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It was the majestic oak trees near the shore of Lake Michigan that caught Orrington Lunt’s eye on his first visit to the land that today is Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.
“The thought first struck me that here was where the high and dry ground began,” Lunt, one of the University’s founders, later wrote. “It continued in my dreams of that night, and I could not rid myself of the fairy visions constantly presenting themselves in fanciful beauties — of the gentle waving lake — its pebbly shore — the beautiful oak openings and bluffs beyond.”
Bedazzled by the oak savanna along the Lake Michigan shore 12 miles north of Chicago, Lunt helped convince the other founders that this was the place to set down roots for a new university in the Northwest Territory. In 1853 they purchased 379 acres of land for $25,000.
Many stately bur and swamp white oaks, some well over 200 years old, still stand in splendor on the Evanston campus. You’ll find these hardy natives by the John Evans Alumni Center, the Weber Arch and in the wooded groves between University Hall and Deering Meadow and north of Deering Library. They are home to squirrels, cardinals, Cooper’s hawks and crows that often roost in them in late afternoon.
The Oak Savanna
Someone once poetically described the crescent-shaped oak savanna on campus as “the eyebrow of beauty,” but no one knows for sure who said it.
An oak savanna is a type of savanna, or lightly forested grassland, where oaks are the dominant trees. These savannas were maintained historically through wildfires set by lightning or humans, grazing, low precipitation and/or poor soil.
Oaks were often used as trail-marking trees by Native Americans. There used to be several such oaks on campus. The iconic “Old Oak” was thought to have been a trail marker tree.
The Old Oak
Before there was the Rock, students gathered at the “Old Oak,” a giant white oak that grew near University Hall until 1904. The tree was estimated to be at least 500 years old at the turn of the 20th century. Students used the oak as a place for speech, song, trysts — and class photos.
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Northwestern University landscape architect Ann Ziegelmaier is nuts about trees. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh she just does the flowers.’ But the trees mean everything to me,” says Ziegelmaier, who has planned, nurtured and beautified the Evanston campus since 1984.
Although the Evanston campus has lost a lot of oaks since the University’s founding, Ziegelmaier and the groundskeeping crews have planted about 375 oak trees — 70 percent of the 517 oaks on campus!
“We’ve been planting oaks like crazy,” says Ziegelmaier, “a lot of swamp white oaks and bur oaks, especially by Annie May Swift and on the way to Deering Meadow.”
The Northwestern community will enjoy the majestic tree landscape for generations to come, along with a very special hardscape landmark that Ziegelmaier created in 1993 — the Weber Arch, which welcomes all who enter the University grounds.
The Oldest Oak?
Ziegelmaier’s favorite oak tree is a bur oak just east of 1835 Hinman, a student residence, and across Sheridan Road from Fisk Hall. This is one of the most beautiful oak trees on campus — and one of the oldest, perhaps 250 years. Because of the way its branches grow horizontally, Ziegelmaier believes that it is one of the last remaining trees of the original oak savanna at the south end of campus.
Stephanie Russell is executive editor of Northwestern Magazine.