Gallaudet University’s relationship with Frederick Law Olmsted’s work runs deep; in fact, the university’s first and longest-serving president, Edward Miner Gallaudet, was his childhood friend.
Founded in 1857 through legislation signed by U.S. President Franklin Pierce, the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb was established in the District of Columbia on Kendall Green, the estate of Amos Kendall, a former Postmaster General of the United States.
Soon after that, in April of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the charter allowing the establishment of the National College for Deaf-Mutes on the grounds of the Columbia Institution; the enabling act was passed by Congress the following June.
Buildings started going up in short order, starting with the College’s main building, College Hall; the first section to be built was designed by Emil Friedrich, who initially envisioned a grand French Second Empire edifice, a style then in vogue in the City of Washington. It was completed in 1866.
However, after the first section was constructed, Edward Miner Gallaudet, then president of the college, decided he wanted something different. A childhood friend of his, Frederick Law Olmsted, had set up a firm with an associate named Calvert Vaux. Gallaudet and Olmsted had been in correspondence about the campus and, after seeing Vaux and Olmsted’s work taking shape in a certain park in New York City, Gallaudet officially engaged the firm in 1866.
Gallaudet wrote to Olmsted and asked specifically that he come to help design the landscape: “It is with no lack of appreciation of Mr. Vaux’s abilities that I express a preference for your coming if you can do so. Memories of my childhood associations with you and your family when our family lived near yours in Chapel St. Hartford, lead me strongly to desire to renew the acquaintances of long ago.” Olmsted wrote back: “It will give me great pleasure to meet you again.”
Olmsted’s design embodied his idea of campus as community— various buildings buffered from the surrounding environment by careful landscaping. The buildings included one housing the College’s chapel and dining hall and several houses for Gallaudet’s family and the faculty of the college. The new plans also called for the expansion of College Hall in line with Friedrich’s earlier plans, but one that reoriented the axis of the building to face west rather than south. To fit Olmsted’s design, Gallaudet engaged Vaux’s architectural partner, Frederick Clarke Withers, who proposed an attractive High Victorian Gothic style featuring red brick, brownstone, and a great deal of external embellishment.
The first buildings to be constructed were the President’s House—now known as House One and still occupied by the president, currently Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano, and her spouse as well as Chapel Hall. The House was occupied by the Gallaudet family in 1869 and the chapel was dedicated in 1871. The remainder of the buildings proposed by the plan were constructed over a period of years, until 1877, when the expansion of College Hall was completed.
In a testament to the power of Olmsted’s vision and the talents of those he attracted to his work, all of those buildings survive to the present day, are used in the day-to-day operations of the University, and are often the subject of photographs and admiring visitors.
The spire of Chapel Hall, with its clock, set gracefully in Olmsted’s greenery, is often viewed as iconic. It is safe to say that Olmsted’s work has shaped, and continues to shape, the identity of Gallaudet University today.
For other resources:
The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume VI, The years of Olmsted, Vaux and Company, 1865-1874