East Campus Landscape History


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Early Builders of the East Campus Landscape

Emily Levine

From its earliest days as the College Farm, UN-L's East Campus has been the site of horticultural display and experimentation for both aesthetic and educational purposes. A number of men—some famous, some not—contributed to the campus's landscape. Indeed, we have been fortunate to have men of great stature who influenced and implemented its landscape plan. (It was not until the late 1970s that women began to have the significant role that they do today.)

In the beginning, from the 1880s to well into the twentieth century, before there was a special entity concerned specifically with the campus grounds, the role of landscaping the campus fell to academics: professors of botany, horticulture, and forestry. Along with the Farm Superintendent and, later, a campus gardener, they were the primary vehicle for planting at the Farm.

Charles Bessey
R.A. Emerson
S.W. Perin

Charles E. Bessey, who would gain renown for changing the face of the study of botany, was hired by the university in 1885 as Professor of Botany and Horticulture. (He later served as Dean of the Industrial College and Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts as well as the Faculty Dean and Acting Chancellor.) When Bessey came to Nebraska he set out to assess the natural vegetation of the state and he was eager to get examples of these plants on campus. To this end, he began a botanical garden and proposed an arboretum soon after his arrival. Working with his former student, horticulture professor R.A. Emerson, Bessey's dream of an arboretum full of native Nebraska plants was satisfied in the first decade of the 20th century. Bessey and Emerson not only wanted to grow native plants, they wanted to trial any plant that could grow in Nebraska. Although their arboretum no longer stands, one can find remnants of it west of Agriculture Hall. Emerson was dedicated to developing and using the Farm Campus as a classroom for the university's horticulture students. In 1914, Emerson was hired away by Cornell University as chair of their department of Plant Breeding. (Already an innovative plant geneticist during his time at Nebraska, at Cornell Emerson became mentor to a fellow Nebraskan, a corn genetics doctoral student, in the same way that Bessey had been his mentor. That student, George Beadle, went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1958.)

Two important non-academics also made important contributions to the campus landscape. In 1889, S.W. Perin was hired with the official title of Campus Superintendent. What this meant in reality was that Perin oversaw or was involved in almost every aspect of the physical environs of the farm. From the date of his hiring until his retirement 30 years later, Superintendent Perin served his beloved campus with a devotion that was reflected in the university community's response to his death in 1930. On the Agriculture Campus, classes were cancelled, offices were closed, and the flag flew at half-staff. Perin and his family actually lived on campus, and to honor him the Landscape Services department built a replica of his front porch at the site of the original house. It was later restored with funding help from the UNL Garden Friends.

W.H. Dunman was hired as the Farm Campus gardener in 1909; he eventually helped to develop the landscape on city campus as well. A native of England, Mr. Dunman had previously worked at Sandringham, the Norfolk estate of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. He brought his experience of English border gardening to campus. The formal beds with cannas and other herbaceous perennials that one sees in photographs of the Old Mall were Dunman's design. An active member of Lincoln's gardening community, Dunman won prizes for the iris and other flowers that he bred. A testament to the working relationship between the two men is revealed by the fact that during Superintendent Perin's 9-month bed ridden illness before his death, Mr. Dunman never once failed to show up at his home in the morning to shave his old friend.

All of these men were passionate about plants. Their passion is the horticultural legacy of East Campus. Look for in-depth information about Bessey, Emerson, Perin, Dunman, and other builders of the East Campus landscape later this winter at this public horticulture website, unlgardens.unl.edu.

 The Mall: The Handiwork of W.H. Dunman

Mystery Photo:

biochem.jpg In this old postcard of the Biochemistry Building you can see the row of ash trees on the south side of the building as well as the baldcypress. (You are standing in the drive to the CYT Library parking lot.)