Three Classes Study Morven Farm's Landscape, Architecture and History

May 13, 2010 — Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson was considering a farm just outside Charlottesville as a site for a new and different type of university, where education would be separated from religious doctrine. The site – then owned by James Monroe – ultimately became the Grounds of the University of Virginia.

This spring, 37 U.Va. students in three seminar classes have been doing something similar at Morven Farm: envisioning and helping define how it can be used as a new type of educational environment where the University's goals of community outreach, scholarship and education can be melded with the land's unique agricultural, environmental and historical resources.

On Tuesday evening at Morven, the classes reflected on lessons learned and presented their research findings, summarized on 20 large posters.

One of the seminar's teachers, biology and environmental sciences professor Manuel Lerdau, said the classes were the "most amazing" that he had been involved with during his 16 years of teaching. "How often does a university in the 21st century get to decide how to use a large piece of undeveloped land? ...What an amazing challenge and opportunity!"

Morven Farm was given to U.Va. in 2001 by businessman and philanthropist John W. Kluge, to be used for educational and charitable purposes, while maintaining the character of a traditional Albemarle County estate.

Fulfilling that vision is an ongoing process, one in which this spring's classes played a part, said Jeffrey Plank, associate vice president for research and graduate studies. At November's announcement of this spring's seminar classes, he said, "Through these spring courses and subsequent research and allied courses, we think Morven can become a new model for a 'research park' at U.Va."

On Tuesday, he returned to that idea, explaining that Morven's unique qualities make it "both a site for research, but also a research site."

The three spring classes – in landscape architecture, history and environmental sciences –studied Morven's built and natural landscape and history.

In addition to regular class sessions, the three classes met jointly every Monday at the School of Architecture, where they heard from guest lecturers including law professor Jon Cannon, McIntire School of Commerce professor George Overstreet and Buck Kline and Brad Williams from the Virginia Department of Forestry.

History professor Scot French, director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, led a class on "Morven Farm: The Rural Virginia Landscape as Social and Cultural History Site." His students presented their research on the plantation community at Morven (under owner David Higginbotham, from 1813 to 1853), and the shifts in "land, labor and community" from 1800 to the present.

Lerdau and Hank Shugart, a professor of environmental sciences and expert on forest succession, led a class on "Accelerating Landscape Succession in Virginian Piedmont Forests." Student teams in the class studied carbon sequestration in the forests of Morven, and surveyed two stands of forest, including a 59-acre stand of 150-year-old hardwoods along Massey Creek, finding the dominant species were red maple and tulip poplar.

The third class, a joint architecture and landscape architecture graduate design studio, was led by architecture professor Bill Sherman. The students presented 12 visions of how Morven land and buildings can be adapted for educational purposes. The ideas included a research retreat area nestled in a forest clearing; pedestrian and bicycle paths connecting Morven to Grounds via extensions to the existing Charlottesville-area path network; and a conversion of Morven's vineyard house into a combination of classroom and residential space, modeled on the Lawn pavilions of U.Va.'s Academical Village.

Tuesday's presentation of research from the seminars echoed a little-known Jeffersonian tradition, Sherman said. In the early years of U.Va. there was no graduation ceremony. Instead, students ended their term of study with a "public day" when they presented their research findings at a public event to which the local community was invited.

Similarly, the research presentation at Morven fulfills the social responsibility of students and educators to warrant, communicate and share their research, Plank said.

The students' work, through data, narratives and drawings, and through the interaction across disciplines, demonstrated how "we can better understand the past, present and potential future values of rural landscape," Plank added.

This spring's classes follow a number of other educational initiatives at Morven, including an archaeological survey of 288 acres of the farm, done in part by a U.Va. field school class last summer. Morven has also hosted numerous academic retreats, meetings and class events, including a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at the farm's Japanese garden and tea pavilion. One Morven barn has been converted into an art studio and seminar room.

Like the earlier efforts, this spring's classes at Morven set a number of worthy precedents, Plank said, including the public presentation of research and how the teaching and learning featured collaboration and integration across disciplines. Those precedents "will guide what we do at Morven in coming years."

— By Brevy Cannon