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Eastern Inner Loop

The master plan capitalizes on the Mitchell Tract's Park Avenue frontage (on left in picture above) by locating the education center there.

The Arboretum will be a place of beauty, an important cultural feature of the University and the community.


Arboretum Program Narrative


Looking down into Big Hollow from Big Hollow Road. The former bed of the Bellefonte Central Railroad can be seen in the background on the right.

The Preliminary Master Plan for The Penn State Arboretum prepared by the Arboretum Task Force in conjunction with the Office of Physical Plant and the consultants, Sasaki Associates, Inc., defined the proposed patterns of land use, circulation, and open space for the Arboretum. It was adopted as part of the University Park Campus Master Plan in March 1999.

This essential document establishes basic land use organization for the Arboretum, as follows: to locate the public arrival area, an education center, and horticultural education and display activities in the southeastern end of the site near Park Avenue, and to locate research and teaching areas devoted to natural plant communities, soils, forestry, agriculture and turfgrass, and hydrology in the Big Hollow lands and Overlook Heights area to the north and west. The plan capitalizes on the Park Avenue frontage for its public access and exposure, and for its close proximity to the academic campus. Natural areas and large scale landscape activities are assigned to less readily accessible and developable land and to sensitive land around the University well field that would be best undeveloped.

Land Use:

Also known as the Sasaki plan, the preliminary master plan proposes that the education center be located on the Mitchell Tract where it will benefit from close proximity to the campus, ready access from Park Avenue, and the availability of existing sewer, water, and electrical systems. The general slope orientation of the land adjacent to Park Avenue is towards the southeast, the horticulturally optimal orientation for solar aspect and protection from winter winds and harsh afternoon sun. The gentle ridge that crosses the Mitchell Tract is also the highest elevation on the Arboretum site, approximately 1,290 feet.

Although the Sasaki plan proposes that the education center be located on Bigler Road, straddlng the broad ridge line that crosses the Mitchell Tract, the more detailed Mitchell Tract Master Plan for the botanic gardens, written in 2002 and revised in 2006 by M•T•R Landscape Architects, LLC (MTR), places it closer to Park Avenue so that the building itself can help to buffer the gardens from the distractions and noise of traffic.

Other recommendations in the Sasaki plan include having a large-vehicle drop-off area to accommodate cars as well as buses, and employing environmentally sensitive techniques to manage storm water runoff from the parking and paved areas on site. MTR has incorporated these concepts into the Mitchell Tract Master Plan.

Source: Penn State Archives
This early picture of Penn State's greenhouses reminds us of the many years that the University has contributed to research in horticulture and related fields.

To the northwest of the botanic gardens, the Arboretum consists of 244 acres of managed natural plant communities in Big Hollow, a narrow valley that traverses the Arboretum, and a 68-acre Overlook Heights Teaching and Research Area. The preliminary plan purposefully locates the highly managed activities of turfgrass research and agriculture in an area adjacent to natural plant communities so that the relationships between human activity and natural systems can be studied and enjoyed in close proximity.

Source: Joel McNeal
This flower, Geranium maculatum L. (wood geranium), blooms in the Arboretum woodlands from May through early June.

The natural plant communities recommended in the preliminary plan are as follows: Valley Prairie-Savanna, mature Valley Oak-Pine-Hickory Forest, Ridgetop Oak-Pine Forest, Mixed Mesophytic Forest, Valley Stream Bank Forest, Northern Hardwood Forest, Barrens Community, Native Pine Woods, and a created wetland in the southwestern end of Big Hollow. Plants would be ordered in these areas according to their ecological relationships rather than by the traditional method of family and genus associations.

Within the managed native plant communities, the Sasaki plan proposes that the subsurface geology of the site be expressed through systematic tree plantings along existing fracture trace lines. These plantings would establish long allées to connect the various natural areas and create memorable landscape experiences.

As mentioned earlier, the Overlook Heights Teaching and Research Area is to be developed for turfgrass research and/or other environmentally sensitive agricultural activities such as no-till farming and integrated pest management. The area could also include nurseries for woody plants propagation and research. The Sasaki plan recommends that the turfgrass research area include 35 acres for the Valentine Plots, the Landscape Management Research Center and support buildings, yard space, and parking space for 50 cars. Controlled access to this facility would be via Fox Hollow Road to Big Hollow Road. A detailed master plan for this section of the Arboretum will be designed at a later date.

Open Space Character:

This view of Big Hollow was taken from the southwest corner. Its perspective helps create a sense of appreciation for the value of "greenways" as a refuge from highways, parking lots, and buildings.

The preliminary plan determines that the dominant space organization of the Arboretum should be naturalistic, with an emphasis on large, informal open areas of pasture, prairie, and turf surrounded by tree plantings, hedgerows, and woodlands. It is intended that the existing pastoral character of the site would be largely retained as the site is transformed from agricultural to Arboretum use.

In applying this concept of open space to the botanic gardens, Sasaki Associates, Inc., emphasized the importance of converting the former pasture along Park Avenue into a park-like landscape, filled with seasonal interest and a sense of tranquility. Visual unity is especially essential, requiring that careful attention be devoted to the harmonious composition of plant textures, colors, size, and shape in concert with curvilinear pathways.

MTR has applied these principles by converting the low-lying field section along Park Avenue (which serves as a storm water recharge area) into a "marsh meadow," where tall switchgrass, which is tolerant of storm water run-off, will mimic the motion of rippling water with each breeze. There will also be a winter garden along the driveway to the education center's front door, and a four-seasons garden flanking the lawn panel leading up the slope to the conservatory's terrace. These gardens would be open to the public at all times via pathways that connect both intersections on Park Avenue with the path along the perimenter of the marsh meadow, and up the slope to the walled gardens and to the education center.

Trees such as these provide valuable shelter for wildlife in the Arboretum's Hartley Wood. The Arboretum will help to educate students and the public about habitats common in central Pennsylvania.

The proposed character of the natural areas is based on the retention of the natural land form and the retention, reinforcement, and restoration of the natural flora. It is also important that open views across Big Hollow and from Overlook Heights be retained so that the expanse of the landscape can be perceived and the visual variety of open fields and shaded woodlands can be maintained. The Sasaki plan intends that, to the extent possible, surrounding buildings and roadways should be screened from view. The visitor should experience scenery that is rural and that has depth and complexity; all elements that detract from the clarity of that experience should be visually blocked or subordinated. The perimeter plantings along developed edges should be sufficiently dense to create the illusion that the viewer is truly in a rural setting, free of urban influences. The Arboretum area that adjoins Fox Hollow Road should be planted in woodlands with the objective of enhancing the visual continuity of the Big Hollow landscape in spite of the fact that it is broken by the Mount Nittany Expressway and Fox Hollow Road at this location.

The trace fracture line plantings will introduce a complementary element of geometry into the natural areas, somewhat reminiscent of agricultural hedgerows, but simultaneously "natural" in their expression of the pattern of the underlying bedrock geology. The fracture line allées will be among the most memorable experiences in the Arboretum landscape and express an order that is unique to the region and the site.


The tracks across this field were made by agricultural vehicles. In the future, trails will also be created for use by hikers and bicyclists.

The internal system of roads and trails proposed in the preliminary Arboretum plan is largely based on the pattern of existing farm and service roads. Big Hollow Road and the historic Bellefonte Central Railroad bed are maintained as the major north-south linkages. Additional roads are proposed to connect the Overlook Heights Teaching and Research Area to the main entrance and education center on Bigler Road. The existing farm road that connects Overlook Heights to the north end of Big Hollow Road is adjusted to provide a direct and more pleasing alignment. In general, the roads in the Arboretum's preliminary master plan are designed to fit the contours of the existing terrain and follow continuous curvilinear alignments that evoke a sense of harmony with the natural setting. The only exceptions to this approach are the trace fracture line trails and the existing straight line sections of Big Hollow Road.

It is intended that all of the major roads of the Arboretum be suitable for purposes of maintenance access and vehicle access for faculty, students, and staff. General public access would be confined to the parking lot on Bigler Road and a small parking lot on Fox Hollow Road, except for special events which may allow public vehicular access to the Overlook Heights Teaching and Research Area. A small parking lot may also be desirable in the future at the end of East Aaron Drive.

The Sasaki plan suggests that the historic Bellefonte Central Railroad bed be developed as a recreational path and bicycle way similar in character to the McKee Street bicycle way. Pedestrian paths are proposed for the trace fracture allées, for access to the forest plant communities, and for all-weather access throughout the intensively developed area around the education center. The pedestrian trail and walk system ties into the Park Avenue crosswalks at Bigler Road and Shortlidge Road.

Because the Arboretum was able to obtain funding for design and construction, a major artery in this proposed circulation system - the first section of the Bellefonte Central Rail Trail - opened in May 2006. The second phase of this trail was completed in July 2007.

Source: Howard Nuernberger
Visitors to the Arboretum's Open House in May 2000 hike up the hill out of Big Hollow. The hollow is a natural depression in the landscape that forms a tranquil refuge from the sounds of traffic nearby.

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