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Towers, Quads, Vistas


A photo sampling of some of America's most striking and beautiful college campuses and their landmark buildings.

Modern American campuses reflect the diversity of the country itself—whether in location, size, students or academic mission. But they also demonstrate the powerful pull of tradition with their frequent mix of Gothic, neoclassical and modern architecture, grassy vistas, and the open squares, or quads, which serve as centers of college life.

From thousands of American college campuses, large and small, here are a few compelling examples that are notable for their iconic buildings and beautiful and evocative settings.

Kenyon College
Kenyon College, a highly respected liberal arts college, combines a breathtaking hilltop setting in central Ohio with some of the finest examples of Gothic revival architecture in the United States. Old Kenyon Hall, built in 1827, is one of America’s oldest such Gothic buildings. 

A three-meter-wide trail, known as Middle Path, runs the length of the campus, serving as a combination footpath and village green where students can gather. Another striking building is Rosse Hall, Kenyon’s concert and lecture hall, constructed in the 1830s.

Brown University
Brown University’s reputation as a venerable Ivy League school didn’t prevent it from erecting the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts in 2011—an innovative open-space building with transparent walls designed to foster artistic collaboration.

Its most dramatic feature is a set of split, or offset, floors so that each half floor is connected to two others, helping foster a high degree of artistic collaboration. 

The center contains spaces for a remarkable range of artistic endeavors. Among them: a 200-person auditorium for performance and film, a gallery for the visual arts, four interdisciplinary production studios, sound recording studio, multimedia lab, outdoor amphitheater and a physical media lab for research in sensors, robotics and advanced computing technology.

Brown University, founded in 1764 and located in Rhode Island, is one of America’s oldest institutions of higher learning.

Harvard University
Although the exact date remains fuzzy, few dispute Harvard University’s claim to be the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The main campus is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“While the brick buildings...and the neo-Georgian river Houses depict the expected image of ivy classicism,” writes the Harvard Gazette, “the University actually has a sweeping range of building styles that, taken together, amount to an informal history of American architecture.”

One of the landmark buildings of the Harvard University Library is the Beaux-Arts Widener Library, which was opened in 1915 and contains more than three million volumes.

The Harvard Business School, founded in 1908 and famous for pioneering the “case study” approach, comprises several Georgian-style buildings on the Boston side of the Charles River.

University of Virginia
Few campuses embody the early history of the United States as well as the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, designed as an “academical village” by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after the Roman Pantheon, but reduced its dimensions to fit the buildings that flank the school’s celebrated green space known as The Lawn. The Rotunda was rebuilt in an elaborate Beaux-Art manner after being destroyed by fire in 1895, but architects restored Jefferson’s original design in 1976. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Virginia remains one of the premier public universities in the United States.

Yale University
Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is an architectural showcase. Although traditional stone structures in the Georgian and Gothic Revival style dominate much of the campus, Yale also has buildings designed by some famous 20th-century architects.

The Yale University Art Gallery combines both old and new elements in a single building. The original structure was completed in 1928. Noted architect Louis Kahn designed the modern brick-and-glass wing of the museum, which opened in 1953 and was Yale’s first modern building.

Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink, home to the college hockey team, is affectionately known as the “Yale Whale” for its striking aerodynamically shaped roof. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is one of the largest buildings in the world devoted to such materials. Among Yale’s newer modernist buildings: the “green” Sculpture Building, completed in 2007.

University of Chicago
Many notable institutions of higher learning that are located in cities, such as New York University, have no campus at all. Not the University of Chicago, considered by many to have the finest urban campus in the country. One reason is its attractive Hyde Park neighborhood—home to Barack Obama before he became president—which features a slender green park, known as the Midway, that is 200 meters wide and runs for 1.6 kilometers through the campus and the surrounding community.

Chicago has one of the country’s finest collections of neo-Gothic architecture, largely because its chief benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, wanted to ensure the school’s prestige by emulating the buildings of Oxford University in the United Kingdom. The University of Chicago, however, is part of a city famous for its modern architecture, and today the school has many notable modernist buildings, including the School of Social Service Administration Building by Mies van der Rohe and the Law School Building, designed by Eero Saarinen.

The newest: Mansueto Library, opened in May 2011, which holds millions of volumes underground, beneath a glass dome.

Lewis and Clark College
Situated on a forested hilltop, and adjoining a nature preserve, it’s hard to believe that Lewis and Clark is actually an urban college in Portland, Oregon. With its green setting and unique architecture, Lewis and Clark has been termed one of the 10 most beautiful campuses in the United States by The Princeton Review and the independent architectural blog StructureHub.
Many of the student residences have themes; the multicultural dorm, Akin Hall, houses international students and American students with international experience.

The campus hub is the Frank Manor House, a graceful 35-room Tudor-style mansion built in 1925, which serves as its administrative center. Lewis and Clark’s newest building is the Gregg Pavilion, which adjoins the school’s chapel and is used for worship services and performances.

University of California, Berkeley
A very different historic landmark from Virginia’s Rotunda stands on the campus of another elite public university—the 94-meter-tall Campanile of the University of California, Berkeley.

The Campanile, named for its resemblance to the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, is one of the tallest bell-and-clock towers in the world, with its massive bells, or carillon, weighing between 9 to 4,800 kilos. Musicians play three brief concerts a day that echo through the Berkeley hills, with a longer concert on Sundays.

Seaside campuses of the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Diego may have more spectacular settings, but the 72-hectare Berkeley campus is a forested oasis with more than 500 species of native trees and vegetation, along with fragrant eucalyptus groves.

Occidental College
Southern California has no shortage of attractive college campuses, but few are as distinctive as the tile-roofed Mediterranean-style buildings of Occidental College, located in Los Angeles and one of the oldest liberal arts colleges on the U.S. West Coast. The campus has been a favored setting for Hollywood movies since the 1920s.

Occidental is a small school, with barely 2,100 students. “The campus features gorgeous tree lines and superb social gathering areas [and] also ranks as one of the top universities in California,” according to the Web site thebestcolleges.org.

Erdman Hall, built in the classic Mediterranean style in 1927, remains one of the most popular buildings on campus, with coed residences for 80 students. One of the school’s most immediately recognizable landmarks is Gilman Fountain, with a kinetic water sculpture called “Water Forms II.”

Stanford University
At 3,200 hectares, Stanford has one of the largest campuses in America, populated by distinctive sandstone and red-tile buildings in a Spanish-influenced architectural style known as Mission Revival. It has a remarkably diverse student body: about 60 percent of undergraduates are Asian, Hispanic, African American or Native American—or are international students.

The campus, located in Palo Alto, California, features a number of scenic quads that are hives of student activity, along with such attractions as a 1,600-square-meter cacti and succulent garden, and an arts center featuring 24 art galleries, sculpture gardens, and one of the largest collections of bronze artwork by Rodin outside of Paris. Among its landmark buildings: the 87-meter Hoover Tower, Stanford Mausoleum, and a large radio telescope in the foothills known as “The Dish.”

Sewanee: the University of the South
If any place captures the myth and mystery of the American South, it may well be the school officially known as Sewanee: The University of the South, even though, strictly speaking, it is located in a border state, Tennessee, and not in the so-called deep South (generally defined as South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana).

Sewanee’s gorgeous campus and town is perched on a mountaintop known as the “Domain” and occupies a total of 5,300 hectares. Filled with Gothic-style architecture, including the landmark All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee is home to the Tennessee Williams Center, named for the noted American playwright, who left his literary estate to the university.

Princeton University
Princeton University in New Jersey, one of America’s best-known Ivy League universities, is renowned for its gray-stone neo-Gothic architecture, a style that can also be found on campuses throughout the country, from Yale University in Connecticut to Duke University in North Carolina.

“The entire campus gives the sense of a huge opened up space, filled with beautiful archways, benches, footpaths or plazas that ‘invite’ students to a nice walk in the nature or for an academic debate,” says the architecture and design blog Colorcoat.

Like most campuses, however, Princeton combines the old with the new, including cutting-edge architecture like the soaring and colorful Lewis Library, which holds the university’s major science collections, and was designed by modernist architect Frank Gehry.

Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.