Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 2, Page 4
Winter 1993
The Art of Landscaping

     The flowing beauty of the University of Delaware landscape is the
result of careful planning in the 1920s by one of the first female
landscape architects in the United States. From the majesty of the Mall on
the central campus to the rolling openness of the south campus green,
Marian Coffin's romantic and fluid design remains a guiding force today.
     Once praised as "an artist whose medium is the living earth-one for
whom art and life are never separate, but mutually renewed and ever
renewing," Marian Cruger Coffin was born in New York on Sept. 16, 1876, the
product of a prestigious family. Her mother's family was connected to the
Churches of Western New York, descending from Governor Trumbull of
Connecticut, and her father's family members were South Carolina plantation
owners. Especially significant to the University of Delaware was her
family's association with the Du Ponts and the Sharps.
     Coffin had chosen a career in landscape architecture, but her lack of
formal education and the prejudice of that time against women in the
professional world presented considerable obstacles. After some preparatory
tutoring, she entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which at
that time had one of the nation's best landscape courses. Although women
could not be candidates for degrees, Coffin entered as a special student
and completed her studies in 1904. Unable to find work with any of the
established firms, she established her own independent offices in New York
     As Marian Coffin's reputation grew, so did her offices and the demand
for her services. Among her better known clients were Mr. and Mrs. Lammot
du Pont, Mr. and Mrs. Henry F. du Pont (Winterthur was Marian Coffin's
largest project), Sen. H. Alexander Smith, Mr. and Mrs. H. Rodney Sharp,
Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Hutton, the Vanderbilts
and Hattie Carnegie.
     The selection of Marian Coffin to design the grounds of the University
of Delaware was not accidental. H. Rodney Sharp, who had been very
impressed by her work on his estate, Gibraltar, was chairman of the
University Board of Trustees when Marian Coffin's services were requested.
A letter was sent to the landscape architect on May 12, 1920, in which the
Delaware Board of Trustees resolution was included:

        "RESOLVED, that all plantings of trees and shrubbery on the grounds
        of Delaware College be under the supervision of Miss Marian C.
        Coffin, 830 Lexington Avenue, New York City, and be made in
        accordance with the plans and specifications prepared by Miss

     The landscape plan under which Delaware was operating prior to Marian
Coffin's design was the 1917 design of Frank Miles Day. Coffin's changes in
plantings, arrangements and walkways greatly changed the character of the
landscape, transforming the formal style of Day's plan to a more casual and
romantic character. The college had just completed a series of complex land
acquisitions, and the union of the men's and women's campuses was clearly
envisioned. The flaw that Marian Coffin so masterfully overcame was the
conflict in the orientation of the men's and women's colleges. Coffin's
fluid design made use of rounded forms in the resolution of these axes. The
magnolia circle (located just south of Morris Library and before Cannon
Hall), the oval shaped formal garden with two parterres (flower beds and
garden pathways that form a pattern) at either end and the natural enclave
that surrounded the recreation area were masterful designs that allowed a
natural flow to the two campuses. The geometry remained formal, but the
naturalistic plantings formed an effective contrast.
     The plantings allowed by the friable, acid soil included a great
variety of plants, many of which still survive. The north Mall's formal
lawn is lined with stately American elms. (Today, when Dutch elm disease
strikes down one of the American elms, it is replaced with a similar tree,
the Zelkova.) The south campus has several honey locusts, and the planting
list also included several varieties of native shade trees such as American
beech, white and scarlet oaks, tulip trees and American ash trees. Coffin
also included several native flowering trees, such as the fringe tree,
silverbell and sweetbay magnolia. Among the varieties of native shrubs were
chokeberry, witch hazel, mountain laurel, maple leaf viburnum and native
American azaleas.
     W. Gary Smith, Delaware '78, an assistant professor of plant and soil
sciences, serves on the University Board of Trustees' visiting committee on
landscaping. He says two things stand out about Coffin's vision and
abilities as a landscape architect.
     "First, she was extremely talented at understanding the details of a
landscape; small bits of stonework, ornament, the details of planting for
special effects. Second, she was also the genius of the master stroke. The
example of this at the University of Delaware is the magnolia circle, which
helps create the illusion of a continual axis from Main Street down to East
Park Place on south campus. It represents her ability to solve problems on
a grand scale," Smith says.
     Today, the board's visiting committee on landscaping is chaired by
William M.W. Sharp, grandson of H. Rodney Sharp. He says his committee is
establishing University-wide standards based on Coffin's original design.
(For more information on the new visiting committees, see page 22.)
     "We have tried to retain and continue the design elements that she
valued," Sharp says. "Good landscape design and maintenance are important
for many reasons. An attractive campus can be regarded as a recruiting
tool, as one of the major considerations for students choosing the
University. It adds enormously to the life-style of faculty and students,
creating a beautiful atmosphere in which to teach and learn. Most
importantly, it imparts a sense of style and taste that will be absorbed by
students and carried with them the rest of their lives."
     By setting standards and guidelines for all sections of the campus,
the committee strives to maintain an ordered and consistent look to future
developments. Examples include setting standardized heights for signs and
lists of plants appropriate for differing areas of campus.
     Although the beauty of the campus is a source of great pride for
everyone associated with the University, the addition of new buildings has
changed some of the original design. For example, Coffin designed an
arboretum to separate the men's and women's colleges. This arboretum was a
garden of collected naturalistic plantings that included many native trees
and shrubbery. With the construction of the Morris Library in 1963, most of
these plantings had to be removed, but, one significant feature, the old
grove of American beech trees, remains between Alison Hall and the Cannon
Hall tennis courts.
     Despite 70 years of growth and change, the work of Marian Coffin
continues to contribute to the beauty of the campus by integrating
architecture and plantings. The current visiting committee on landscaping
strives to maintain her vision so that future generations of University of
Delaware students may share in what many would say is the highest aim of
education: the experience and knowledge of beauty.
                                   -Michael W. Hail, Delaware '94Ph.D.