From Special Collections/University Archives: Jens Larson, Bucknell University’s Architect

Bucknell’s campus today bears a certain design, perfectly tucked into the town of Lewisburg. At its inception, the University was relegated to the meeting house of the Baptist Church in Lewisburg, where classes were small enough to fit into its basement, and the town of Lewisburg was little more than a patchwork of farms with a small main street running through it.

The University at Lewisburg’s—Bucknell University’s name prior to 1886—original charter stated that, in order for the State of Pennsylvania to accredit it as an institution of higher education, it needed to purchase land from the surrounding area in order to build the campus. Various farms were purchased along the hill overlooking the town—the area where Roberts and the Gateways now sit—as well as some land along Miller Run, which runs straight through campus just below the green in front of Freas above the K.LA.C. When the first buildings on campus were constructed, this area remained a treeless patch of grasses and crops, barely changing from Lewisburg’s early days.

As the University grew immediately following many students’ return from World War I, the need to plan out a dedicated campus that could absorb future growth became readily apparent. John Harris, the President of Bucknell from 1889 until 1919, was one of the first to recognize this, stating that the school should “not build for a day or a year, but for fifty.” In his mind, if universities want to live on for centuries, then they had better be planning for centuries. President Homer Rainy (1931-35) took these words to heart and on the eve of the school’s centenary, in a letter published in the Bucknell Alumni Monthly in November 1932, he stated that Bucknell was “certainly in a position to look towards the next century with renewed hope and optimism.”

President Rainey’s words—following a disastrous fire in Old Main (the predecessor to Roberts Hall)—were written to call for a general architect that could lay out a vision of the University to ensure a kind of spiritual and academic unity among the buildings, walkways, and open spaces. Under President Rainey’s leadership, the Board of Trustees hired architect Jens Larson to plan out the University’s campus. Previously, Larson worked on the master plan for Dartmouth College’s campus, which was similar to Bucknell in size and patchwork unity. According to President Rainey, Larson took Dartmouth and “developed one of the most beautiful college campuses in America,” and he hoped that Larson would do something similar for Bucknell.

Larson worked fast; within four months he had many recommendations for the improvement of Bucknell and its facilities. The proposal recommended a new academic quadrangle—which has recently been named the Malesardi Quadrangle—razing the damaged wings of Old Main, a new campus to house the engineering and math departments with a quadrangle to separate buildings, several new roads that would extend the existing campus with the new one uphill, and, finally, a conversion of the University Farm, located across Route 15, into a small inn and the golf course. As can be gleaned from this early plan, much of Larson’s proposal came to fruition and our campus today owes much of its appearance to Larson’s early vision.

It took decades for Larson’s vision to unfold, but true to his word President Rainey brought in an architect that could envision a new campus that would guide Bucknell for another century. Today, as many parts of the campus are under construction or new buildings are constructed that did not exist just a few years ago, we see the same need for a dynamic campus that constantly requires revision and planning in order to provide for the needs of students and faculty. President Brian Mitchell, President Bravman’s predecessor, helped put in place a similar plan to that of Larson—a fifty year master plan that hopes to accomplish the same feat that occurred around the time of the centenary

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