Early History 1875-1920


Smith College students studying botany looked out from College Hall over the town of Northampton, but their back yard, the former Lyman and Dewey homesteads, was a mix of gardens, orchard, hayfields, and pastures, where one might catch a glimpse of Paradise Pond or President Seelye's milk cow.

Smith College Observatory with President Seelye's cow in the foreground, 1901
Smith College Observatory with President Seelye's cow in the foreground, 1901


Lilly Hall of Science, the first science building at a women's college, becomes the home for plant sciences and the college herbarium.


Botany is established as a separate and independent department, and at first botany was a required course for all first-year students.

As the campus expands with additional property through the 1880s, Smith College hires the Brookline firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot to develop a comprehensive landscape scheme. Frederick Law Olmsted, senior member of the firm, is best remembered for designing Central Park in New York City and the Boston park system. 


Smith College Trustees, following President Seelye's recommendation, approve a plan to combine the beautifying of the college grounds with the development of a scientifically organized botanic garden, which would serve as an adjunct to the botany department.


Planting begins to make the  campus a laboratory and classroom for the study of woody plants.


1893 Olmsted campus plant
Olmsted Plan for the Smith College Campus, 1893


The first greenhouse is constructed and herbaceous beds are laid out.

Lyman Plant House


The Botanic Garden takes shape under William Francis Ganong, appointed in May 1894 as professor of botany and director of the Botanic Garden (positions he held until his retirement in 1932), and Edward J. Canning, who was hired in summer 1894 as head gardener. Ganong envisions an integrated botanic garden with a greenhouse, adjacent herbaceous systematics garden, and the entire campus as an arboretum.

William Francis Ganong and students, 1910
William Francis Ganong and students, 1910


The greenhouses are expanded with a gift from Edward H. R Lyman. The glass houses are built by Lord & Burnham.

Lyman Plant House


The first Rock Garden in North America is established, modeled on the Rock Garden at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew in London.

Rock Garden

Ganong and Canning rework the herbaceous beds as a systematics garden after the Engler-Prantl classification system.

Herbaceous garden Plan 1897

Herbaceous Garden 1899
Herbaceous Garden and Lyman Plant House in 1899.
Photograph taken by Katherine E. McClellan, 1899.


Olmsted's plantings are revised to make the entire campus an arboretum.

Campus trees 1905
Campus trees, 1905



The first horticulture course is taught.


The first landscape gardening course is offered.

Herbacous garden with ginkgo and Neilson Library in the background 1911
Herbacous Garden with ginkgo and Neilson Library in the background, 1911.



With increasing enrollments in the sciences, Burton Hall is constructed for the botany and zoology departments.


Kate Ries Koch is appointed the first professor in landscape architecture.

Continue to History 1920-1960




The idea of these plans is to lay out the ground so that they shall be not only most serviceable for our ordinary use, but shall also provide an ornamental botanical garden, the plants and trees being selected and grouped according to scientific as well as aesthetic demands.


Laurenus Clark Seelye, referring to the Olmsted plans in his report to the College, 1891-92
See Also: 

Department of Botany Records, 1892-1966
Olmsted Plan
Historic Publications

All archival photographs are courtesy of the Smith College Archives