Seeing the forest — and the trees: Determined sleuthing by retired MHC prof uncovers lost history of Prospect Hill

  • Prospect Park was on the east side of the Mount Holyoke College campus, and overlooked Lower Lake. COURTESY OF MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE

  • Prospect Park was on the east side of the Mount Holyoke College campus, and overlooked Lower Lake. COURTESY OF MOCOURTESY OF MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE

  • Prospect Park was on the east side of the Mount Holyoke College campus, and overlooked Lower Lake. COURTESY OF MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE

  • A drive in Goodnow Park, named for Edward Augustus Goodnow, who helped Mount Holyoke College purchase parcels of Prospect Hill.

  • The Pepper Box, a 12-sided Queen Anne-style shingled pavilion built in 1882, was a popular destination for Mount Holyoke College students.

  • Prospect Hill at Mount Holyoke College is now a densely wooded site. Though it shows few signs of the former landscape design, carriage and foot paths were restored recently. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Looking across Nonotuck lake to Prospect Hill at Mt Holyoke College. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Herbert says his curiosity was piqued during regular walks he makes to the Prospect Hill area. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Image from the exhibit at Mt Holyoke College called The recovered History Of Prospect Hill. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Image from the exhibit at Mt Holyoke College called The recovered History Of Prospect Hill. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The exhibit, on display through Dec. 18, features digitally remastered materials from the college archives, including maps, photographs and plans of Prospect Hill. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robert Herbert talks about the exhibit up at Mt Holyoke College called The recovered History Of Prospect Hill. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Bulletin
Thursday, December 08, 2016


Even people familiar with the beautiful Mount Holyoke College campus in South Hadley might be surprised to learn that Prospect Hill, the densely wooded hillside on the east side of campus overlooking Lower Lake, was once a model of landscape design and a center of college life. Students made frequent excursions — romantic and otherwise — to the famed “Pepper Pot,” a fanciful shingled pavilion at the summit of Prospect Hill.

The history of the site was forgotten for many decades. It took the curiosity and determination of Robert Herbert, a world-renowned art historian of French Impressionism, to recover the history of Prospect Hill and bring it into the public eye.

Herbert’s research is now the subject of an exhibition at the Mount Holyoke Art Museum. On display until Dec. 18, the show features digitally remastered materials from the college archives, including maps, photographs and plans of Prospect Hill.

Herbert began teaching art history at Yale in 1956. He joined the art history department at Mount Holyoke in 1990 as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor for the Humanities. After retiring from teaching in 1997, Herbert turned his attention from art history to the natural history of the Pioneer Valley.

The leap from French Impressionist painting to the history of Prospect Hill might seem a big reach, but Herbert explained that there were several steps along the way. An indefatigable researcher, Herbert said he became interested in natural history when he came across lithographs and botanical drawings of the Connecticut River Valley made by Orra White Hitchcock, one of America’s earliest women botanical and scientific illustrators and artists. In 2011 he curated an exhibition at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College of Orra Hitchcock’s work.

Herbert then examined the work of Orra’s husband, Edward Hitchcock, a leading 19th-century geologist who taught at Amherst College and served as the college’s third president.

“Orra’s work naturally led me to her husband Edward Hitchcock’s pioneering work on prehistoric dinosaur prints, and from that to biographies of several men of Deerfield and Gill who uncovered quarries of those tracks,” he explained.

Digging for clues

Herbert, who lives in South Hadley with his wife, Eugenia (known as “Fi”), a retired history professor at Mount Holyoke, said his study of Prospect Hill was “a logical successor” to his work on the Hitchcocks.

“I walk up Prospect Hill two or three times a week for exercise and I was curious about some of the oldest trees there. There’s a hornbeam, a gigantic black birch and huge white oaks and larches more than 100 feet tall. I wondered who had planted them, and when.”

Herbert began digging in the college archives for clues. As he discovered, back in the 1870s, Prospect Hill was an open cow pasture belonging to a farmer named Byron Smith. Smith graciously invited the Mount Holyoke community to walk up the hillside to enjoy the lovely views from the summit.

Julia E. Ward, then principal of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (as the college was originally named) was taken with the view. She decided the hill had potential for “landscape gardening,” what we now know as landscape architecture, a field of growing prominence thanks to Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted and others.

Between 1879 and 1882, with the generous financial support of Worcester philanthropist Edward Augustus Goodnow, the college purchased parcels of Prospect Hill. Once the entire property was acquired, the college hired Boston landscape gardener Ernest W. Bowditch to devise a plan for planting it.

Bowditch, who was best known for designing the grounds for The Breakers, a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, created a plan incorporating foot paths and a carriage way. The plan also had a detailed arrangement of trees, including unusual specimens such as the Kentucky Coffee Tree and the Cucumber Tree in addition to many types of beeches, including American, English, purple and black.

Seedlings were started at the college’s botanic garden, which is still located near the base of Prospect Hill, and were transplanted as saplings in the park pursuant to Bowditch’s design.

Crowning glory

The plan was carried out and the property was named Goodnow Park in honor of its benefactor. By the turn of the century, the park resembled its fashionable counterparts in England, with its carefully laid out plantings, open spaces, viewing areas and footpaths. Lower Lake was renamed Lake Nonotuck, and Stony Brook, which runs through the campus, was the site of several picturesque bridges, including the Iron Bridge and the Pumphouse Bridge (also known as the “Kissing Bridge”) that drew photographers from the region.

The crowning glory of Goodnow Park was the “Pepper Box,” a 12-sided Queen Anne-style shingled pavilion built at the summit in 1882. The Pepper Box was a popular destination for students, who enjoyed walking and picnicking there. It was also the site of the college’s annual May Day celebration, a major event in the college calendar. In addition to a traditional Maypole dance, the students put on three one-act plays and marched in a costume parade.

Sadly, the magic didn’t last. Within a few decades, Goodnow Park became overgrown, its vaunted vistas blocked by tall trees. The college stopped mowing it around 1910. The college also stopped maintaining the Pepper Box; vandals and the elements did substantial damage to the whimsical structure.

The last known event there was a circus performed by the seniors for the first-year students on May 8, 1918. The college tore it down two years later. By the early 1920s, Goodnow Park, once a jewel in the beautiful Mount Holyoke landscape, had fallen off the college’s cultural map.

Most of the original trees in Goodnow Park were wiped out by the devastating hurricane of 1938. But there are several old trees remaining that survived the storm.

“As you walk through the woods, you can have the pleasure of seeing these trees and knowing that they are really old trees,” Herbert said. “There’s a huge white oak that’s at least 125 years old and possibly much older. Tim (Farnham, chair of the college’s environmental studies department) and I have hugged that tree.”

According to Herbert, the college planted a lot of trees on Prospect Hill after 1938 to replace those lost in the hurricane. Unfortunately, he said, “there is no photographic proof of this effort.”

Herbert discovered Bowditch’s site plan for Goodnow Park in the Mount Holyoke archives, folded up and forgotten. He also found a 1910 plan for the campus by the Olmsted firm as well as many photographs documenting activities at and around Prospect Hill.

He enlisted the services of James Gehrt of the college’s Digital Assets and Preservation Services to advise him on how best to show the products of his research.

Herbert says the exhibition would never have happened without Gehrt’s contribution. It was Gehrt, according to Herbert, “who devised the idea for exhibiting digital enlargements of the small photographs.” The two men sorted through the archival materials together and Gerht restored and enlarged them for display in the current exhibition.

Gerht said he was delighted to work with Herbert on the project.

“Bob has so much energy and such a sharp memory. And I love the history of photography and to see the different processes that evolved over time,” Gerht said.

He noted that the show includes examples of cartes de visites and stereoscopic views. Cartes de visites, he explained, were also called cabinet cards and were popular in the Victorian period.

“These were photographs of vistas, or portraits, that people would collect and display in their homes,” he said.

Gerht added that stereoscopes were devices that enabled viewers to see a 3-D image by looking through a pair of lenses at a matching pair of photographs. Invented in the early 19th century, they were popular sources of home entertainment by the late 1800s.

Herbert also sought help from Farnham, of the college’s environmental studies department, in physically reclaiming the lost footpaths and carriageway on Prospect Hill.

Last year Farnham and his students began tracing and clearing the original paths and carriageway. With the help of the college’s grounds crew, Farnham has restored the carriage way and footpaths for walking.

As Herbert talked about Prospect Hill, it was clear that he hasn’t lost his art historian’s appreciation for color, texture and light. His eyes sparkled when he described the larches: “They turn golden yellow in late October and when they get to be about 75 years old they develop a wonderful bark that looks like oval shingles hung one above the other.”

He also expressed pleasure in seeing the light reflected from Lower Lake onto Prospect Hill.

“You can see the blue reflections between the trees as you walk up the hillside from the lake. The blue pops up between the tree trunks,” he said, adding, “This will become your favorite blue, as it is mine.”

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.