Grand Plans: TROY’s ties to an American architectural legend

Troy University's iconic quad with was designed by one of the nation's most renowned landscape architect firms, the Olmsted Brothers.

Troy University's iconic quad with was designed by one of the nation's most renowned landscape architect firms, the Olmsted Brothers.

Editor’s Note: This is the first 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.

Read Part 2 here. Read Part 3 here.

Troy University’s Troy Campus is renowned throughout the region for its beauty.

From the centerpiece of the fountain on the main Quad to the lush scenery of the Janice Hawkins Cultural Arts Park, the campus has continued to expand its aesthetic appeal for decades, transforming it into Alabama’s most beautiful campus.

The seeds for what TROY students, faculty and visitors see today, however, were planted nearly a century ago through a connection with one of the world’s most famous landscape designers.

Born in 1822, Frederick Law Olmsted is considered the father of American landscape architecture.

His fingerprints are found in some of America’s most famous destinations — including, among others, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.; the U.S. Capitol Grounds; Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Central Park in New York City.

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (National Association for Olmsted Parks)

According to the National Park Service, Olmsted’s work “helped to establish the American profession of landscape architecture” by creating “a notable body of park, institutional and private residential designs that influenced the essential shape of cities.”

Olmsted formed the nation’s first prominent landscape architecture firm in 1857, and in the ensuing decades he turned his firm’s focus to a variety of projects across the country, from public parks to college campuses.

“We can thank Olmsted and the Olmsted firm for, literally, designing the American landscape,” said Anne Neal Petri, president of the National Association for Olmsted Parks. “Over a period of 100 years, the Olmsted firm undertook nearly 6000 projects of every kind — including parks and parkways, planned communities, cemeteries, and campuses — from coast to coast. This is the landscape that, to a great extent, we know and enjoy today.”

Notably, Leland Stanford Sr. hired Olmsted in 1886 to design Stanford University, and Olmsted’s vision of sustainability set the stage for that university’s steady growth over the next century.

Olmsted looked at campus design much as he did park design, Petri said, through a social and cultural prism.

“He envisioned campuses as creating a warm ensemble, human in scale and homelike in feel for those who were spending time away from home,” Petri said.

By 1895, Olmsted had settled in Brookline, Mass., retired and passed his firm onto his sons and proteges, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who renamed it Olmsted Brothers.

Together, the brothers continued their father’s work and expanded its scope, carving out a reputation as the most respected landscape architectural firm in America.

Meanwhile, far from the Olmsted Brothers’ New England office, a small college formed in rural Alabama in 1887, with the goal of educating a new generation of teachers.

Troy State Normal School formed a foothold in downtown Troy, about two miles from today’s TROY location.

Troy State Normal School’s original downtown location.

In 1899, a professor at the school named Edward M. Shackelford became President of the burgeoning college, and it was under his leadership that TROY experienced the greatest period of growth.

Shackelford envisioned a larger, more welcoming campus than the school’s downtown location, a four-acre block on Murphree Street.

In 1922, Shackelford’s vision began to take shape when a state committee approved the purchase of a 275-acre lot on which to relocate the Normal School.

But with so much land and so much potential for growth, Shackelford knew he needed the right people to make his dream a reality. 

He needed someone to take a big-picture view of the school’s future and what the campus might look like in five years as well as 50 years. He needed the Olmsted Brothers.

Read Part 2 of the “Grand Plans” Series here.