Penn State’s Heritage Trees & Groves program is a great, little known aspect of the place. The beautification of campus has always been part of the plan, ever since Evan Pugh and William Waring began thinking about strategic planting with Old Willow and the Elms. The tradition of beautification continues today in the form of the Arboretum, a 400 acre multi-million dollar, decade-plus project to create botanical gardens and a beautiful space on north campus.

Childhood’s Gate and the Arboretum’s Children’s Garden is a great example of creating a space that intersects with the alma mater. It incarnates an abstract thing in a tangible way. The more that the place has physical symbols like Childhood’s Gate which speak to its roots, the more distinct and special the place becomes. It’s a theme tried to get at in a Town & Gown column when I cited the Roman concept of genius loci, the “a pervading spirit of a place.”

The vision for the Arboretum reminds me of Hort Woods. Hort Woods is an ancient woods that predates American settlement. As the campus grew, Hort Woods shrank. What little is left is now protected by the Heritage Trees & Groves program, but it used to be an enormous part of the campus:

Historically this wood lot covered a very large area from Pollock Road to across Park Avenue to the north. In fact some remnants of this wood lot can still be seen on the north side of the Schreyer House. It should be noted that the original “Hort Woods” wood lot pre-dates the University, and was only cleared for its construction. Therefore many of the trees either pre-date the start of the University or are direct descendants of those trees. Because of its size and uniqueness on campus, Hort Woods has also become a special space and a landmark on the campus.

It’s too late to reverse the logging and paving-over of so much of Hort Woods. In many ways I don’t think the Arboretum would be as necessary or as costly if Hort Woods had been conserved, because there would be space within the Woods to allow for botanical gardens and fountains and things like the Children’s Garden. It could have become like Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, littered with historic monuments, recreational areas, places for thought, meditation, etc.

Since that possibility is off the table, we’ve turned our vision toward creating the Arboretum as a new remarkable space. But it’s fascinating to think what could have been, even in a space more central within the campus and more historically meaningful as something that predates the university itself.

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