Van Vleck’s living walls

As I was going over old photos of Van Vleck Observatory, I noticed that the now-bare walls of the building were at one point covered thickly in vines. What is more, it seemed that the presence of ivy was not simply an afterthought, or a decoration to make the building more “academic,” but an important design feature of the observatory itself.

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Van Vleck Observatory, circa 1930. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

As the moniker “Ivy League” suggests, ivy has long been associated with college campuses. Planting a commemorative ivy vine at the base of an academic building has been a tradition of each graduating class at Princeton since 1866, and Smith College observes an annual “Ivy Day” at its commencement. Many Wesleyan buildings were formerly cloaked in ivy; the brownstone campus today looks much different than it once did.

But while the reasons for planting ivy may be partly traditional, at the Van Vleck Observatory, these vines were also grown for more practical purposes: to help moderate the temperature of the building itself. Ivy formed a living climate-control system, shading the brownstone exterior in summertime, and preventing the sorts of rapid fluctuations in temperature that might cause errors in measurement.

We can see how these considerations influenced the design of the building from the outset. Henry Bacon, most famous for designing the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, was Wesleyan’s campus architect from 1913 to 1924. He designed Van Vleck with input from Frederick Slocum, the observatory’s first director. In a 1914 letter to Slocum, Bacon suggested the use of ivy to help regulate the temperature of the transit room, ensuring more accurate observations. In this sense, the building itself was a sensitive instrument, and ivy was one means of keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

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A letter from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum dated July 23, 1914 in Box 2 of the Henry Bacon Collection. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Of course, aesthetic considerations were also at play. Bacon’s suggestion was later met with agreement by a member of the Wesleyan faculty who thought ivy would make the observatory “a handsome building.” The faculty member’s delightful comment was quoted by Frederick Slocum in his address at the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory in 1916:

Little bits of plaster,
Little blocks of stone,
Make a handsome building,
When the ivy’s grown. 

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2 thoughts on “Van Vleck’s living walls

  1. Pingback: Combining research and instruction at Van Vleck | Under Connecticut Skies

  2. Pingback: Ivy league, no longer | Under Connecticut Skies

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