Elmhurst College In Depth

Growing Green

Elmhurst recreates native Illinois prairies amid new sustainable design projects.

Before the spotted bee-balm can bloom, and before the tall grasses send their roots deep, the big machines have their work to do. So last spring, on the first really hot afternoon of the season, excavators and road-rollers and other heavy equipment were out rumbling and raising dust again on the western edge of Elmhurst’s campus.

It was a little hard to imagine, what with all the piles of gravel and stacks of pallets dotting the construction site, but this clamorous area is to be the center of an ambitious exercise in environmentalism. Here, behind Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, the College is sending up a residence hall so environmentally sensitive that even the parking lots alongside it will be models of sustainable design. Also called “green design” and “ecodesign,” the term refers to the art of fashioning a man- made landscape that has minimal negative impact on the natural environment, one that complies with fundamental principles of ecological sustainability.

The most visible manifestation of this green building project is the acre or so of prairie and woodland gardens that will soon take hold on the site. On an arboretum campus already noted for its astonishing variety of trees and shrubs and its placid expanses of lawn, this prairie and woodlands restoration will add a whole new array of native plant life: seventy-five species in all.

To put it more correctly, the native species will be making a comeback. For the grasses and sedges and wild-flowers that will beautify the areas around the new residence hall once dominated the Illinois landscape. The buzzing and fluttering and crawling creatures drawn to the plants—butterflies and beetles and hummingbirds, to name just a few—will return, too. The effect will be to create, on the smallest of scales, something like a native landscape in the heart of a college campus.

“None of us has ever really stood in the authentic, historic Illinois,” says Jay Womack, the landscape designer who is planning the restoration. Womack works for Wight & Company, an architecture firm based in Darien that also designed the new residence hall and other recent campus buildings. “This is important for our sense of history. Too many of us have never seen what the place we call home really looked like.”

The show promises to be splendid. Womack plans to place about 12,000 new plants in the ground, and add still more by seeding.

In the area west of Stanger Hall, where massive old oaks have long provided an umbrella of shade, sedges will replace lawn grass, helping to create the feel of a woodland glen. Native flowers such as shooting star, with its pale pink petals, as well as wild geranium, American columbine and Solomon’s seal, will dot the area, providing a welcome burst of surprising color in the first warm weeks after the long Great Lakes winter. “The biggest show will definitely be in the spring,” Womack says.

Closer to the new student residence, to be called West Hall, Womack will be recreating a prairie landscape of native plants with long root systems that thrive through long, dry summers. Grasses such as little bluestem and switchgrass will be planted in blocks alongside native flowers like butterfly weed, falsebeard and wild allium. The plants will attract birds and insects not often seen on campus now. In late summer, milkweed seeds will drift on puffy gauze and the stalks will rattle in the breeze.

“It will be something to see,” Womack says. “When the prairie dock goes to seed, the gold finches come to eat the seed and get almost drunk on them.”

The native plants will even find a home in the new parking lots adjacent to West Hall. “For a lot of visitors to campus, the parking lot is their first stop,” Womack reasons. “So why shouldn’t it be just as inviting as your actual destination?”

For all the delightful displays promised, the project’s planners say it is as much about environmentalism and education as it is about aesthetics. “Our mission is to develop our campus as a model of sustainable design that will be a hands-on educational resource for our students and the community,” says President Bryant L. Cureton.

Alzada Tipton, the vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, says that the effort should make students more aware of the form and function of their campus environment. “Many students choose a college at least partly because they think it looks the way a campus should look. But I’m not sure how many of them go on to think about what kinds of assumptions and underly-ing expectations create some of these typical aspects of a campus—smooth lawns, manicured bushes, orchestrated landscapes,” says Tipton. “I think students should be thinking more about the environmental impacts of having a campus look like that.”

The environmental impact of new campus spaces was one of the main concerns in the devising of the 2007 Campus Master Plan. The plan, which calls among other things for new academic buildings, athletic facilities, and a new parking garage, made the pursuit of sustainable design one of its principal goals. The College committed itself “to design principles that minimize the negative impact of development on natural resources, on the health and well-being of the campus community and on the environment of the surrounding city and beyond,” according to the planning document.

That concern is manifesting itself in ways large and small, as some of the new plans for the campus come to fruition. The new student residence is taking shape using environmentally friendly building techniques. In May, the College obtained a $43,800 grant from the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to help install solar panels on the roof of West Hall. The panels will reduce water heating bills for the building by 30 to 40 percent, says Bruce Mather, the College’s executive director of facilities management.

The parking lot already in place adjacent to the building site features permeable paving and bioswales—a system that deploys layers of stone and perforated pipe to handle rain water without directing it to a sewer system. Instead, the runoff will be returned to the soil, where it will help sustain and nourish the prairie and woodland plantings while reducing stress on the city’s storm-water system.

The College is pursuing LEED status for West Hall. The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environ-mental Design. LEED certification is the U.S. Green Building Council’s index for measuring the sustainability of new construction. Elmhurst would be one of the first colleges in Illinois with a LEED-certified residence hall.

Why should environmental concerns drive so much of the campus planning process? Dean Tipton says it is at least partly a matter of alerting the College’s students to the challenges ahead. She cites the latest book by a recent campus speaker in making her case. “In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond described most of the potential environmental disasters coming down the pike as having a time-line of about fifty years,” she says. “That falls well within the lifetime of our students. If they don’t care about sustain- able design now, they’re going to have to sometime in the future. They might as well start now, when we have a little bit more hope of preventing some of these events.”

“This is about helping to heal the Earth,” Womack says. “It’s about using plants that put nutrients back into the soil instead of taking them out, about being cost-effective and self-replicating.”

Though they would not have used the term, sustainability was, in a way, a priority for earlier generations of College leadership, too. The frugal founders of Elmhurst College found farm fields already in place around the site of their new proseminary in 1871. They put students to work tending the farm fields and vegetable plots. The corn and other produce yielded by those fields turned up on the students’ dinner plates. (The fact that the food was the product of their hard work did not help make it palatable to the students. “There was no lack of food, but the preparations left much to be desired,” one former student remembered.)

It was the plow that dislodged the prairie from its dominant place throughout much of what we still call the Prairie State. Most of what had been tallgrass prairie was drained, tilled, and turned into some of the world’s most fertile farmland. The farm fields that occupied what is now the Elmhurst campus were just the first of the ways the landscape has been transformed by humans. Over 136 years, the College’s presence on the land has expanded to include dozens of buildings, athletic fields, parking lots, and broad swaths of lawn and ornamental plantings that have helped earned the campus its reputation as one of the most beautiful in the area. But for all of the campus’ “natural” appeal, the heavy machinery at work behind the chapel this summer was a reminder of how much the campus is a product of human intention.

Arguably nothing had a greater aesthetic impact on the campus than the launching in 1966 of the College’s arboretum. Begun as a response to the numbers of original campus trees lost to disease, the arboretum came to include a vast array of trees, shrubs and woody plants. The arboretum was the vision of Elmhurst landscape engineer Herbert Licht; he and the College’s longtime groundskeeper, Ragnar Moen, worked tirelessly to bring new and hard-to-find varieties of trees to the campus. Not limited to the usual suspects of campus landscapes, the collection includes some exotic and rarely seen specimens. In all nearly 700 varieties now grace the campus.

The new prairie and woodland gardens will be the next chapter in the greening of Elmhurst’s campus. “It’s not a matter of getting rid of the wonderful things already on campus,” says Womack. “It’s adding another way of doing things.”

Re-establishing some of the native plants may take time. The construction crews raising West Hall aim to have it ready for its 170 student occupants by next fall. By that time, some of Womack’s prairie plantings will have yet to take firm hold or produce much in the way of a visible display. Some of the deep-rooted native plants spend more energy growing down than growing up, and at first the gardens may look to some like little more than weedy patches.

“With native landscapes, you really have to do some educating. This project will only be as successful as the job we do as educators,” Womack says. “We’ll have to remind people that this is a living system and that it’s going to take some time to establish.” He estimates that it may take three to five years for the seeded areas around the new parking lot to visibly take hold.

Elmhurst’s landscape plans belong to a tradition that dates back to the 1930s, when naturalist Aldo Leopold led a large-scale prairie restoration at the University of Wisconsin arboretum. More recent restorations in Illinois include the hundred-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the thirty-two-acre Air Station Prairie on the former site of the Glenview Naval Air Station, and the massive Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, on 15,000 acres of the U.S. Army’s former Joliet Ammunition Plant.

Elmhurst’s restoration is on a much smaller scale, but will draw on some of the same processes, including careful site preparation and judicious seed selection. And, like most prairie restorations, Elmhurst’s will depend on annual controlled burns that help native plants maintain their hold on the soil. Left unburned, patches of prairie will eventually give way to invasive plants and trees. Regular controlled fires destroy the invasive plants but leave prairie grasses, with the deep root systems undisturbed. The process revitalizes the native landscape.

Though the annual burns will be conducted and controlled by professionals, Womack says it would be ideal to expose students to the process. “That’s part of the education, too,” he says, “seeing and understanding how these systems thrive.” The restored landscapes could be a resource for local grade school and high school students as well.

It’s possible to think of these new landscapes not just as gardens, but as green classrooms. “This is our chance to help people understand more about the need for preserving a complete ecosystem,” says Dean Tipton.

The hope is that the seasonal cycles of the native landscape—burning and blossoming, lush growth turning to spent stalks rattling in autumn wind—will produce new growth not just in the ground, but in the lives of the College’s students.

By Andrew Santella
Botanical Illustrations By Carol Lerner
Artwork Courtesy Of Special Collections, The Sterling Morton Arboretum

Artwork courtesy of Special Collections, The Sterling Morton Library, The Morton Arboretum.

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