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The Arboretum at Penn State


It Started With a University Mandate, then Grew into a Beloved Place to Enjoy and Learn about Nature

The Arboretum on Penn State’s University Park campus represents the continuation of the University’s nineteenth-century mandate first as the Farmer’s High School and later as a land- grant college. That mandate was to expand and democratize education by adding subjects like agriculture and engineering to the curriculum and by bringing its benefits to more people, including the community.

With these goals in mind, Penn State President George Atherton planted a stand of American elm trees – an arboretum – on what is now Pattee Mall in the 1890s. There are still elms today, in spite of Dutch elm disease and elm yellows, as well as a commemorative plaque referring to the “trees and other plantings to be used for teaching and research purposes.”

Sharing a Love of Nature with a Whole Community

University trustees set aside land for a more extensive arboretum in 1914 but only in the 1990s did will and financing coalesce so that planning could begin; the 24-acre H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, centerpiece of the modern arboretum project, were dedicated in 2010. There, students, families, neighbors, football fans and other visitors enjoy paths and meadows, specialty gardens – including one attractive to pollinators and another attractive to children, ponds and fountains, an event lawn, and the Overlook Pavilion with its beautiful sunset views.

In short, they enjoy ready access to nature – peace, quiet and inspiration – on the campus of a major university. Those who want learning in the mix can read signs and labels that describe some 1,130 plant species.

A Botanic Garden, a Rewarding Project, and So Much More

Working with MTR Landscape Architects, Reese Hackman contributed main site electrical design as well as mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems for the Overlook Pavilion, the display gardens and the parking area.

The job was an unusual one for the team – they had never tackled a Botanic Garden before – and the result was unusually rewarding, a fine thing for their own community and in alignment with RH’s commitment to the same educational and democratic values that brought about Penn State.