In 1986, alumnus Dr. John C. Weber established a memorial fund at Colgate to honor each member of his Class of 1961. This fund, established in the year of his 25th reunion, was donated for a project now known as the Weber Arboretum. According to the stipulations of the gift, Colgate was to plant a single flowering tree as each member of the Class of 1961 passed away – a total of about 300 trees.
“The Weber Arboretum established two clear parameters,” Associate Professor of Art & Art History and Director of the Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts DeWitt Godfrey said. “[They are] that a flowering tree be planted following the death of each member of the Class of 1961 and that these trees are to be planted along Payne Creek and around Taylor Lake.”
Approximately 50 trees have been planted so far with about 250 living members of the class remaining.
Godfrey became involved with this initiative when Dr. Weber’s gift, idyllic in concept, proved to be more complicated to execute than anyone had anticipated.
“The issue is that there is limiting space to continue planting the trees,” Associate Vice President for Facilities Paul Fick said. “With the episodes of flooding that we have periodically, the banks of Payne creek tend to erode, and over a period of years take some of the trees with them. So this just wasn’t a sustainable solution.” In addition to the erosion problems, facilities officials also began to realize how drastically this number of trees would change the aesthetic of Colgate’s lower campus.
“Mike Jasper, our Associate Director of Facilities and Manager of Lands and Grounds, recognized the situation,” Fick said. “As you look down the stream, you can see that we were going to run out of space. Its priority rose higher and higher until we said we’ve just got to do something about it.”
Vice President for Finance and Administration David Hale reiterated this sentiment. Though he was aware of the issues with the Arboretum plans from the time of his appointment in 2007, it became a priority in 2009. They began by attempting to deal with it by commissioning a local landscape architect to find another place to plant the trees, but this solution proved unsatisfactory. At that point, the Campus Planning and Physical Resource Committee (CPPRC) was approached – and by a stroke of good fortune, this all happened while Godfrey was acting chair of the committee.
“I learned about the Weber Arboretum during my tenure on the CPPRC,” Godfrey said. “I proposed a competition that would explore the opportunity presented by the Arboretum, to seek creative solutions for its execution. The competition was organized to coincide with the 50th reunion of the Class of 1961.”
“In my own artistic practice and teaching, I am interested in an ‘engaged’ arts, creative practice in public spaces – physical, social and pedagogical,” Godfrey said. “I have produced public projects that interweave art in the fabric of our campus and community, the ‘Shapes for Hamilton’ project in 2010 and ‘Bus Obscura’ in 2006; I regularly require my students to site work around the public spaces of the campus. The Weber Arboretum offered an opportunity to extend this vision, to integrate art and design in an overall plan for the campus.”
For Godfrey, it was imperative that the proposals do more than just fulfill the terms of Colgate’s binding agreement with Dr. Weber. He saw the gift as an opportunity to enhance campus aesthetic while potentially providing a valuable educational tool.
“The image of the campus is one of Colgate’s greatest assets and there is a sense that this intervention needs to be rethought,” Godfrey said. “We also asked our finalists, while honoring the terms of Dr. Weber’s gift to create a memorial garden, to consider ways the Arboretum might have other functions — pedagogically, environmentally and aesthetically. As the members of the Class of 1961 age, it is imperative that we make decisive plans for the future of the Arboretum.”
“This is a perpetual commitment by the university, so it will be a perpetual feature of the campus. We want to make sure we get this right,” Hale said. “It’s actually really been terrific that Professor Godfrey identified a pathway for a solution that is appropriate and great for the campus, as opposed to us just trying to make a decision and then change the features of the campus in a long-term way without a real consideration of options and ideas.”
Proposals from Professor Godfrey’s competition were initially displayed in the Clifford gallery this past June, during the Class of 1961 reunion. Now, the finalists’ proposals can be found on the fifth floor of the Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology. These will remain on display until March 9, with the hope of generating community feedback on the designs.
“We all agreed that we mount the exhibition in the Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology to share these ideas with the Colgate community and to solicit comments and feedback as a critical step in this process,” Godfrey said. “Following this period of public dissemination and comment, a committee will be convened to consider next steps, most likely choosing one or two of the finalists to prepare more detailed presentations.”
When asked about the university’s approach to solving the Arboretum problem, Mr. Hale laughed. “I wouldn’t call it a problem, I’d call it a challenge,” Hale said.
Contact Rebekah Ward at [email protected]