Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series exploring the development of Troy University’s campus and its ties to the renowned landscape architecture firm the Olmsted Brothers, responsible for some of the most iconic public spaces in America.
In 1922, Troy Normal School President Edward M. Shackelford found himself at a crossroad.
The future of the institution would be determined by his guidance after purchasing a 275-acre lot two miles from the existing school’s downtown location.
By that time, John Charles Olmsted had passed away, leaving his brother Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. in charge of the Olmsted Brothers firm, the nation’s longest-tenured landscape architecture business.
The firm had dipped its hands into many pies, but institutes of higher education had been a focus since the brothers’ father, Frederick Law Olmsted, founded the business in the 1850s.
According to the National Parks Service, Olmsted believed the physical environment of learning, encompassing buildings and the grounds on which they stand, are key to educational success.
The senior Olmsted had completed work for institutions such as Stanford University and Cornell University, and the Olmsted Brothers firm spent the early part of the 20th century completing designs and redesigns on campuses like Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Iowa State College in Ames, and the University of Florida in Gainesville.
With the Olmsted Brothers’ national reputation firmly established, it’s no surprise that Shackelford reached out to the firm in the summer of 1922 seeking guidance on the future of Troy Normal.
“The State Normal School of Troy, Alabama, has just purchased a new site, and is considering plans for its development,” Shackelford wrote in his introductory letter to the firm. “This site consists of … about 275 acres located on the out-skirts of our little City (sic) and it contains a wooded area of about 20 acres, in which two bold springs exist. The main campus, however, would be on a plateau of about 40 acres covered with pecan trees, some of which are more than thirty years old.”
He complimented the firm on its reputation and declared the site “can be made very beautiful.”
Olmsted Brothers representatives responded a few days later expressing interest in the project, quoting an estimated cost of between $1,000 and $2,000 for a preliminary study, but a lack of funding led to no work being completed at the time.
In the meantime, Shackelford was able to fund the first building on the new lot, a one-story practice school for teachers known as Kilby Hall.
As fate would have it, about five years later, Shackelford would get his wish when the Alabama Board of Education signed a deal with Olmsted Brothers to make plans for many of the state’s higher education institutions.
In 1927, the State Legislature appropriated $5.4 million for buildings throughout the state, and Gov. Bibb Graves subsequently pushed for the Olmsted Brothers firm to take charge of the preliminary studies.
For the next several years, Olmsted Brothers would study and survey Troy Normal’s land, with architects frequently communicating with both the State of Alabama and Shackelford himself.
The firm eventually produced a plan for its vision of the school’s future.
That vision called for a large, open pedestrian Quad to anchor the campus, with a major academic building at the far end of the Quad.
The plan saw Normal Avenue (now known as University Avenue) running through a campus that included a music pavilion, a separate Quad for girls’ dormitories and a large plaza in front of the main Quad.
The first major work involved the construction of Bibb Graves and Shackelford halls, which were built on the sites chosen by Olmsted Brothers architect James F. Dawson.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the partnership, however.
In a letter dated June 20, 1930, an Olmsted Brothers architect wrote to Shackelford that Troy Normal’s was “by far the largest of any of the schools” on which the firm was working.
In his book “The First Fifty Years,” Shackelford wrote that Olmsted Brothers objected to Kilby Hall, which had been designed based off a prior plan from another architect.
“Olmstead (sic) Brothers did not like that plan, and suggested that Kilby Hall be ‘scrapped’ and a new building be put in its place,” Shackelford wrote.
While that and some other aspects of the plan weren’t followed, it ultimately led to what Shackelford called the realization of his 30-year dream: the official relocation of the college in 1930.
The relationship between what was by then called Troy State Teachers College and the Olmsted Brothers firm continued for decades, including Olmsted Brothers sending a floral engineer who arranged plantings around the campus that Shackelford called “the finest piece of work of its kind that I ever saw.”
Shackelford’s dream to make Troy a “place of beauty” struck a chord decades later in one of his successors, current TROY Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr.
“It’s an important part of TROY’s rich history and it speaks well of President Shackelford’s vision,” Hawkins said. “He engaged the most prominent design firm in the nation to create a deliberate plan for our campus. That speaks to a commitment to quality, as well as a desire to create an attractive place for students to learn and grow.”
Unfortunately, despite its influence on the campus layout, the original plan was eventually discarded and the main Quad went in a different aesthetic direction.
The physical plans ended up in the hands of the City of Troy, which by the 1960s had stored them in a filing cabinet in a decommissioned armory, where they could have been forgotten to time. By a stroke of luck and some elbow grease, a Troy State University student more than 30 years later made sure that didn’t become a reality.
Read the conclusion of the “Grand Plans” series here.