America’s ten “most beautiful” college campuses

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Our fellow “structurists” over at Infrastructurist recently harnessed the supreme power of the all-seeing eye to subjectively rank the world’s 10 greatest urban parks.  This provocative little inquiry could be replicated and re-oriented in many ways - even at eye level - and inspired me to compile the following ranking of the ten most beautiful college/university campuses (in the United States).

Like urban parks, most college campuses have common elements (e.g., expanses of lawn, processional walkways, core buildings located on or near “quads” or “malls”), but they rarely get confused with each other.  Apart from their different ages, regional influences, and proximity to population centers, there are plenty of factors that throw a wrench into any perceived semblances of regularity.

My top ten list isn’t formulaic either; some campuses are urban, some are not; some are large, some are small.  All are picturesque from at least one vantage point (not including space), and none sap the soul.

As subjective as aesthetics are, I should note that they were not my sole consideration - among other things (e.g., size and geography), I think the way campuses relate to (or are set apart from) their surroundings has an oblique relevance to their perceived “beauty.”  In no particular order (but numbered, nonetheless):

campus-stanford-university-from-googlemaps

1.  Stanford University, CA - From above, Stanford bears a couple indicators of its ground-level beauty, which benefits from a California climate and Texas-sized endowment.  Most buildings are hybrids (or derivatives) of the Richardsonian Romanesque and Mission Revival styles (hence, the red-tiled roofs, plaster, and rough-hewn stones).  Thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted’s consultations, the campus is on a generally flat plot of land and is littered with (un-Olmsted) scenic quads and predictably-dignified axial orientations.  Stanford also benefits from being one of the largest campuses by size, which has allowed it to have the semi-wooded area at the top of the screenshot.

campus-lewis-clark-college-from-googlemaps

2.  Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR - Lewis & Clark is lucky for a couple big reasons: (1) Portland has many expansive (and hilly and lush and full of footpaths) parks and (2) Lewis & Clark is next to one big one, Tryon Creek State Park.  Plus, as the screenshot shows, the campus itself has a high tree quotient, is walkable due to its small size, and has allowed the naturally hilly terrain to shape the campus’ growth.

campus-united-states-naval-academy-from-googlemaps

3.  United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD - Notwithstanding the Chesapeake Bay’s odd hue in the screenshot, the Naval Academy’s waterfront location is a big plus.  Annapolis is arguably America’s sailing capital (I think the city even trademarked that phrase), boasting historic neighborhoods, many marinas and sailing clubs, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water.  As for the school’s campus, it benefits from institutional traditions and a nation’s willingness to memorialize them in the form of stately buildings and well-tended landscaping.

campus-occidental-college-from-googlemaps

4.  Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA - (1) Intimate campus, (2) California climate, (3) urban location, etc.  There are plenty other colleges in/near Los Angeles that benefit from these things; but Occidental didn’t assume these alone are enough to ensure beauty (see Pepperdine, below).  The small campus also has plenty of impossibly picturesque red tile-roofed buildings similar to those found at Stanford.  But really, Occidental’s repeated selection as a film location is the best evidence of its beauty (e.g., Orange County, Pat and Mike, Clueless).  Apparently the campus in the movies that looks too-good-to-be-true really does exist.

campus-university-of-minnesota-from-googlemaps

5. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis - I admit, that the U’s campus has a few low points; the West Bank has that “Martian landscape” vibe, and the only good thing about the “Superblock” dorms is their impersonal nickname.  But on the flip side, campus straddles path-lined cliffs overlooking the Mississippi River, has one of the best campus “malls” you’ll find (designed by Cass Gilbert), a great view of Minneapolis’ nearby skyline, and big clump of picturesque buildings surrounding the original center of campus called “The Knoll.”  Even better, they just finished a new, horse shoe-shaped stadium (with a terrible name), which replaces the unfortunate series of parking lots in the screenshot’s upper-right hand corner, and by 2014, a light-rail line will run right through campus between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

campus-university-of-cincinnati-from-googlemaps

6.  University of Cincinnati, OH - Although its campus isn’t half bad (densely located on hill in historic city, etc.), I actually selected Cincinnati due to its singular focus on cultivating modern architecture (for better or worse) designed by the highest profile architects out there.  As a result, it’s campus has a decidedly different vibe (read: modern, and not slavishly bent on rehashing older buildings) and is interesting in large part because of the many discrete examples of modern architecture - not so much because of their cohesiveness.  Students in the college’s excellent design school can just go on a walk if they want to see representative works by Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, or Charles Gwathmey, among others.

campus-harvard-university-from-googlemaps

7.  Harvard University, Cambridge, MA - Harvard freshmen are among the luckiest college students; they get to live in extremely picturesque/historic buildings in the center of an equally picturesque/historic campus made up of quads, red bricks, painted clapboards, river paths, proximate commercial areas, and the best that 19th-century revivalism had to offer.

campus-university-of-california-santa-cruz-from-googlemaps

8. University of California - Santa Cruz - If this list’s numbers meant anything, UCSC’s campus would be number one, even though its impossibly photogenic campus doesn’t look like much from the air.  Located on the rising edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the campus has the least traditional layout on this list, perhaps in part due to its young (and decidedly progressive) heritage, and certainly due to its hilly placement just above the seaside town of Santa Cruz (nearly 1000 feet of elevation change from the top to the bottom of the screenshot).  Parks and (former) ranch lands ring the campus, which itself consists of the “Great Meadow” (bottom of screenshot), ravines, creeks, paths, redwood groves, and a number of random “curiosities” made by students.

campus-university-of-chicago-from-googlemaps

9.  University of Chicago, IL - If UCSC is the most beautiful on the list, the University of Chicago campus is the most beautiful urban campus, taking up a prime location in Hyde Park’s mix of parks, respectable homes, and green corridors leading to Lake Michigan.  Whereas Chicago has one of the best collections of modern architecture in the world, the University of Chicago has one of the best collections of neo-Gothic buildings in the world, thanks to the deep pockets of its founding benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, who thought “emulating” Oxford University’s look might jump start his own institution’s academic prestige.  Those lofty aspirations led to Henry Ives Cobb’s quad-centric master plan, which emphasized a certain stylistic regularity and has gradually given way to a smattering of later, notable buildings (e.g., SOM’s Brutalist Rugenstein Library, Mies van der Rohe’s Social Service Admin Building, and Eero Saarinen’s Law School Building).

campus-university-of-notre-dame-from-googlemaps

10.  University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN - Notre Dame’s campus reminds me of University of Chicago’s campus.  As the screenshot shows, it also has tons of quads, and a generally homogeneous collection of campus buildings, albeit in a less exciting setting (sorry, South Bend).  But hey, when you have a lore-laden stadium near the center of campus, which itself has an extra long (and lush) mall and Golden Dome to boot, you’re doing pretty well.

The near misses:

Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA - Any university overlooking the Pacific Ocean has a good chance of making the top 10.  Not Pepperdine.  For some ridiculous reason it chose to make itself a temple of 1970s-80s architecture, which has resulted in bunker-like, beveled, concrete rectangles with poorly-lit interiors.  The campus grounds are fine (when the wildfires are held at bay), but those buildings are just plain awful.  One might say unfortunate-looking.

University of Florida, Gainsville - If it weren’t for its Gainsville location, Florida’s pine-laden campus might’ve bumped the U of Minnesota off the list.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville - Has much history (Thomas Jefferson designed the old library and original campus mall), but so does Notre Dame.

University of California - Los Angeles - Situated next to the mansioned-up canyons of Beverly Hills, it is great for runners.  But Occidental College has a better density of campus “jewels” and UCSC has a much better connection to nature (and similarly, reality).

Princeton University, NJ - Loses out to University of Chicago’s urban location.

Which ones did I miss / get totally wrong?

Screenshots copyrights of Google & GoogleMaps

205 Comments

  1. Harry says:

    What about Virginia Tech? It’s a beautiful campus with ‘Hokie’ stone still the main element in the newest of buildings…the Blueridge background is amazing…the drill field is the centerpiece, and structures like Burruss Hall, Torgerson Bridge and War Memorial are pretty impressive…hard to distinguish the old buildings with the new (kept up with the architecture style)…Wanted to get some thoughts on where my alma mater stands?! (Havent been to all the univs u list here!)

  2. Paul says:

    Well Harry, your enthusiasm for Virginia Tech is good, but for a list as competitive as this one, “pretty impressive” doesn’t cut it - perhaps it would perform better in an “itemized” ranking system! Having said that, the campus did elicit a bit of consideration for being very good - if not spectacular. The problem is that it doesn’t even have the best campus in Virginia - thanks to UV.

  3. bradley says:

    Loyola is beautiful. I would choose it over OXY because Eagle Rock is…well, Eagle Rock (though the area is cozier than Westchester) and I love the views from LMU. (I didn’t go to either school so no bias here). IU Bloomington with it’s limestone buildings, art museums and facades, sculpture, layouts and landscapes could easily replace ND. Princeton belongs on that list, but so does Harvard too!! I might’ve taken Wash U StL over UMinn. Was Bard anywhere close?

  4. matthew says:

    umm…bradley, how can IU replace notre dame when IU based there campus off of notre dame???

  5. NoName says:

    @ Harry, they call it “Bleaksburg” for a reason. When it gets cold in the Blue Ridge Mountains, all of that brown grass with the leafless trees and that “Hokie Stone” provides nothing more than a dull, lifeless scene too look at, not very appealing.

  6. Kaicee says:

    Texas Tech!!! OMG its the prettiest i have EVER seen

  7. Alex says:

    Definitely got Princeton wrong. Princeton, especially in the snow like it is snow, is just stunning.

  8. Jordan says:

    I agree Harry! Virginia Tech is a beautiful campus and blacksburg is a great community! and for all who diddes my team….no name! Get a life, you probably have never been there to see it! GO HOKIES

  9. Conner says:

    What about Southern Methodist University? It is probably the most beautiful campuses I’ve set foot on.

  10. Tom says:

    Umm, Indiana University most certainly did not base its campus on Notre Dame’s. IU’s campus is gorgeous.

  11. Jimmy says:

    I agree with the campuses listed except for U Florida. U of Alabama and Ole Miss campuses are the prettiest in the South. Vanderbilt is very nice if you get out and walk the whole campus.

  12. Jim Z. says:

    Take a gander at Cornell University’s campus. Two deep gorges running through campus with pedestrian bridges crossing them, breathtaking views of Cayuga Lake, unparalleled landscaping that brings out the fall colors, etc.

  13. Frincess says:

    WTFFFFF UC SANTA BARBARA IS THE MOST GORGEOUS CAMPUS EVER. WE LIVE ON THE BEACH WTF. STUPID ASS STRUCTURE HUB.COM

  14. Nick says:

    You’ve got to check out The Evergreen State College, near Olympia, WA. 1,200 acres, but only 200 acres are developed. The rest is pristine forest, with streams, ravines, and multiple ecosystems. Campus also includes half a mile of private beach on Eld Inlet, on the southern edge of Puget Sound.

  15. joe says:

    pepperdine’s gotta be #1

  16. Paul says:

    Joe, I and many others beg to differ - at least until those buildings are un-bunkered.

  17. Angel says:

    Why University of Cincinnati? You do not consider the whereabouts? you are not even able to walk around campus, the area might be historic but it has not been maintained by the city. Some of the buildings inside are a total wreck. It’s too eclectic and has not personality. On the other side, you put UCLA at the bottom line? Have you actually walked in these two campuses? UCLA has the most beautiful buildings outside and inside. I also like Standford, but you have not been to the bookstore building, it is ridiculously small. The weather is not as good as Los Angeles, it is California, but the San Francisco area is not southern CA.

    Your classification of most beautiful campuses is a big contradiction. I suggest that you visit the campuses and do an ethnographic study, talk to students and visit the inside of buildings, etc. In my opinion, it is a very shallow classification. Thank you for your efforts though!

  18. brad says:

    Penn State University should be on this list for sure.

  19. David Kreim says:

    You overlooked Ohio University in Athens OH.
    It should definitely be on this list

  20. shanice says:

    did you have to use overhead shots? you can’t actually tell what makes the campus beautiful.

  21. Smelley says:

    Ohio University in Athens, Ohio is breathtakingly beautiful.

  22. Jim Thomas says:

    I’ve seen around 100 campuses and my favorites are Notre Dame, USMA at West Point, University of Kansas, Stanford, Samford University, Lehigh University, Duke, LSU, Pitt, (in no particular order). Being a fan of architecture, the Duke Chapel, the Cadet Chapel, the Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt, ND’s Golden Dome and Basilica, and the Chapel at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. are all awesome.

  23. Sheets says:

    Miami University (Ohio) In Oxford, Ohio

    It is gorgeous. You obviously have not been there if it doesn’t make the list.

  24. Mitch says:

    Indiana University Bloomington needs to be on this list! The gothic buildings and stunning gardens way excel alot of these campuses! Look at the Indiana Memorial Union!!!! Stunning.

  25. gerry tomas says:

    Obviously this author didn’t do a ton of homework.
    Try connecticut college author. You ll be pleasantly surprised.
    Connecticut College construction contractor receives top industry honors for campus renovations

    February 15, 2008

    NEW LONDON, Conn. - The Connecticut College campus, regarded by many as the most beautiful campus in the country, was the focus of attention recently when its construction contractor won the state’s top award for renovation work here.

    Konover Construction Corporation was awarded “Best in Show” by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut for completing $9 million in summer renovations at Connecticut College. The award was presented at the association’s 6th Annual Excellence in Construction award ceremony Jan. 24.

    “Konover’s comprehensive work has re-invigorated the beauty of our scenic hilltop campus,” said Ulysses B. Hammond, vice president for Administration at the college. “Their attention to detail and, most importantly, their respect for the deadlines associated with the college’s 10-week summer break made working with Konover a pleasure.”

  26. Trinity Bantam says:

    What about Trinity College (Hartford, CT). Gorgeous campus and the historic long walk has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in America (it was designed by famed English architect William Burgess), not to mention the stunning chapel that is attached to the long walk from which the downtown Hartford skyline is visible.

  27. Genevieve says:

    You completely missed the gorgeous schools of Philadelphia: Harry-Potter ringer Bryn Mawr College, quitely beautiful, Quaker-designer Haverford College, stately Swarthmore College, lovely Villanova University and the ever-Gothic University of Pennsylvania!

  28. Alemora says:

    “That’s a good way of describing the best part of Oxy, Johanna - and you are the first to give a shout out to Villanova; I actually didn’t give it much thought - the closest I came to really considering it was thinking about Vanderbilt…”

    What does Vanderbilt have to do with Villanova other than they both start with the same letter? They are fundamentally different institutions- and both beautiful campus in their own right. I have to agree above regarding Salve Regina- it’s simply stunning- as well as the absent women’s colleges: Wellesley and Bryn Mawr (both mentioned by commentors), Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hollins and Sweet Briar.

  29. cc says:

    peperdine is the nicest campus

  30. Jeanne says:

    don’t you think Wesleyan University (Connecticut) has an adorable campus? Uncommon and beautiful while still not too big

  31. sundevil says:

    how can you miss out ASU tempe, Arizona. river flowing along the campus and beautiful palm trees with newly constructed campus and a population of beautiful 40 thousand students mostly girls

  32. Sam says:

    What about indiana University, consistanly ranked in top 5 most beautiful campuses in the United States. Your rankings mean nothing

  33. peter maiz says:

    You err tremendously. May I recommend you really go to Princeton, the very most beautiful in the country! All objective critiques know this. Remember the saying “Harvard has the students, Yale has the faculty, Princeton has the campus”.

  34. Paul says:

    In addition to its campus, you may now add ¨more eloquent than the usual commentators¨ to the things going for Princeton. In my defence, I (think) I at least mentioned Princeton in the post, albeit as one of the campuses that lost out to its Ivy adversaries. Trust me. I am fatigued as much by Yale and Harvard getting all the accolades they get as much as I suspect you are! But they do have nice campuses…

  35. Albert says:

    Hi,guys,how about University of Washington Seattle.I suppose it is also impressive in terms of its building structures and environment,and even a squirrel came to you when you were reading a book.staring at your book as if them were students as well.

  36. BuckyBadger says:

    WISCONSIN!!!!

  37. Joan says:

    Having graduated from both Occidental and University of Redlands, I must say that I always felt the U of R set the higher standard — set with a beautiful view of the San Bernardino mountains, a fine “conversation” between the hillside buildings and the chapel opposite them on the quad, and the connection of both by the dorms. The integration of the campus into the town is also to be respected.

  38. Gary Randorf BS 59,MS 71 says:

    Cornell University campus is as pretty as they get–two gorgeous gorges lend wildness to the sublime.The impact of nature study pioneered by Liberty Hyde Bailey,opened eyes to see the beauty and health of a mix of the wild and the manicured–most recently expressed in the bold, un-mowed portion of Cornell’s Libe Slope.Mowed turf is beautiful, but does become over-done and boring.Experience the wildflowers along some interstate highways and your eyes will pop.Thoreau jogged our minds with his, IN WILDNESS IS THE PRESERVATION OF THE WORLD. Wildflowers blooming in uncut meadows is a sight for sore eyes. See the re-invasion of the wild with the manicured at Cornell and you will smile broadly and murmur, “uh huh”.

  39. Kelly says:

    I agree with the statement that Indiana University should replace Notre Dame…I mean have you ever actually been to South Bend? It’s not a nice city. In fact, other than maybe the city of Gary, I’d consider it the armpit of Indiana. Bloomington is absolutely gorgeous. I can’t count the number of gorgeous pictures I’ve taken on that campus. The hills, the woods, the fields, the limestone, the gardens, just south of the campus are really cute little houses. There have been times where I’ve walked the campus, especially the southern part, where I’ve felt like I was in a dream. Oh and IU basing its campus off of ND? Ummm…no absolutely not. IU was founded in 1820…ND was founded in 1842. So get your facts straight. And, for the record, I’ve lived in central Indiana my entire life, have family I visit frequently in South Bend, and am currently a student at IU.

  40. bob novok says:

    Two gorges on either side, both with natural waterfalls; high on a hill overlooking one of New York’s Finger Lakes; and a mix of architecture that ranges from Gothic to modern. That would be Cornell — what, exactly, does it lack such that it did not make your list?

  41. Saul says:

    Endicott College, Beverly, MA

  42. Richard says:

    Wellesley has in my opinion the most beautiful campus in the country. Its
    glades, woods, lawns, ponds, winding roads, Lake Waban and magnificent gothic
    structures are incomparable.

  43. haris says:

    where is giki……….
    it has one of the most beautiful campus………..

  44. Ed says:

    Harvard has a nice location, Boston, however it does not deserve to be on this list. Boston College, same hometown, has a MUCH nicer campus.

    Also, Notre Dame should be a little higher. It is beautiful, but it also has an amazing vibe.

  45. Alan says:

    Hey Matthew, learn to spell. It’s “their” not “there.” And for your information, Indiana University’s campus is 22 years older than Notre Dame’s, so it is impossible for IU to have modeled it’s campus after ND. Have you ever been to either campus? ND is nice, but IU is something to see and should be in the top 3.

  46. Mike Burdick says:

    Having attended Indiana University in Bloomington, I cannot IMAGINE that any other college/university in the entire country can be any more BEAUTIFUL. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You have to love NATURE to love IU, Bloomington. It has mini-forests in the middle of the campus, bubbling brooks, even a waterfall next to the student Union building. And, it has some of the largest and most strikingly beautiful buildings I have ever seen!

  47. Richie says:

    Frincess. Just because your campus is on a beach doesn’t it make it gorgeous. Beaches are overrated. It’s just water.

  48. Eric says:

    ANGEL and any other “haters” who think the University of Cincinnati should not be on this list is terribly mistaken. Simply look at the website posted, http://www.magazine.uc.edu/exclusives/forbes.htm Forbes magazine has ranked UC as one of the most beautiful campuses in the WORLD, let alone the U.S. Only 10 campuses in the U.S. were recognized and the other 4 were international. I dare you to go to UC’s campus and tell me you wouldn’t go to school there…

  49. Daniel says:

    University of Alabama has a great climate, a lot of green space, and part of what makes it great is that there are always kids out and about walking the campus.

  50. Matt says:

    Rollins College must be on any list of the most beautiful college campuses. A lakefront school with wonderful Spanish style architecture, great weather, and handsome co-eds. At least investigate… you wont be disappointed.

    http://www.rollins.edu

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