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Who designed the Gateway Arch? & other footprints left by landscape architects on Purdue’s campus

When you imagine Purdue University or pull up images in a Google search, it’s likely that you see pictures of herringbone brick pathways, limestone pillars with metal arches and greenspaces full of students. Not too long ago, this wouldn’t have been the case. The Purdue University of the 1970s would be unrecognizable to most people on campus now.

John Collier, however, still remembers the asphalt drives, parking lots and the busy highway that once cut campus in half. Collier arrived at Purdue in 1979 as a student in environmental design, a major in a college that no longer exists. One semester in, he was so awed by the miniature model of campus in Purdue Memorial Union that he knew he had to change his major to become one of the people who maintained it: a landscape architect.

While the smell of burning styrofoam and hot-wire cutting deterred Collier from modeling, he did become passionate about designing outdoor spaces that bring people together. He interned at the Facilities Planning Office as an undergraduate and stayed there for 30 years, eventually becoming the director of campus master planning in 2004.

“I was here when the Campus Master Plan was updated in 1986 by Sasaki Associates. I had just graduated. I was at the right place at the right time,” Collier said.

a map of Purdue's campus on yellowed paper Every street, tree and building was hand-drawn on the 1986 update of the Campus Master Plan (photo credit: John Collier).
The 1986 Campus Master Plan, updated from the prior plan completed in the 1920s, helped transform campus from unwalkable roadways to the artful outdoor spaces Boilermakers enjoy today. Although Collier is humble about his achievements, he played a role in designing some of the most famous landmarks of Purdue.

Landscape architects, both those working here for Purdue and those from landscape architecture firms we contracted, designed nearly every major greenspace on campus.”

- John Collier, Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Alumnus & former Director of Campus Master Planning

 

The Hello Walk Entrance:

John Collier stands between two limestone pillars with his hands raised up in a look-at-this-around-me gesture. the hello walk and trees sit in the background John Collier stands between the two pillars that were once the gateway to campus but now serve as the opening to the Hello Walk on Memorial Mall.

“My boss—the university architect Tom Schmenk—and I happened upon them out in a field behind the old 9th street warehouse. They were lying in the grass,” Collier said of the great limestone pillars that now sit on the edge of the Hello Walk. “They had been in storage for 40 years.”

One of Collier's first big projects after the 1986 Master Plan was figuring out what to do with the pillars. Eventually, he found pictures of them connected by an ornate iron fence gate at the entrance of Memorial Mall Drive when it had just been a carriage path. The pillars had been placed there in 1891.

In 1923, the class of 1897 added the lower stone walls and an ornate iron fence and gate to celebrate their 25th anniversary from graduation. You can still see where the original iron gate connected to the side of the pillars, and the‘97 chiseled into the stone still reads clear. But when the boulevard was widened for cars in the 1950s, the entire “campus portal” was removed.

clack and white photo of the campus portal with heavilon's tower in the background The old campus portal originally stood south of present-day Stewart Center and opened up to Memorial Mall Drive when it was just a carriage path (photos credit: Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections).
Along with redesigning the Hello Walk and replacing the asphalt walks with concrete, Collier helped coordinate a crew that used cranes to lift the main pillars and carry them back to Memorial Mall. One pillar was missing its cap, and the other had lost its base, so they had to hire stonemasons to cut new stone and restore the pair.
a sketch on a beige background of the right lime stone pillar and its fence. One of John Collier’s sketches of the entrance to the Hello Walk details not only the structure of the landmark and its wrought iron fence but also many notes from himself and collaborators (photo credit: John Collier).

Collier said, “The interesting thing was we rededicated this whole space in 1991 as part of the 50-year class gift from the class of 1951 that reestablished the Hello Walk. We’d installed them 100 years after they were originally installed, and we didn't know that until after the dedication.”

The class of 1936 and the grandchildren of the class of 1897 funded the restoration of the lower stone walls and the pillars. About a decade later, Collier patterned a new fence from the wrought iron fencing he saw in photos. He also made a sketch of how the campus portal originally looked, and the image is engraved on a plaque embedded in one of the pillars.

John Collier points o a golden and brown plaque of one of his sketches of the original campus portal embedded into the pillar John Collier’s sketch on the limestone pillar shows how the gate historically sat on Memorial Mall Drive.

 

 

The Clapping Circle:

John Collier stands in the middle of the central plaza of academy park and claps. There are people walking around him in the background. Clapping in the middle of Academy Park produces an echo of the sound, a tradition for prospective students and visitors.

The area between the Purdue Memorial Union, Stewart Center and Heavilon Hall used to be all roadways and parking lots. Now, brick pathways bisect green mounds planted with trees on which students often tie hammocks to rest between classes. Tour guides lead prospective students and their families to the center of Academy Park to clap and hear the echo, claiming the area was designed with perfect acoustics in mind.

Collier says that the acoustic perfection was accidental. “This was one of the most highly-traveled pedestrian areas on the whole campus, and people came from all directions. So rather than just make it all one big plaza or put down flat lawn panels that would become mud paths, we put the seat walls in to direct people where we wanted them to walk and to take them to strategic building entrances. Then, we created this great central plaza in the center.”

black and white photo of old cars from the 40s (old black metal, curved) parked behind union Parking lots and driveways were once the norm for much of Purdue’s campus, including the area behind the union, pictured here from left in the 1940s (photo credit: Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections),
a long exposure shot where you can see the headlights traced across the parking lot, full of 1970s cars behind the union 1970s (photo credit: Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections),
colorful rows of 70s-style cars line the street behind the union approximately 1975 (photo credit: Purdue Facilities Planning Office)
from an aerial view, the space behind the union looked like any other black parking lot in the 90s with white lanes and a variety of cars and approximately 1994 (photo credit: John Collier).
President Steven Beering decreed the space Academy Park, claiming its inspiration was the outdoor classrooms of ancient Greek scholars. Collier agrees that this is closer to the truth. He planned for each hill to serve as its own classroom, far enough from each other so that teachers wouldn’t have to speak over one another. He also thought the space could be used for performances, and there are still panels on the sidewalls and electrical conduit installed under the central plaza to accommodate audio and lighting fixtures.

 

 

The Gateway Arch:

stadium mall looks bare with just a grass median and two lanes of parallel parked cars In the 1970s, Stadium Mall was lined by cars (photo credit: Facilities Planning office).
The gateway to the future now opens to stadium mall and stands over a red brick pathway The gateway arch now opens in the same place, welcoming people into campus and becoming a favorite landmark for senior photos (photo credit: Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections).

Graduating seniors wait in line to get photos in their robes in front of the great arch opening on the corner of Stadium Avenue and University Street. This arch, officially called the “Gateway to the Future,” was a gift donated by the classes of 1958 and 1959. Collier designed the original concept.

“Fred Ford was a Purdue alumnus and the executive vice president and treasurer for Purdue for decades. After he retired, he engaged me to develop a 50th-anniversary gift for his and his wife’s classes. I agonized over what I was going to do for them because I knew it had to be good, and I had other ideas and thought they were terrible. Literally the day before I was supposed to meet with him and his wife, Mary, I came up with this concept for the arch, and they loved it,” Collier said.

Collier drew on the gothic elements from Purdue’s rich history, pulling in the giant stone pillars reminiscent of those from the old campus portals and black metal streetlamps.

a sketch of the gateway to the future arch. You can see the Purdue mall fountain in the background and people in the foreground. Even John Collier’s original concept sketch of the Gateway to the Future arch includes a few students standing underneath it, taking in the views of Purdue Mall (photo credit: John Collier).
John Collier stands in front of yellow flowers in front of the arch Standing under the Gateway to the Future might make any Purdue alumni feel nostalgic, but John Collier can see over 40 years worth of changes from under the arch.

These three landmarks are far from the only history that Collier and other landscape architects made on campus. With the help of donors and construction contractors, they expanded bike paths, planted trees, designed courtyards, enhanced fountains, contracted statues and public art, placed benches and created paths connecting the campus community.

“People think that landscape architects just work with plants, but it’s so much more than that,” Collier said. “We design outdoor spaces to be accessible for people to use and enjoy. Walls, pathways, exterior spaces and many landmarks are designed by landscape architects.”

Collier worked for Purdue for 32 years, the last two for University Residences. Landscape architecture classes and professors—especially Don Molnar, a professor emeritus and chair of landscape architecture at Purdue—gave Collier inspiration and the foundational knowledge to understand the field, and the internship in the planning office gave him opportunities to create designs early on in his career. He’s since helped other landscape architects get their start in the same way—even Stadium Mall was designed with the help of a student intern from his office.

When Collier retired from Purdue, he took his expertise to the city of Lafayette, where he has served as the assistant director for economic development for eight years. He helps facilitate new projects with the mayor, city staff and landscape architecture firms. Collier also volunteers for the local Civic Theatre as a set designer, scenic artist and director.

It wasn’t me doing this alone. I was a part of a great team of other landscape architects, building architects, civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers. We all worked really, really well together in our office and collaborated to make all these great projects. I was lucky to be a part of Purdue’s planning team at the time I was and to have the opportunity to design so much for campus. I love this place.”

- John Collier, Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Alumnus & former Director of Campus Master Planning

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