Furman Hall, the gray stone structure that many say was built inadvertently at Vanderbilt instead of Duke (a colorful story that unfortunately lacks much evidence) stands out for reasons other than its distinctive turrets. It was the only building constructed as part of a dramatic 1905 campus plan designed by George Kessler, a contemporary of Frederick Law Olmsted and the architect who oversaw the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
As envisioned, the university’s main entrance would have been located near the intersection of Broadway and 21st Avenue South, about where Vanderbilt Law School stands today. From that “Broad Street gate,” the campus was to have opened onto a grand quadrangle with three Collegiate Gothic-style buildings along either side, leading up a gentle slope to a vast new library roughly where Rand Hall is today—an ambitious proposal that would have required razing Benson Hall in the process. Later phases would have transformed the winding paths of campus into a more logical series of courtyard grids that evoked the famous lawn at the University of Virginia (which inspired Peabody College’s campus design) or Oxford and Cambridge.
As it happened, costs mounted to rebuild Old Main Hall (Kirkland) after fire nearly destroyed it in 1905, and an expected grant from Andrew Carnegie to help build the new library failed to materialize. That left Furman Hall—along with the relocation of the athletic fields to their present location—as the main vestige of the once-vaunted Kessler plan.
Now, 110 years later, Vanderbilt is embarking on another land-use plan that will guide campus building during the next decade, if not far longer.
While the best-laid plans often change significantly when confronted with reality, the university is starting its latest campus land-use initiative not with a fixed blueprint like Kessler’s maps, but with a yearlong series of meetings with a wide array of Vanderbilt stakeholders. Instead of setting specific priorities about what to build or refurbish next, the university wants a roadmap for how to translate the priorities of the Academic Strategic Plan—along with fundamental values like inclusion, sustainability and discovery—into real-world construction, location and design standards.
“When we take on new endeavors as a university, and plan for our future, it is vital to remember that everything, from the blades of grass to our tallest building, must all center around our mission and humanistic values, which we must uphold,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos says. “While this land-use process is one of planning, it’s also very much a project nested in the humanities. Whether somebody is working in the neonatal intensive care unit or the English or history of art departments, we are all indeed engaged in a humanistic project.”
That may sound esoteric, but the key players involved have an impressive history of turning audacious visions into reality. Working closely with Zeppos is Eric Kopstain, vice chancellor for administration, a division that oversees the university’s operations. He brings an invigorating mix of affability and inquisitiveness to the hard-nosed business skills he honed at Northwestern (his alma mater), Dartmouth and Harvard. The university also has tapped the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli—whose co-founder, César Pelli, is a renowned former dean of the Yale School of Architecture—to undertake the land-use plan.
Martha Rivers Ingram is leading a working group from the Board of Trust that includes fellow member Jon Winkelried, a Vanderbilt parent who most recently was named co-CEO of the massive private equity firm Texas Pacific Group and served as a longtime Goldman Sachs executive. Along the way, famed Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter has offered counsel about how this latest land-use plan can enhance the school’s long-term strategy.
“Universities can be very inwardly focused, protective of the process, and protective of their own ways of doing things,” Fred Clarke, senior principal and co-founder of Pelli Clarke Pelli, told the audience at a daylong campus symposium on land-use planning in November, which was open to the Vanderbilt community. “It’s quite rare to see that inverted.”
With the completion of several major projects in recent years like The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, the Student Life Center, Warren and Moore colleges—along with the new Engineering and Science Building, now nearing completion—Kopstain says several factors make this an ideal time to embark on a new land-use plan.
First, the university’s separation from Vanderbilt University Medical Center—which divides the two institutions into separate legal entities and should be fully implemented in just a few months—changes how Vanderbilt thinks about future planning, including from a financial standpoint. Second, as Nashville’s commercial real estate market continues to boom, particularly in areas around campus, a greater need has arisen to ensure cooperation with private developers, neighboring communities and the city itself.
“We really want to look at areas where we can find win-win-wins,” Kopstain says, citing Vanderbilt’s successful rehabilitation of 100 Oaks Mall as an example.
Finally, the land-use plan would dovetail with the recently completed Academic Strategic Plan, which includes a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, immersion learning and technological transformation, as well as with initiatives around diversity and sustainability.
SHORT-TERM DEALS, LASTING IMPACT
Beyond the laudable ideals of this newest land-use plan is a pressing need for a strategic playbook to guide the complicated web of day-to-day decisions that come with even the smallest of property deals.
In September, Vanderbilt paid $2.5 million for a 0.16-acre lot at the corner of Broadway and 20th Avenue South. With a major hotel and apartment development across the street nearing completion, and a similar development getting started a block closer to downtown, Kopstain says the university needed to act swiftly. The site completes a multiyear acquisition of properties that stretch a full block adjacent to campus, giving the university an area slightly larger than the footprint of the new Warren and Moore College Halls.
“There’s been a deliberate strategy to assemble all of that land,” Kopstain says as he darts back and forth between a series of maps posted to the walls of his office in Kirkland, which offers a fittingly panoramic view of campus and the city beyond. “You think about what that area will look like in 50 years, about what should be there.” One possibility would be a mixed-used development that includes shops, restaurants and graduate-student housing, he says, explaining that rents around campus have soared in recent years.
But that’s just a single possibility for one small area. Kopstain jumps up from his conference table, back to the maps on his walls, playing out similar if-this-happens-we-could-do-that scenarios for several areas immediately surrounding campus, as well as a handful of other neighborhoods throughout Nashville. And it’s not just acquisition opportunities that Kopstain keeps an eye on, but rather broader potential partnerships that could benefit multiple parties—so long as they serve the campus and the city in productive ways, he says.
Those possibilities don’t even begin to address building needs within the heart of campus, from exploring what to do with the 1960s-era Carmichael Tower dormitories to perhaps reworking the multiple entrances to campus along West End Avenue. While it’s tempting to compare Kopstain’s work to an immensely complex real-world game of Monopoly, that analogy evaporates the moment you consider the wide-ranging impact not only on people’s lives in the short term but also on the shape of the university and the city for decades to come. This is where a land-use plan comes into play.
A HISTORY OF VANDERBILT LAND-USE PLANS
At its most basic, a land-use plan offers the rough equivalent of an architectural design for an entire community or city rather than a single structure. A building should go here, a street should go there, and all of it should look like this. At its most extreme, a land-use plan can turn into a multiheaded monster. A massive plan by Harvard to extend its campus into the Boston neighborhood of Allston that began as early as 1990 (and once included former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, JD’79, as a key adviser) is only now coming to full fruition after years of delays and false starts.
Whatever the ultimate outcomes, land-use plans—particularly for centuries-old institutions like universities—often make an important and lasting impact. “Universities have been, and should continue to be, leaders in terms of preservation as well as incubators of architectural design,” said Kevin D. Murphy, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and chair of the Department of History of Art, speaking at November’s opening land-use symposium.
Vanderbilt has had its own share of land-use plans during the past century. Kessler’s 1905 plan actually was an extension of a 1902 plan by architecture firm Hunt & Hunt, which designed George W. Vanderbilt’s Marble Twins mansions along Fifth Avenue in New York, where Versace is now located. After World War I and an abandonment of the Kessler plan—other than building Furman Hall—the Philadelphia firm Day & Klauder developed a new plan in 1924.
Despite never having visited the campus, the architects oriented the campus more firmly toward West End Avenue and played a role in the construction of Calhoun and Buttrick halls. In 1946 the university hired Edward Durell Stone, who was principal architect for Radio City Music Hall in New York and later the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. His plan brought a better harmony among the buildings and lawns of campus; it also largely shielded the campus from view by outsiders.
In 1968, Vanderbilt received federal money to begin developing what turned out to be a hotly contentious urban renewal district, much of which focused on expanding the Medical Center.
In 2001, faced with room to expand existing space and facilities by as much as 50 percent, then-Chancellor Gordon Gee tapped Sasaki Associates, which has handled projects like the Chicago Riverwalk and the 2008 Beijing Olympics during its more than 60-year history, to develop a new land-use plan. Out of the Sasaki plan came several core principles, including a commitment to reinvest in current space (as opposed to expansion), preserving the architectural character of Vanderbilt, and ensuring that each new project would help make the campus greater than “the sum of the parts.” It also identified key geographic areas on which to focus efforts.
During the next decade, that plan played a key role in bringing about the development of a new hub of spaces around the Student Life Center near Memorial Gymnasium, conversion of the dilapidated 100 Oaks Mall into a vibrant new center for VUMC health clinics and, perhaps most important, the formulation of residential colleges, an initiative Zeppos led as provost.
Since the Sasaki plan was formulated, the numbers of campus buildings, students and faculty members have all grown by at least 20 percent, according to a presentation prepared for the Board of Trust group heading the land-use initiative. At the same time, several neighborhoods around Vanderbilt are at the epicenter of a building boom that this year landed Nashville at No. 7 on PriceWaterhouseCooper’s annual list of U.S. markets to watch—higher than San Francisco, Boston and New York. And a recent report in The New York Times cited city figures that 100 new projects valued at more than $2 billion were under construction in Nashville last fall.
“Vanderbilt is the largest [private] employer in Nashville. It’s such an engine for growth,” says Martin Heflin, BA’80, regional vice president of StreetLights Residential, a Dallas-based developer, and faculty director of the real estate program at the Owen Graduate School of Management. Beyond the economic boost Vanderbilt provides, Heflin says, current students and recent graduates who have stayed in Nashville lend the city a vibrant social edge. “I’m even starting to see a lot of older Vanderbilt alumni return to the city from the suburbs now that their kids have families of their own.”
Kopstain and others already have identified some key priorities in the new land-use plan, such as enhancing Vanderbilt’s walkability, taking a more proactive role in economic and community development in Nashville, and furthering the idea of “One Vanderbilt,” in terms of both cultural inclusion and research collaboration. In early December, Zeppos, Kopstain and Robert Waits, landscape architect in the Department of Campus Planning and Construction, along with a team from Pelli Clarke Pelli, led a town-hall discussion exploring the history of land-use planning at Vanderbilt and soliciting comments from the audience about what they like about campus—and what they don’t. (The general consensus: Traffic has become a major problem, and nearly everyone cherishes the parklike feel of campus.)
More than 100 students, faculty members, administrators, staff and alumni attended the meeting, and both Zeppos and Kopstain say they plan to hold several more such public discussions. In addition, they’ll form working groups across four broad areas: academic and research; student life and experience; clinical and hospital; and perimeter and off-campus. Several groups also may participate in architectural tours at peer universities across the U.S. during the next year.
Far from the days of George Kessler’s grand plan to remake Vanderbilt when it consisted of little more than a few Victorian buildings scattered through an open meadow, today’s challenges have become infinitely more complicated. At the same time, Kessler’s fundamental vision of building a lasting institution that would take its place alongside the great universities of the world continues to resonate, demonstrating that such plans can have an impact far greater than the mere addition of new buildings.
Today, Zeppos and Kopstain say that both Vanderbilt and Nashville have reached important new points in their evolution that call for an overarching guide to direct future growth.
“It all makes sense that right now is a great moment to step back and take a look at land use,” Kopstain says. “Over the short, medium and long term, how do we use the precious and scarce space on our 334 acres in a way that drives our mission? How do we think about spaces beyond our campus? How do we think about acquisitions, especially around the perimeter of campus? How does that affect Vanderbilt’s relationship with the community and the city?
“We have a lot of things to think and talk about. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing over the next 12 months.”