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Scholarly Essay:
"The University of North Carolina Campus: Natural Environment and Landscaping (1792-1877)" by William R. Burk

Primary Documents Arranged by Subtopic:
Descriptions
Landscape Gardening
Maps and Plans

The campus of the University of North Carolina has long been appreciated for its natural beauty. From William R. Davie to Cornelia Spencer, visitors and residents were inspired by that beauty and were devoted to this place in large part because of it. The land on which the campus was built was situated atop a ridge. Just east of the site of the first building was Point Prospect, which offered a spectacular view of the countryside. Davie wrote in 1793, "The ridge appears to commence about half a mile East of the buildings where it rises abruptly several hundred feet . . . the flat country spreads off below—like the ocean, giving an immense hemisphere, in which the eye seems to be lost in the extent of space."

The area had an abundance of creeks and springs containing, in Davie's words, "the purest and finest water." Indeed, the healthfulness of the place figured significantly in the trustees' decision to locate the campus here. Its relative isolation was also a factor, as the trustees wanted to keep the students away from urban centers and their associated vices. Raleigh, the new state capital, was twenty-five miles away—which now seems close, but at the time the university was founded, it was an all-day carriage ride.

In the fall of 1796, shortly after he arrived in Chapel Hill, Professor Joseph Caldwell wrote to a friend in Princeton, New Jersey, "The place appears to have been cut out of the woods," and in fact, it had been. Most of the surrounding land was thickly forested, though there was an old field to the east of Steward's Hall (the building where the first students took their meals). For over forty years the campus remained woodsy. Efforts were made to keep it tidy, but little was done that could be called landscaping. Then in the 1840s, under President David L. Swain, a concerted program of campus improvement began. By the end of the 1850s the campus was renowned for its loveliness. Following the visit of President James Buchanan in 1859, a reporter for The North Carolina Standard, "The College Campus is now arrayed in all the charms of Nature assisted by the fostering hand of Art . . ."

The materials in this section document the development of the university grounds. Included are early descriptions of the site as well as several maps and plans. There are also minutes of meetings at which the trustees made decisions regarding the grounds. Especially interesting are letters to President Swain from notable alumni Robert Donaldson and James Johnston Pettigrew giving observations and advice on landscaping. Donaldson urged Swain to establish an experimental farm. Letters from A. J. Davis describe his efforts to help the university recruit a landscape gardener. Finally an 1874 report by a committee of the trustees details the sad state of the campus following the period when the university was closed.

The documents in this section are arranged chronologically within the subtopics.

Descriptions | Top of Page
Landscape Gardening | Top of Page
Maps and Plans | Top of Page