Albion Interactive History / Campus Landscaping

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / Buildings / Starr Commonwealth

Campus Landscaping, 1915

Even before the erection of Newton Hall in 1915, Starr had other ideas. Indeed, as his daughter remarked in conversation, “From thebeginning, Daddy set about to make Starr Commonwealth a beautiful place which functions effectively.” In 1913, as he walked the hills with his father, he had caught his firstvision of the campus to be. Now, as he dreamed of more cottages to come, school buildings, and a gymnasium, he realized his own ignorance in transforming the raw countryside around Gladsome into a coherent campus withboth charm and utility. A visit to the Lake Villa Home for Boys in Illinois gave him the first nudge to act, another trip to the Allendale Farm for Boys west of Grand Rapids gave him further encouragement.

Soon after returning to the Commonwealth, Starr secured a list of area landscape architects. Somehow, the name T. Glenn Phillips caught his eye, and he wrote him an extensive letter of inquiry. After a few days of investigation Phillips replied, “I am very much impressed with what you are planning to do. I usually do one missionary job a year. If the Starr Commonwealth wishes my services, I will be glad to make it the recipient of my missionary services this year.” He made one stipulation – that the school provide him with a topographical survey of the campus.

Although the survey cost Starr some $400, it proved to be one of the wisest investments. Over the years before his untimely death, Phillips spent many hours with Starr poring over the architect’s map, bounding blank spaces where unnamed cottages were to be built, andlaying out a complex of walks and drives. Early in their partnership the two men discovered a common love for trees, and soon they planted the campus and surrounding fields with “thousands of trees of every variety imaginable.” For Uncle Floyd, this was an enduring labor of love; long after theretirement he called for a red maple here, a mountain ash there, and he supervised their planting as well. For some of the old boys, it was just plain labor. When asked in later years what they did at the Commonwealth, they replied, “We planted trees. Boy, did we plant trees!”

From the beginning Starr was confident that attractive surroundings might well lead a boy toward beauty in his own home long after he left the campus.

Much the same confidence in a boy’s instinctive love of beauty led Starr to dressthe grounds in all the finery he could afford. In the early years this was not much. Ten years of neglect had left the crumbling foundation of a fire-torn farmhouse, aweather-beaten barn, a gnarled orchard, and little else. All too soon, after buying the farm, erecting Gladsome, and building Newton Hall, little remained to invest in esthetics.

Fortunately for the founder, the lakeside setting of the campus and the rolling hills beyondpossessed a natural beauty which still remains. Whether it be the fresh green of springtime or the rich hues of autumn, the mutemessage of beauty is inescapable. Beauty needs neither words nor notes to find expression. Nobel Schuler, the former art director at the Commonwealth said much the same thing. “We believe that beauty is an esthetic environment silently enriching those within it; it is atransfer which is done subtly and without fuss.”

From its early years, as the school gained in strength and security, the campus hasgained in beauty. Uncle Floyd and the boys not only planted thousands of trees but seeded acres of lawn and scattered flowergardens throughout the grounds. Starr knew but too well that in large part he would be working withyoungsters whose lives had known little beauty; hence, as part of his mission, he resolved to help his boys to forget the ugliness of their past through exposing them to the beauty of the present.

Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.

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