A while back I ranted about the inclusion of my alma mater, Ohio’s Oberlin College, in its list of Most Beautiful College Campuses.

So let’s pause and ask what makes  a college beautiful, anyway? In perusing other such lists I found one that described a beautiful campus as “Picturesque natural features such as green spaces, bodies of water and arboretums were the key criteria, as was elegant architecture – and specific buildings and areas were then singled out for their outstanding looks.” But what about the landscapes students walk past every day, the ones around their dorm and class buildings?

So in I’ll broaden the criteria, as a gardener would. And when I recently returned to Oberlin for my delayed 50th reunion I got to see for myself, after decades of gardening and garden-making, how the campus and the town looks to me. I had some reactions to the landscapes, gardens and architecture.

What’s Good on Campus

The college has two showy, brag-worthy landscapes. One is the courtyard garden at the Conservatory of Music in the photo above. Someone was playing the trumpet when I visited. Nice.

The other is the Environment Building, built in 2000.

Another feature the college rightly brags about it the marvelous Tappan Square, the 13-acre city-owned square in the middle of “downtown.” I mainly remember it for crossing in the dead of winter (most of the school year) bundled up against Chicago-style wind and snow, recognizing no one because we all had ski masks on. Fun times!

But what’s truly a fun time is the “Illumination” event shown above in a photo by my friend Joe Blitman, with me walking away. The whole town turns out with reunion-goers and graduating seniors for lights, bands, drumming, ice cream and pies.

What’s Ugly – Everywhere I Lived

Here’s me upon my arrival 1967 at this super-liberal Midwestern college, with its preponderance of students from New York City, looking like a preppie sorority girl from the South. Which I suppose I was. But not for long! I lost my accent and my wardrobe asap.

Here’s that same view now. I don’t hate the building but the landscape was mostly weeds. And classes were still going on, so they can’t blame its condition on summer neglect.  And if the plants are going to look like that, I’d rather see bikes.

Overall, landscapes around college buildings look similar to this – out of date plant choices and design, and a lack of maintenance. It’s disappointing to me now that I notice flaws like that, but did I when I was 18? Do students today notice or care? I doubt it.

I spent my sophomore year doing time behind this unfriendly edifice.

And the buildings kept going downhill – this is where I spent my final semesters. 

More Architecture

Built in 1974, the Mudd Center is, I suppose, a better-looking example of Brutalist architecture than some.  But why Brutalism on a college campus? (Or anywhere?) Building styles impact us humans, and sometimes for the worst. I happened to find one alum who wrote that it’s it “The First Brutalist Building I’ve ever Loved” after calling Brutalism the “armpit in the history of architecture.” But she loved working inside the building, and I appreciate the different perspective.


Seen between the soaring Conservatory of Music and a traditional church.

Best Town Gardens I Could Find

A highlight of my weekend was riding around town on the bike I found at my Air B&B.  Cycling is how I and everyone gets around town and the flatness of Northern Ohio makes it easy (except for, you know, in winter.)  Cars aren’t actually allowed for most students, so parking lots are few and between. (I’m now taking classes at the University of Maryland in College Park and it has acres and acres of parking lots! I understand why but ugh, what a shame.)

I asked where the nicest homes were in the town and was told to find the college President’s home, and everything near it would be nice.  Here’s that home, looking grand enough to host important guests/donors. But here’s more like what I was hoping to see – color, creativity and diversity! I love this house color and yes, I would say that even if I lived across the street and saw it every day.

And because this is a garden blog, let me add that house colors like this create fabulous backdrops for the garden. Similarly, anything looks better in front of a blue house. IMHO. (Here’s Mine.) I love the attention to detail. Yes those details cost more to paint, but I sure appreciate the result. Above and below, a deep purple house with green trim and a full veg-and ornamental garden covering the front yard.

Now we’re talking – colorful home and a garden. Photos above and below.

I can so imagine living in this colorful bungalow and tending this garden.

A Modernist home with (I’m guessing) a professional garden design+install, for year-round impact and low maintenance. Above and below, a very committed rose gardener lives in this fabulous-looking house.

I’d love to see inside this house! And this one.Another gardener growing food in the front yard. Use that sun!

I got to hang out with friends in this back garden.

Very interesting lawn-replacement strategy here. Generous brick walkways and a greensward of what looks like bamboo but my plant ID app tells me probably  St. Augustine grass. Looks great and I’m dying to know more about it.

Another lawn replacement example, this one using mostly clover.

Possibly another professional design, similar to the templates used in in Daybreak, UT.

Cool Homes in Need of a Gardener