duke Chapel.

James B. Duke, whose establishment of The Duke Endowment transformed Trinity College into Duke University, was well engaged in the design of the campus. He had a passion for trees, water, and landscape that was exemplified in his Duke Farms property in New Jersey, where he spent a reported $10 million in the early 1900s to transform more than 2,200 acres into one of the grandest estates in the country.

By his own account, 2 million trees were planted on the property, which also contained miles of winding roads and stone walls, numerous lakes, waterfalls, bridges, and lush landscapes filled with fountains and many works of sculpture. All of these elements helped to establish a character reminiscent of the style of Romantic English gardens, which was influenced by the landscape design of Capability Brown and the paintings of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough, among others. The style focused on the creation of idyllic and picturesque views of nature as shaped by human hands and was favored by many in the wealthy class during the Gilded Age.

An early scheme for West Campus drawn by the Olmsted firm evokes this same imagery, with a dramatic landscape vision consisting of lakes and wooded rolling hillsides traversed by long, sweeping drives. Loosely organized quadrangles are shown strung along the bending ridgeline with buildings tucked into the uneven grades and breaking at a central juncture. A geyser fountain with cascades, a grotto pool, and a boating lake spanned by a long bridge add to the Romantic character, along with a botanic garden shown cradling the rear of the chapel in the area that would one day become known as Chapel Woods. Although the buildings are prominent, the plan is centered on the synergistic relationship between architecture and landscape and reflects the collaborative design process within which Abele and Gallagher worked.

Before this vision for the campus could be finalized, Duke died, following a short illness, in October 1925. Not long afterward, it became clear to administrators that the approximately $16 million that had been allotted for the construction of West Campus would not be enough to achieve the vision as had been presented. In the summer of 1926, Trumbauer was instructed to reduce the amount of planned buildings by 40 percent to save money. A revised plan generated later that year fulfilled the mandate for a smaller campus and took a dramatically different approach to its design.

The new scheme flattened the ridge and replaced the informal layout with the strictly regimented cross-axial configuration that is found today, where one line, stretching from the altar at the rear of the chapel, along Chapel Drive to the center of its traffic circle (which had been proposed as the site for a large geyser fountain) is bisected at a precise right angle by another that runs from the center of the front door of the Davison Building through the length of the quad and across Towerview Drive to the entrance of Card Gym. The formality of this design clearly reflects the heavier hand of Abele, who was committed to the Beaux-Arts style and was thought to have attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In contrast to the Romantic style, the Beaux-Arts celebrated architecture as the embodiment of human dominance over nature and promoted monumental gestures in its design.

This plan was approved, and while it did keep some of the spirit of landscape found in the original scheme, its character was quite different. Because it was still too expensive, however, several buildings were put off for future construction. The geyser fountain and the lake proposed for the area where the South Lawn in Sarah P. Duke Gardens now sits were removed, along with the last vestiges of James B. Duke’s picturesque vision.

Once the university opened for classes on West Campus in 1930, Duke Chapel was still under construction; it would not be completed for another five years. The sites that today hold Few Quad and the Allen Building were left as undisturbed woodlands until their construction in 1938 and 1954, respectively. The oak trees lining the central lawn were small and unimpressive when planted and would take decades before filling the space as intended.

Even as a young landscape, the quad quickly became the functional and ceremonial heart of the university, used regularly for daily social and recreational activities as well as periodic large events. In 1939, for instance, several major events were held on the quad celebrating the centennial of the school’s founding. This included a vocarillon concert performed by Duke Chapel’s carillonneur and a visiting classical singer, for which an audience of 5,000 people spread themselves across the lawns to hear. There were also regular celebrations, including “Joe College,” which began in the early 1950s as a series of events that included performances and parties in the space.

Over time, constant events and consistent foot traffic trampled plants and wore down the lawns. Hedges eventually were planted, and lines of posts and chains were installed adjacent to walkways in an effort to control access. There were conflicting priorities for the landscape to be both useable and attractive, with the quad’s appearance eventually coming up short. By the mid-1960s, when the landscape was in obvious decline, the Olmsted firm was brought in again to evaluate its condition and propose design changes for the plantings, walkways, and activity spaces to better respond to the ways in which it was being used. Very few of the proposed designs were implemented.

The 1960s also introduced a new gravitas to West Quad, as it became the setting for a series of campus protests that mirrored those occurring across the country at the time. The largest such demonstration, which became known as the Silent Vigil, arose following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 when, over several days, thousands of students remained on the quad to advocate for better treatment of hourly workers. This protest, among other demonstrations, showed the power of student voices in the facilitation of change and the ability for shared space to unite a community in a common purpose.

As the quad gained cultural significance as a place for demonstration, it also became an even greater facet of campus social life. In the mid-1980s, students began the ritual of lighting bonfires on the lawn in celebration of basketball victories, and, a decade later, the first LDOC (Last Day of Classes) party was held—two wildly popular traditions that continue to attract thousands of people to the quad.

Despite all of the value it had provided to the university, West Quad was in surprisingly poor shape by the turn of the new century. A change in policy had removed the posts and chains from the walkways, which succeeded in making the space more student- friendly, but also impelled the creation of large areas of mulch and dirt where grass and plants had once been. Not all plants suffered, though, as some of those planted close to buildings grew beyond their intended size and increasingly blocked windows and obscured architectural details. The historic oak trees, many of which had reached maturity, were starting to die out due to a combination of old age, soil compaction, and fire damage. A mishmash of benches, bike racks, trash cans, and ash urns were strewn around in various states of disrepair.

As the university was creating beautiful new facilities across campus, the quad appeared to suffer equally from intense use and a lack of adequate maintenance. Improvements were made over several years, with enhanced plantings and new seating areas added along with the Gothic-inspired metal benches now found across campus. While these incremental interventions certainly helped, it was clear that a more comprehensive plan was still needed.

In 2009, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand was hired to design what would eventually become the landscape master plan for West Quad. As part of ongoing renovations to Perkins Library, the firm redesigned the entry off the quad into the addition that Abele had designed in 1948, along with the main walkway and planting beds around the library. This work expanded when the long-planned restoration of the West Union began a couple of years later and triggered the restoration plans for the entire quad.

As of the fall of 2016, more than half of the restoration has been completed. The work includes rebuilding the historic walkways using the original bluestone pavers where possible. The walking surface has been widened by the addition of a 3-foot band of granite cobblestones that doubles as a pervious drainage system to collect and direct storm water. New areas for seating and bicycle parking have been added. The plantings between the building faces and walkways have been redesigned to add a lushness to the landscape and to better control pedestrian traffic. Extensive work to the soils has improved the planting medium for both the lawns and planting beds and will create a favorable ecological environment for the roots of the oak trees, of which nearly twenty replacements have been planted since 2000, creating the tree canopy that will shape the space for future generations. Next summer will bring another phase of work.

Those in the Duke community who return to campus will likely not notice the recent renovations to the historic buildings—at least as viewed from Abele Quad. That is because that work has taken a preservationist approach that is intent on maintaining those facades as originally designed. The landscape restoration, however, has been less historicist and, therefore, can be seen more easily. While the historic patterns remain the same, new interventions are intentionally distinct from what was there before—not for any lack of respect for history but, rather, as reflections of the dynamic nature of landscape and how its uses change.