Green space on campus is constantly changing, but it takes more than a little creativity to keep Northwestern looking beautiful. Landscaping Supervisor Tim Spahn not only has to battle the weather, but also the unofficial fifth season — construction.
This spring, record-high temperatures in March and new major construction projects forced Facilities Management to be flexible in a profession that is already always in motion.
“Universities are dynamic places,” said Spahn, who has worked at Northwestern for 26 years. “Things change, that’s just the way universities are. You have to stay flexible.”
When students were basking in the unusually warm weather on the Lakefill at the end of Winter Quarter, Spahn said work crews were forced to “kick it into high gear.” Suddenly, everything started blooming at the time workers were accustomed to finishing up normal winter maintenance.
“Spring, lo and behold, came six weeks early,” Spahn said. “It was really a mad dash for us this year.”In addition to temperature spikes, Spahn said this year was unusual with the amount of major construction going on near the Kellogg School Allen Center and the plans for the Visitor Center, which is expected to be completed in 2014.
Now, Spahn and others in the grounds departments are scrambling to save plants in the future path of the bulldozers. Typically, plants are moved when they are dormant and temperatures are cooler for better odds of preservation, but new projects and warm weather give Spahn a small window for saving them.
“I will get a call, and suddenly I have three days to move 100 forsythia if I want them,” he said. “If not, they’re gone.”
Design is altered drastically for such large projects. This year will be the last time students can enjoy the 5,000 tulips in Arts Circle until the Visitor Center project is complete.
For the rest of campus not affected by construction, spring brings the opportunity for new life and design. While the crew tries to use perennial plants that survive more than one winter as much as possible for cost and time benefits, Spahn said that “wow areas” of campus are filled with annuals that need to be replaced every spring. In these areas, which serve as entry points into campus such as the corner of Clark Street and Chicago Avenue, Spahn explained they are changed yearly to allow for more exotic species of flowers and greater variation.
While purple seems to be the dominant color for everything Northwestern, groundskeepers don’t limit themselves to the official color. However, areas such as gardens near Ryan Field always reflect school pride to make “an NU statement.”
The creative force behind these designs is Landscape Architect Ann Ziegelmaier, who has had a hand in everything from the look of the flowerbeds, design of directory signs across campus and the creation of the now-famous Weber Arch.
“The University is like a mini-city,” Ziegelmaier said, adding that the construction keeps the aesthetics transforming all the time. “Our job is to put campus back together and keep it presentable.”
The process is a careful blend of aesthetics and practicality, Ziegelmaier said. These changes are reflected in the new projects on campus. Sometimes, they get lucky. Recently, plants saved from a new construction project were replanted to frame the renovation of the Garrett Theological Seminary parking lot.
“I’m never sure what’s coming next,” she said. “It’s hard to get too attached.”
Through the years, Spahn said he has also learned to be flexible, which sometimes means seeing his favorite designs changed at a moment’s notice.
“I used to get pretty territorial about our gardens. But, with one broken steam line or new building," he said, "they can be gone in a heartbeat. You’ve got to flow with it.”