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Evolution of the Oak Grove

By Elaine Jacobs Smith
April 16, 2015
Appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of
IUP Magazine.

Our Campus
Friendly oaks,
You promise us much in the springtime,
You fulfill your promise of beauty,
Change to a deeper beauty,
Then stand barren—
Yet ever lovely
Straight soldiers watching—
Watching a never ending stream of youth.


A group of cherished buildings,
A sweep of green to the east,
A fountain, flowers,
A flag—
All parts of the ineffable picture which is
Our campus.

Campus Greens on the Path to Former Beauty

Though she described an “ineffable picture,” Annabelle Hutson, a student from New Bethlehem, found the words to express her attachment to the Oak Grove and its surrounding areas in her poem, Our Campus. Hutson graduated from Indiana State Teachers College in 1929, the same year the poem appeared in the Oak yearbook.

More than 80 years later, Ryan Egan ’14 came from Robesonia, outside of Reading, to IUP. After each harsh Indiana winter, the Cook Honors College student, now a teacher in Nashville, looked forward to one thing: being in the Oak Grove on the first nice day of spring.

“The Oak Grove was packed,” he remembered. “People were having picnics, there were two or three hammocks out, people were playing music on guitars. … That was the picture of the university—everyone coming together on this one good day.”

The Oak Grove has long been a central part of life on campus. It has attracted new students and drawn them back as alumni. Yet, during the latter half of the 20th century, this IUP landmark experienced drastic declines in the very thing it’s known for—its trees.

Those declines, in both the number and diversity of trees, were largely responsible for the decision 15 years ago to make the campus an arboretum, a living museum devoted to the growth and display of trees, shrubs, and vines. Since that time, organizers of the Allegheny Arboretum at IUP have watched their efforts to restore a healthy, lush campus take root.

The thinning of the trees in the Oak Grove was obvious to Jerry Pickering. In his 35 years on the biology faculty, Pickering conducted field research both on and off campus with his students.

“When trees disappeared or were cut down for one reason or another, many times they were not replanted,” he said. “Or, if trees were planted, they were often the same type—pin oak, white pine, Norway maple. So there was a general decline in diversity.”

Aerial view from 1974 of Sutton Hall and the Oak GroveAerial view of campus in December 2014 (Photo by Ken Ciroli)

Top: Aerial view from 1974 of Sutton Hall and the Oak Grove; Bottom: Aerial view of campus in December 2014 (Photo by Ken Ciroli). Click the photos to view larger versions.

The numbers supported Pickering’s observations. According to studies conducted by students from different decades, the number of trees in the Oak Grove dropped from nearly 150 in 1961 to just above 90 trees in the early 2000s. In the same time period, the number of tree species fell from 32 to 16. 

Pickering contrasted the Oak Grove of the 1990s with that of the 1940s and ’50s. “At that time, the school had a horticulturist, and it had its own greenhouse,” he said. “So any of the plants that were on campus the school grew itself.”

In 1999, Pickering wrote a letter to President Lawrence Pettit detailing how developing an arboretum could benefit the university. It would make the grounds more attractive to students and their parents and draw more people from the community to campus, he said. Later that year, Pettit approved the formation of an arboretum board of directors, and Pickering served as chair.

With some early grant funding, the arboretum board arranged for an arborist to work with the university’s grounds crew to prune trees, install support cables for some, and remove trees that were unstable or diseased. Gardens were planted, and mulch was added around the trees to protect roots from foot traffic. The work was the basis of a tree maintenance program that the IUP Buildings and Grounds area has continued.

The grounds staff has also assisted the arboretum board with the planting of trees. The first was a white oak purchased by Pettit and planted in the Oak Grove. To date, the arboretum board has coordinated the planting of 32 trees in the Oak Grove, 25 of which are still living. Those plantings represented 18 different species, including 12 oak varieties.

According to Pickering, the diversity of tree species is critical to one of the arboretum’s primary goals: education.

“One of the important things for me as a botanist is to be able to go out and show students these different types of trees,” Pickering said.

That type of education extends into the community, he said. For example, a person interested in planting a certain type of tree might head to campus for a better look. “And that might catalyze people to plant trees that are not normally found in our community,” he said.

Diversity also comes into play when disease decimates a tree species, which has happened with the American chestnut, American elm, and now ash trees. In Pickering’s hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, thousands of American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease over a handful of years. “You can’t believe how that changes what a community looks like when you remove the trees,” he said. “So one of the important things about diversity is it acts as a buffer to potential loss of trees because of disease.”

When choosing new trees for the Oak Grove, the arboretum board followed advice from a preservation plan the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation created for the campus in 2009. The plan recommended planting only large, canopy-type trees in open areas, to create a “cathedral-like feel.” “So we’re following that scenario of planting only things that will eventually be a good size—60 feet or more,” Pickering said.

While the Oak Grove may be the most distinctive campus green space, the Allegheny Arboretum encompasses all 374 acres of the Indiana grounds. The board has organized a total of 230 tree plantings across campus. Of those, 185 trees (80 percent) have survived.

One tree of every species is marked with a plaque, and each of those is a stop on a self-guided tour of the arboretum. In addition, each tree the board has planted is labeled with an accession tag identifying the tree and, if the tree was a gift, the name of the donor and honoree.

Since the start of the arboretum, supporters have donated roughly 50 trees and 29 benches—replacing all of the existing benches in the Oak Grove. Pickering stressed that although the arboretum is part of the university, it is funded through private gifts. “And we’re very appreciative of those gifts,” he said. “Without people donating to the arboretum, it would not exist.”

In addition to the plantings it coordinates, the arboretum board makes recommendations on the types of trees to be planted around new buildings on campus. That expertise has expanded into niche gardens and green spaces.

The board worked with the Evergreen Garden Club on the installation of the Heritage Garden in 2011 between Keith Hall and the Northern Suites. The garden’s predecessor, the Touch and Smell Garden, was razed for construction of the suite-style residence hall. More recently, the board proposed a green space called “Fern Hollow” to accompany a proposed building for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Jerry Pickering, in the arboretum office in Robertshaw

Jerry Pickering, in the arboretum office in Robertshaw, has continued as board chair since his retirement from the Biology Department in 2004. (Photo by Keith Boyer)

“This unique green space would concentrate on ferns and other native plants of western Pennsylvania, so it would be educational as well as aesthetically pleasing,” Pickering said. He added that the board is fortunate to have the expertise of biology faculty member Holly Travis, who cowrote The Ferns and Fern Allies of Pennsylvania with retired professor and former board member Thomas Lord.

Another area the board is targeting for improvements is the part of Oakland Avenue that borders the campus to the north. Pickering noted that the corridor provides the only public view by vehicle of the Oak Grove.

The board began by talking to owners of properties along the route, including Pizza House. “We wanted to have bright colors there, identifying the Oakland Avenue corridor, like the painted houses you see in San Francisco and other places,” Pickering said, “so we tried to convince them to put a little color in their homes. We’ve had some success with that.”

The board is considering other changes as well, such as new entrances to the Oak Grove and additional tree plantings, “so when you approach IUP, you’ll know…this is the campus,” Pickering said.

Other projects board members hope to take on include developing the green space south of the Kovalchick Complex and revitalizing the East Lawn, once a hub of campus activity. “A long-term goal is to try to have a donor fund the re-establishment of the old fountain in front of Sutton Hall,” Pickering said. “But things take time…and money.”

The need to guide the future of the arboretum was one of the reasons the board pursued Level 1 accreditation through the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program. Based on self-assessment and documentation, the program awarded the arboretum accreditation last July.

“Accreditation tells us that what we’ve done, we’ve done properly,” Pickering said. “We’ve done the right things to meet the basic requirements of being an arboretum. It also gives us direction. If we want to move to the next level, it tells us the things we need to address.”

To achieve the next level of accreditation, the arboretum would need to beef up its community outreach programs and have a paid, identifiable executive director. Pickering’s role with the arboretum is voluntary—a commitment he made in his early discussions with Pettit.

As part of that role, Pickering took two sabbaticals in the years preceding his 2004 retirement and visited 29 arboreta, mostly on college campuses. His intent was to see how they operated. “I found out that there is no cookie cutter formula for the administration of an arboretum on campus,” he said. “Every place is different, but every place made it work.”

Through his work with the arboretum, Pickering is hoping to create for students and alumni a relationship similar to what he experienced with his undergraduate university, Iowa State. “When I was a student walking around, I would stumble on these little niche gardens, these little green spaces, and it was really nice to find your little pocket of serenity,” he said. “Many times you don’t necessarily remember buildings or some professors, but you remember the space, the campus itself.”

Drawing inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright, Pickering believes that changing the environment—in this case creating or improving green spaces—will change the reactions of the people in that environment. “We all seek serenity,” he said. “We all have our little green space in our backyard. That’s what we’re trying to do here, for students.”

The football field, on the current site of the library and the Performing Arts Center, in 1912Aerial view of Sutton Hall and the Oak Grove in 1938Ride through a woody Oak Grove in 1963Upon the Greek Steps, or Greek Seats, near Wilson Hall, circa 1914

Images of the past, from top: The football field, on the current site of the library and the Performing Arts Center, in 1912; aerial view in 1938; ride through a woody Oak Grove in 1963; upon the Greek Steps, or Greek Seats, near Wilson Hall, circa 1914. (Photos: IUP Archives)

The Art Department’s BA Harrington at the bandsaw mill

Art Gives Felled Trees Second Life

For the past 10 years, campus trees removed because of damage, disease, or construction have found new life in student art projects through the Harvest-to-Use initiative.

The university’s grounds crew starts the process by preparing logs from felled campus trees. Students and faculty members in the Center for Turning and Furniture Design then mill the logs into lumber for use in future projects.

Harvest-to-Use started under woodworking faculty member Chris Weiland ’72 and is being continued by Steve Loar and BA Harrington, co-directors of the center, soon to be renamed the Wood Center at IUP.

Tabacchi project

Much of the students’ stockpile consists of the pin oak once so prevalent on campus. Students in Harrington’s introductory classes use it to make small boxes and learn the basics of joinery. Last fall, her advanced students made bandsaw boxes from an Austrian pine that once stood next to Breezedale. Castoffs from furniture projects can be used for turning plates and spindles, and even smaller scraps, for kindling.

“It’s not recycling; it’s using the trees,” Loar said.

Loar and Harrington are hoping the center’s work can be part of a proposed Sustainability Studies minor. Harrington’s other goals include incorporating commissioned projects into the woodworking curriculum and making sure her introductory classes get to watch the bandsaw mill in operation. The lumbered wood needs a year per inch of thickness to dry.

“They’re not going to use the wood they see cut,” she said, “but at least they understand that whole cycle of tree to log to lumber.”

Learn more about Harvest-to-Use in a 2009 IUP Magazine web feature, “ Green Design.”

Photo at top: The Art Department’s BA Harrington at the bandsaw mill (Photo by Steve Loar). Inset: Heather Tabacchi’s finger joint box, made from campus pin oak (Photo by Heather Tabacchi).

By the Numbers

  • 230—Trees planted onIndiana campus by the Allegheny Arboretum at IUP
  • 185—Surviving trees from original 230
  • 32—Trees planted in the Oak Grove
  • 25—Surviving trees from original 32
  • 18—Tree species represented in original plantings:
    • American beech
    • Black gum
    • Black oak
    • Bur oak
    • Chestnut oak
    • Chinkapin oak
    • Compton oak
    • Cimmaron ash
    • English oak
    • Fernleaf European beech
    • Kentucky coffee tree
    • Red oak
    • Scarlet oak
    • Shingle oak
    • Sugar maple
    • Swamp white oak
    • Tulip tree
    • White oak

Changes in the Oak Grove

Year Total Trees Total Tree Species
1961* 149 32
1994 111 20
2003 93 16
2015§ 100 26

* Student report, Harry Lapham ’55
Robert Crusan, Keystone Arbor Care
Student report, Rebecca Buchanan ’03 and Ryan Zunich ’04
§ Bartlett Nursery tree survey

More from the Spring 2015 Issue of IUP Magazine

Evolution of the Oak Grove

Evolution of the Oak Grove

With the help of botanists, arborists, faculty and staff members, students, and many other supporters, this beloved campus landmark is returning to the beauty of years past.

Front Door: Growing Globally

Front Door: Growing Globally

Nearly 900 strong, the international student population at IUP is enhancing the learning experience for everyone.

Vantage Point

Selected IUP faculty respond to the question:"As it relates to your academic discipline, what specific historical event is the most underestimated in terms of its impact on society?"

Pitching In

Using hammers, paint brushes, bats, and baseballs, a number of IUP student-athletes have helped build villages—and spirit—in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Recruiting from Within

For alumni and students seeking careers, IUP offers help in many forms. Among the most effective is connecting them with other alumni.

Message from the President

President Driscoll discusses how IUP is preparing students to respond to the pivotal issues of today and tomorrow, such as energy independence.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

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