When James B. Duke endowed Duke University in 1924, he envisioned the creation of a great southern university that would rival the great established schools of the northeast. He wanted Duke to not only provide a top education, but also a great campus setting with beautiful architecture and landscaping, with enough land to accommodate the potential for future expansion. The highly respected landscape architect firm Olmsted Brothers was hired to assist the architect in laying out the quadrangles, roads and pedestrian circulation system, along with the landscaping for both East Campus and West Campus.
Duke today is an 8,000 acre campus, with 6,000 acres of the Duke Forest, with the remaining 2,000 comprised of quads, open lawns, woodlands, hollows, gardens, athletic fields, a golf course, plazas, parking lots and roads. Vast and complex, old and new, functional and beautiful, the Duke campus is a prime example of a traditional American campus landscape and is the element that physically and visually unifies the University as a whole. Much attention has been paid to the landscape in recent years, both with major capital projects and the small, incremental projects that help create the overall fabric of the campus. The three principles that have guided landscape and site design since the 2000 Master Plan are:
- Duke is a University in the Forest
- Duke is a Collection of Memorable Places
- Duke should be a Walkable Campus Supported by an Understandable Circulation System
There have been several significant landscape projects completed in the last few years, including the West Campus Plaza, Engineering Quad, West Campus Pedestrianway, and Science Terrace, that have dramatically added to the quality of the Duke campus, adding to both its beauty and its functionality. However, as with most campus environments, it is the cumulative effect of many small spaces and places that provide the overall fabric or character of a place, and it is no different at Duke. Streetscapes, sidewalks, site furniture, "leftover" plantings, parking lots, service areas and all of the spaces outside established project limit lines are real challenges toward creating a successful and consistent campus landscape. Duke has spent considerable time and resources addressing these issues, and will continue to do so.
Duke's West Campus is often most often associated with the picturesque main quadrangle space, but in fact contains many diverse landscape typologies and spaces, from natural hollows and remnant woodlands, to manicured lawns, athletic fields, gardens and plazas. West Campus does not display the coherence and singular identity of East Campus, as it is a composite of several precincts each with unique characteristics and qualities. However, the importance of Duke as a University in the Forest can be seen very clearly when walking or driving the entire area, since buildings are almost always viewed within the context of woods and trees, with the exception of the Medical Center precinct, and significant remnant woodland areas remain intact, even in the center of campus.
East Campus is Duke's original campus, existing as the campus for Trinity College until a large philanthropic gift from James B. Duke in 1924 led to the changing of its name to Duke University in his honor. The one hundred acre campus became a somewhat isolated campus. A site for campus expansion was chosen about a mile away. At that point East Campus became the Women's College and remained that way until 1972, when Duke became a coed institution. In 1995, East Campus became the freshman campus.
The landscape character of East Campus is very different from that of West Campus', “university in the forest.” Instead, it evokes the image of a university within a park, with its open lawns and impressive stands of mature trees. This difference reflects the contrast that exists between the East Campus Georgian architecture and the Collegiate Gothic style of West Campus, which is one of the unique aspects of the Duke campus. Approximately 100 acres in size, East Campus is an important element in the fabric of the Durham community, surrounded by established residential neighborhoods and is within walking distance to the thriving downtown district.