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"If you ask freshmen why they chose their colleges, they usually say one of two things,” says Baltimore architect Adam Gross, who’s worked on projects at the University of Virginia and Swarthmore. “Either they got a good financial aid package or they thought the campus was beautiful."
America’s most beautiful college campuses have the power not only to sway indecisive high school students, of course, but also to attract tourists. Their appeal comes through varying combinations of awe-inspiring architecture, landscaping, and surroundings. To choose among more than 2,600 four-year American colleges, we considered these three key factors as well as architects’ expert opinions.
"The most important thing to realize is that how landscaping and buildings interconnect is as important as the buildings themselves," explains Boston-based architect Mark deShong. At Princeton University, for example, “It’s really about landscape,” he says. The campus connects its ivy-covered gray stone buildings with footpaths, idyllic small greens, and courtyards that create an intimate village-like scale.
Architectural coherence also plays a role in making a campus beautiful. Take the University of San Diego, which sticks to one architectural style: the Spanish Renaissance, with its elaborate façades, delicate ironwork, and carved wood. Ocean views and palm-tree-lined courtyards are extra selling points.
So plan your own trip to check out these campus masterpieces.
Bard College: Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Frank Gehry’s Fisher Center—an undulating work of glass and brushed stainless steel—showcases Bard’s thriving arts scene throughout the year (current college president Leon Botstein himself is an accomplished conductor). The center is on the contemporary side of the rural campus’s architectural spectrum, which goes back to the 19th-century Blithewood Mansion and its manicured Italian garden. Pathways make for easy exploring, with the Catskill Mountains visible in the distance. —Kate Appleton
Stanford University: Palo Alto, CA
The entryway to Stanford’s 8,180-acre campus is arguably the grandest of any college campus: a mile-long, tree-lined Palm Drive, which leads up to the expansive green Oval, red-clay-roof-tiled Main Quad, and the campus’s crown architectural jewel, Memorial Church, with its striking mosaic façade.
Photo-op: The view of campus—and all the way to San Francisco on a clear day—from the Hoover Tower observation platform.
To-Do List: The Cantor Arts Center’s collection of 170 bronzes by Auguste Rodin, among the largest outside Paris, includes the Gates of Hell and Burghers of Calais. —Ratha Tep
University of Notre Dame: South Bend, IN
It’s hard to miss the glistening golden dome of the university’s Main Building, not to mention the neo-Gothic Basilica of the Sacred Heart that defines this 150-year-old Catholic school. Besides gorgeous architecture, the campus is chock-full of lush quads, where students congregate to kick back when they’re not in class — or at the football stadium. —Joshua Pramis
Florida Southern University: Lakeland, FL
What do Ellis Island and Florida Southern University have in common? They’re among the 32 U.S. spots that have recently been put under watch by the World Monument Fund as endangered cultural sites. You might also be surprised to learn that Florida Southern—on a hillside overlooking Lake Hollingsworth—has the world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel with its colored pieces of glass and wrought-iron tower. —Ratha Tep
University of Cincinnati: Cincinnati, OH
A decades-long renewal topping $1 billion is paying dividends for Cincy, which has cultivated a strikingly modern look—and proven that “it doesn’t need ivy-covered brick walls” to be beautiful, as UC Magazine put it. Notable architects Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, Frank Gehry, and Peter Eisenman have each made their mark on the campus, whose Main Street leads to the prow-shaped Steger Student Life Center and the Tangeman University Center, which, in 2005, dramatically repositioned the original clock tower atop a skylight in a 90-foot atrium. —Kate Appleton
University of San Diego: San Diego, CA
Some campuses are an amalgam of styles; the University of San Diego sticks to just one, and what a glorious one it has chosen—the Spanish Renaissance, with its elaborate façades, delicate ironwork, and carved woodwork. Ocean views and palm-tree-lined courtyards only add to the paradise-on-campus appeal.
Photo-op: The Immaculata Chapel, with its piercingly blue dome, visible from much of the city.
To-Do List: A walk around the Garden of the Sea, behind the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, and its serene reflecting pool and gardens overlooking Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean. —Ratha Tep
Berry College: Mount Berry, GA
This rural college holds a lofty record: it’s the world’s largest contiguous college campus in the world, with more than 26,000 acres of fields, lakes, forests, and mountains. Berry makes prime use of its setting too, with numerous reflecting pools and fountains situated nearby its beautiful English Gothic–inspired buildings like the Ford Dining Hall, Ford Auditorium, and Mary Hall, made possible by the school’s largest benefactor—Henry Ford. —Ratha Tep
Lewis & Clark College: Portland, OR
Six miles from downtown lies this 137-acre parklike campus of verdant forests, sweeping pathways, and stone walls. A tree walk with native species encountered by the two explorers for whom the college was named on their epic journey west surrounds the Frank Manor House—originally built as a 35-room private mansion.
Photo-op: The serene Reflecting Pool, bordered by a wall of wisteria, for a stellar view of Mount Hood.
To-Do List: A day hike through surrounding Tryon Creek State Park. Begin with coffee brewed with beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters at the Lewis & Clark bookstore. —Ratha Tep
Rice University: Houston, TX
Don’t be fooled by Rice’s urban address. A double row of majestic oak trees encloses its perimeter—a harbinger of the lush 285-acre campus to come, divided into quadrangles and planted with 4,000-plus elms, hickories, maples, and other trees (a ratio of more than one for each undergrad). The oldest buildings, like the standout Lovett Hall, borrow elements of medieval southern European architecture, including grand, arched passageways and rose-hued brick. —Ratha Tep
Cornell University: Ithaca, NY
Ambitious campus planners wanted to create a main quad over dramatic Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes. “It’s the idea of putting education on a high platform,” says architect Mark deShong. That original plan evolved, and the beautiful setting now accommodates both historic structures (McGraw Tower) and contemporary ones like the I. M. Pei–designed Johnson Museum of Art—whose walls screen movies on summer evenings—and the new Milstein Hall by Rem Koolhaas.
Photo-op: Cascadilla Gorge, whose eight waterfalls drop more than 400 feet from Cornell’s campus to downtown Ithaca.
To-Do List: The paved paths that wind through Cornell Plantation’s 150-acre arboretum; climb to the Newman Overlook for a sweeping panoramic view. —Ratha Tep