Today’s campus master planners build on the original vision of Jens Frederick Larson, who, early, in the 20th century, was already thinking about the 21st.

By Thomas W. Durso

Imagine a new academic quad behind Bertrand Library, reflecting the best of the original quad – it’s open spaces, classic architecture, charming walkways, magnificent views. Imagine residence halls above the south east hillside, where students stand on their balconies and watch the Susquehanna River drift by below. Instead of a cornfield, imagine a fraternity row and wide open spaces where students congregate, have fun and even enjoy a new dining facility and arts complex set nearby. Imagine all of it designed to keep this lovely property green.

To Dennis W. Hawley ’72, associate vice president for facilities, the promise could not be more exciting, or more in keeping with Bucknell’s history. He thinks of the land behind him, to the west, in front of the library. On that canvas, the University’s first campus master planner, Jens Frederick Larson, painted a masterpiece, a stunningly visionary and prescient campus master plan, whose grace and usability are as powerful today as they were 75 years ago. Mountains stand serenely in the background; green hills roll throughout the foreground. Stately red brick buildings front elegant quadrangles that mix lush grass, crisscrossing walkways and venerable trees. The scene is almost impossibly picturesque.

Hawley, Bucknell’s associate vice president for facilities, is in awe of Larson’s achievement. As he and his colleagues shepherd the implementation of the University’s new master plan, which the Board of Trustees approved in April, he feels as Larson must have in 1932, when the legendary architect began transforming scores of acres of Pennsylvania farmland into the quintessential Northeastern campus.
"The University has a long history of long-term planning," he says. "It has done it in bits and pieces, but everything has built on previous plans. If I showed you the 1932 plan, you’d squint your eyes and think the campus looks pretty much like that. Some buildings have moved around a little bit, but overall the structure is there."

Recognizing the value and meaning of Larson’s vision, the new master plan embraces and extends it. The result will leverage Bucknell’s physical space to help create as comprehensive an academic and co-curricular experience as possible by creating learning centers, not just classroom buildings. Elements Larson dreamed of — stronger connections to downtown Lewisburg and the Susquehanna River, for example — will finally come to pass. Environmental stewardship will be emphasized. And the emerging pedagogical models of the 21st century will be realized.

Says University Provost Mick Smyer, "Close collaboration between faculty and students requires attention to the ecology of learning and living. The Campus Master Plan uses the careful juxtaposition of classrooms, offices, laboratories and open spaces to build into campus life, literally, opportunities for the types of thoughtful and personal engagement that are so important to Bucknell."

In August 1932, a large portion of Old Main was destroyed by fire. Two months later, Bucknell’s Board of Trustees retained Larson, the renowned architect who had done work at Dartmouth and Colby. While across the years some have speculated that the board used the damage to Old Main to justify developing Bucknell’s first master plan, no evidence in the historical record suggests that. Perhaps the University hired Larson because it had recently purchased 170 acres of farmland; as Larson sat at his drawing board, only the first wing of the Engineering Building had been raised.

"He really had carte blanche in terms of how he could develop the campus," says campus historian Russell E. Dennis, assistant professor of education.

Duly inspired, Larson designed graceful quads, with buildings at right angles. He ringed central academic buildings with student life structures - residence halls, dining facilities, a chapel, playing fields and frat houses. He specified where individual buildings should go to facilitate the ideal collegiate experience. Much of what he put on paper was realized, sometimes as he had seen it, sometimes with slight changes, a reflection of the enormous influence he had on Bucknell’s development.

"After he created that plan, it’s been pretty well followed, and that has driven everything," Dennis says.

As he planned, Larson did not limit himself to Bucknell’s immediate boundaries. He thought about what would happen should the University come in possession of contiguous property at some point in the future.
"These are things that we’re actively talking about 75 years later," says James D. Hostetler, the University’s director of construction and design. "It’s extraordinary to me that we’re even still developing along those lines."
Higher education evolved dramatically in the decades after Larson, but because of the flexibility embedded in his plan, Bucknell was able to keep pace with the changes. Today, the paradigm shift fostered by technology, globalization and diversity demands a new vision, one that prepares the University for the next 75 years while seamlessly recalling its legacy. As administrators and faculty researched what the next master plan should look like, certain facts became clear.

"Students require more space just in their living environment," Hawley says.

Adds campus planner Laurie Lundquist, "The one thing we have affirmed is that it’s not just classroom learning now; it’s that learning takes place in all aspects of student life."

Doug Allen, associate professor and associate dean of the School of Management, suggests that the architecture of a building can influence the architecture of the mind — and that the challenges of the 21st century demand it. "What does a classroom look like in an international, globalized world?" he asks. "It has to have certain capabilities of connectivity, not only across campus but also to bring in people from other parts of the world, or other classes, in parallel fashion, who are studying together. At the same time, there’s a real emphasis on not forgetting what is most important to Bucknell, the student-faculty relationship."

Allen believes that the academy is moving more toward a study of practices rather than rigidly defined majors. For instance, he says, public policy issues span a number of traditional disciplines, as do media studies, popular culture, environmental studies and sustainability. Abe Feuerstein, associate professor of education and associate dean of social sciences, agrees. "We are hoping to create opportunities for interaction and interdisciplinary work," he says. "When programs are adjacent to one another — like international relations and geography or geography and environmental studies — it facilitates that interdisciplinary approach."

Additionally, today’s Campus Master Plan must be as far reaching now as Larson’s was. "What you see today and what you might see 50 years from now I think will be different in degree but not in kind," President Brian C. Mitchell observes. "There will be new technologies and different ways of communicating, but my hope is that the residential liberal arts university will continue to be an important institution in our society. Bucknell will remain among the best of those types of institutions," he says. Feuerstein agrees, "Creating spaces that build on the idea of community and strengthening relationships among people by providing great places for people to meet face-to-face is going to be key."

Before envisioning exactly what would be needed in the decades to come, the University took considerable time to catalog its current space. Lundquist was part of a painstaking effort to review every space on campus, evaluate how those spaces are used and compare the uses to Bucknell’s peer institutions.

"With a database of every single space on the entire campus, we broke it out into percentages — this is academic, this is residence hall space, this is for athletics, this is for the faculty space, admin space and so forth," she says. "So we had a good idea of where we were and where our deficiencies were."

Her team also talked with academic and administrative department heads to elicit their visions for their individual areas to ascertain space needs over the coming decades. From these studies, the details of the new plan began to emerge.

This ambitious agenda required the time and commitment of every campus constituency. As a result, developing the new plan took longer than it often does at other institutions, according to Thomas Kearns, a principal at Boston-based Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, the architectural and planning firm retained by Bucknell for the project.

"It’s not just adding a building," Kearns says. "This is really talking fundamentally about changing the way they teach by creating living and learning environments. These are big, bold, strong concepts that will encourage and energize leaders to think differently.

"We have some incredibly bright and visionary people in the campus community," he adds. "The campus area includes faculty, staff and senior administration, along with the trustees, alumni and parents, so this has been about engaging all those groups in trying to understand what the essence of this institution is." Additionally, says Hawley, the Alumni Greek Council has participated in planning discussions and will continue to be actively involved in the coming years.

Bill Kenny, associate professor of music and associate dean of the arts and humanities, has been a part of these conversations. "It’s interesting to note that as we discuss the art building, it’s not called the ‘art building,’ but the ‘arts complex,’’ he says. We’re looking at not only bringing together the varied facilities and art and art history programs, but also at ways that we can build and create interdisciplinary programs. We could have a gallery and museum in an adjacent space to someone who is teaching art history."

Moving from an inward look at itself, Bucknell and Shepley Bulfinch then peered outward, to downtown Lewisburg, the Susquehanna River and Union County, to assess regional real estate and economic trends. What emerged from that agenda was an emphasis on better integrating the campus’s academic and nonacademic areas. By envisioning a more holistic campus, one whose functional lines are blurred, planners hope to meet students where they are, encouraging them to play where they learn, to hang out where they study and to appreciate and sustain the natural physical environment that surrounds them.

"We call them hearth spaces throughout the campus, in residence halls as well as the academic buildings," Lundquist says. "We’ve lost some of that with previous development, and we’re trying to figure out how we can bring some of that back. Maybe it’s thinking about land banking and preserving green space. Maybe it’s little cafés in different areas so that students on the downhill side of the campus move to the uphill side. You create destination points so that you have a lot more activity and socialization in those different parts of the campus."

Dean of Students Susan Hopp remarks that the residential experience is at the heart of Bucknell’s educational experience. "A residential campus is more than the sum of all of its parts," she says. "It becomes home to students. As we imagine the campus of the future, we must be mindful to build places where community is fostered and learning is at the center of the enterprise."

Among the specifics outlined in the new master plan over the next 75 years are as follows:

  • New academic spaces, most notably a new Academic Quad
  • An arts complex
  • Investments in laboratories
  • New and improved student housing, with more flexible student living arrangements, including a new fraternity row
  • A new Welcome Center near the Rte. 15 campus entrance
  • Greenways, a river walk, reduced surface parking and enhanced green space
  • More tangible connections to downtown Lewisburg and the Susquehanna River
  • A new inn and business center, something that Larson planned for in 1932 but was never constructed

The plan also includes environmental stewardship and sustainability as major focal points, and outlines ideas for underground parking, the conversion of roadways to walkways, the implementation of riverway access and the creation of bike trails linking the campus to neighboring communities.

Environmental concerns are of particular interest to today’s students, according to environmental studies major Ashley Hanna ’09. Last summer, Hanna and the other students in her program developed a campus sustainability report; she contributed to the Built Environment and Transportation Infrastructure section. In researching the environmental impact of Bucknell’s demolition and construction activities, Hanna relied considerably on the new master plan as a source of information. She notes that because future environmental advances are difficult to predict, the plan is vague on how to achieve sustainability goals, but she is glad that University officials are having the conversation.

"Currently, there are very few green features or green technology that is mandatory in any design of a building or any construction," Hanna says. "It’s important to start making those things mandatory. As a university, we are in a great position to be a leader."

University officials couldn’t agree more.

"Bucknell has a long and proud history of engagement on environmental issues," President Mitchell says. "The Campus Master Plan aims to carry forward the best of the University, and that includes the most advanced thinking on sustainability."

Bucknell’s physical environment has always been an enormously strong selling point, and retaining the campus’ look and feel throughout decades of upgrades remains a priority. Hawley likes to talk of alumni returning to campus after years away, seeing buildings that were constructed since their departure and being unsure whether those structures stood while they were attending classes. And so the new master plan seeks to continue that heritage of timeless charm and grace.

"The plan, I believe, will keep Bucknell looking like Bucknell, so when an alumnus comes back on campus, it still feels like Bucknell," Hawley says.

There will be other benefits, as well. For example, planning so meticulously will help to keep costs down when changes are made, easing the burden on students, parents and donors. Such advantages can be difficult to see; long-term planning, after all, necessarily involves considering things that do not yet exist.

"Some people think that a long-term plan is just kind of wishing in the fog," Hawley acknowledges. "Larson’s plan from 1932 — it took 70 years to implement pieces of that, and we’re still implementing some of those pieces. For instance, there used to be a parking lot between Dana Engineering, Olin Science and Carnegie. Larson had that as a green space, and six years ago we finally turned that into a green space.

"We hope that 75 years from now some folks will still be implementing some of the thoughts that were generated here in 2007 and 2008. The vision is important."

That view from the library is looking more promising all the time.

Tom Durso is a freelance writer who has written for The Scientist, The Philadelphia Inquirer and St. Joseph’s University Magazine.