Harvard's Arnold Arboretum

Harvard's Arnold Arboretum

Last winter Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston opened its new Weld Hill research and administration building, a 44,000-square-foot cedar, brick and stone-clad structure designed to facilitate the 139-year-old institution’s increasing emphasis on research and education.

The building is one of Harvard’s few new construction projects to survive the recent recession. The university dramatically scaled back its ambitious plans when the 2008 market crash claimed nearly a third of its endowment. Most conspicuously, in 2009 it halted construction on the $1 billion science complex designed by Behnisch Architekten that was to anchor its campus expansion in the Allston section of Boston.

The arboretum’s Weld Hill building, which is set into a puddingstone hillside that divides residential and institutional sections of the Roslindale neighborhood, was designed by KlingStubbins’ Cambridge office. Reed Hilderbrand of Watertown, MA designed the landscape.

The structure is terraced into the hillside, and its three sections are offset to create a south-facing courtyard. The building includes labs, administrative offices, study areas, meeting rooms, and a dozen greenhouses. The challenge was to accommodate those functions in a single program, according to the architects.

The arboretum is looking to make more extensive use of its live collection in support of research and to delve further into issues like climate change, conservation biology, and the global food supply, according to its new director, Ned Friedman.

The Weld Hill building allows the arboretum to bring its researchers, many of whom had separate spaces in Cambridge, under one roof, to add undergraduate teaching labs and to increase its adult education and community outreach programs, said Friedman.

“The arboretum has one of the world’s preeminent collections of woody plants,” he said. The new building will support “research commensurate with the quality of the collection.”

Harvard is aiming for a LEED Gold rating with the building, which uses geo-thermal heating and cooling and storm water retention systems.


The arboretum, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was founded in 1872 and is the oldest public arboretum in North America. Harvard leases the majority of the arboretum’s 265 acres from the City of Boston under the terms of the 1882 land swap that brought the arboretum within the Boston parks system as part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace scheme. The thousand-year lease is set to expire in 2882.

The Weld Hill site is Harvard-owned land adjacent to the main arboretum.

The project, which was built on one of the few urban meadows in greater Boston, faced opposition in the local community and among open space advocates.

While the arboretum is replanting the site with native species, critics say it no longer functions as a meadow and that the development compromises what was an important urban wild land that bridged a gap between the arboretum and the Allendale Woods conservation land to the west.

“It was one of those great little connections. There was a lot of sentiment for keeping it open,” said Julia O’Brien, a board member of the Longfellow Area Neighborhood Association (LANA) and former director of planning for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. A lifelong resident of the area, O’Brien says that since the 1950s a significant amount of green space has been developed by local institutions.

Harvard’s town-gown encounters tend to be lopsided, but in this case, informed and persistent neighbors were able to influence the outcome, limiting the impact of the building, ensuring public access to the site and restricting future development.

Arboretum abutters succeeded in attaching a deed restriction to the Harvard property preserving roughly half of the 14-acre site as open space. The restriction applies for the remainder of the 1,000-year city lease for the main arboretum.

No additional buildings are planned for the Weld Hill site, although the arboretum is permitted to develop a total of 180,000 square feet, subject to city review.

“We are pleased that half of the site is protected as public open space,” said LANA board member Wayne Beitler, who also lamented that the site is so car-centric. “It is discouraging that the building remains so suburban in access and orientation.” However Harvard officials have stated that the final stages of the landscaping will improve pedestrian access.

Neighborhood pressure has also prompted the arboretum to re-grade the site. The project generated twice the anticipated volume of fill, which was piled into a high-walled bowl. City officials agreed to hold Harvard to the topology of the approved plan, which provided sight lines to and connections with the surrounding area.