Now encompassing 1000 acres, this campus was established in 1861 by Matthew Vassar on a level plain, approximately two miles east of the Hudson River. The campus includes an axial and symmetrical core, with peripheral sections that follow the site’s topography. Upon its opening in 1865 the institution was housed almost entirely in a building designed by James Renwick, who also designed the surrounding circulation and plantings with input from Vassar and landscape gardener Howard Daniels. In 1896, John Charles Olmsted produced a report recommending a large central quadrangle defined by “working buildings” and, beyond that core, new dormitories laid out en échelon to form diagonal rows, or in a quincunx pattern. The institution implemented the central greensward quadrangle, defined on each side by structures including a chapel and library, while grouping dormitories around a secondary quadrangle to the north. The primary quadrangle is bisected by a linear entry drive, established by Renwick and Vassar, oriented on axis with the main building’s western façade.
Samuel Parsons, Jr., was hired ca. 1905 and produced a general plan for the campus, including a detailed planting plan. Loring Underwood served as the campus landscape architect from 1915 to 1925 and introduced a pond (Sunset Lake) in the southeast portion of campus and an open-air amphitheater. In 1916 faculty and students created the Shakespeare Garden (redesigned by Hollander Design Landscape Architects in 2019). In the 1920s Edith Roberts, the Chair of Botany, established an outdoor ecological laboratory dedicated to native plants. Between 1925 and 1929 the college engaged Beatrix Farrand, who successfully proposed plans for an arboretum to encompass the entire campus. Farrand’s successor, Percival Gallagher, added to the arboretum, which now contains more than 200 species.
In 1955 architect Eero Saarinen proposed a campus master plan which was not fully executed. Subsequent masterplans were produced by Sasaki Associates, Inc. (1988), and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (2011). The campus also includes a golf course, established in 1930, a 525-acre preserve traversed by a network of trails, and two structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places