Lecture Series Celebrates Artistry of Mills College Landscape

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Friday March 23, 2007

From Golden Gate Park and the Presidio of San Francisco to the UC Berkeley and Stanford University campuses to Lake Merritt, spectacular and expansive designed landscapes abound in the Bay Area.  

One often overlooked landscape jewel lies in southeast Oakland; the bucolic, wooded, campus of the private Mills College. 

What would Mills be without its landscape—the main avenue with its double alley of plane trees, another drive lined with towering, more-than-century old, blue-gum eucalyptus, lawns and copses, gardens and hillsides, streams and ponds?  

Clear these away, and it might be just another anywhere campus.  

It’s also a place where nature imbued the educational and social culture, from annual picnics on the grounds to the traditional “senior lantern procession,” to the presidential cottage nestled at the edge of a meadow. 

Funded with a grant from the Getty Foundation, Mills has undertaken a comprehensive study of its landscape history to produce a landscape heritage plan for the campus.  

The plan schedule includes a series of four free public lectures about the development of the Mills grounds and their context in the East Bay and beyond. 

The third and penultimate lecture in the series will be given Wednesday, March 28 at Mills by landscape and cultural historian Vonn Marie May who also worked on the UC Berkeley Landscape Heritage Plan. The fourth lecture is scheduled for April 19. 

May, based in San Diego, is the prime consultant to the Mills College Landscape Heritage Plan process.  

Her talk will present the research team’s findings and tie together the historical threads of landscape and architectural design, planning, and botanical enterprise that produced the campus of today. 

In a Feb. 28 lead-up to May’s talk, local author and historian Phoebe Cutler described the origins of the Mills landscape and the originators. 

Three early 20th century figures animated Cutler’s story. All are overlooked today in East Bay and California history. 

Aurelia Reinhardt came first to Mills, in 1917.  

“A minuscule amount would have happened here without her motivation,” said Cutler of the remarkable UC Berkeley alumnus who took on the Mills presidency as a career when the untimely death of her husband, the university physician at UC Berkeley, left her a young widow with a family to support. 

Reinhardt also served as a board member of the East Bay Regional Parks District. She required each student at Mills to walk at least a mile a day within the campus grounds. 

During her presidency she closely collaborated with Howard Gilkey and Howard McMinn, both of them Cal alumni from 1916.  

McMinn studied under the legendary UC botanist, Willis Jepson, while Gilkey worked with Luther Burbank in Santa Rosa. 

“These three people together made Mills College one of the most exciting places for horticulture on the West Coast in the first three decades of the 20th century,” Cutler says of Reinhardt, McMinn, and Gilkey.  

Gilkey served as landscape architect for Mills. It was he who planted 135 plane trees along Richards Road, now the main drive through the campus and a memorable outdoor space.  

He also designed smaller landscapes around buildings, including one pond that was originally intended to have a mysterious—or perhaps whimsical—“temple to the radio” on its edge, Culter noted. 

Gilkey was active in other horticultural ventures in Oakland. He worked with the Oakland Businessman’s Garden Club to sponsor a huge annual garden show at what is now the Laney College site, planned flower beds in front of City Hall, and replanted the edges of Lake Merritt. 

He also advised on the landscape of the writer’s memorial at Woodminster Amphitheater in the Oakland Hills, as well as the Cleveland Cascade near Lake Merritt which neighborhood activists are now working to restore. 

In the 1920s and ’30s “Italianate water steps were popping up everywhere,” says Cutler (Berkeley got none, alas).  

“Today when we want to make a new subdivision we’ll make it with a Starbucks or a weight loss center, but (back then) they put in a cascade” to ornament new residential developments. 

McMinn was also prolific, but in different respects. He authored three influential books about California shrubs and trees, planned a big botanical garden at Mills—which didn’t happen in his time—and “put together the deal” which lead to the Botanical Garden in Tilden Park. 

“His books survive, many of the plants he discussed or popularized are common in the nursery trade,” Culter said.  

As a member of the Mills faculty and an on-campus resident, “he founded a very strong template for botanical studies at Mills,” Cutler says. Today, one of the newer Mills faculty is, in fact, working to establish a native plant botanical garden on the campus.  

He planted hundreds of trees, particularly native California conifers, on the Mills campus but few survive today, due in part to a dry spell in the 1930s when the saplings were still young and vulnerable. 

The Mills-specific work of these designers, and others, will be part of May’s overview of the campus development history on Wednesday, March 28. 

Her lecture begins at 5:30 p.m. after an informal 5 p.m. reception (with excellent finger food, I might add). 

The indoor setting, in Carnegie Hall on the Mills campus, is spectacular.  

This is a Carnegie-funded former library. The upstairs Bender Room, with its intricate beamed ceiling trusses and built-in glass cases, is a little-seen Julia Morgan masterpiece.  

It overlooks the central oval lawn and historic Mills Hall as well as the Julia Morgan bell tower, “El Campanil,” on the Mills grounds.  

If you arrive a bit early, you can see much of this remarkable campus in daylight as you cross it to reach the lecture venue. 

The lecture is free, but a RSVP, presumably for headcount purposes, is requested to Carrie Milligan at 430-2125 or cmilliga@mills.edu.  

Parking passes and directions can be obtained at the main entrance at 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, just off Highway 580. 


Photograph Courtesy, Mills College Photo Collection at the Olin Library  

“El Campanil” designed by Julia Morgan in 1904 for the Mills campus was one of the first reinforced concrete structures in California and withstood the 1906 earthquake. Shown here in its early days, nestled in native oak and imported eucalyptus plantings, it still stands across from Mills Hall.