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Romancing the U

June 5, 2009


Clint Hewitt.

Clint Hewitt came to the University of Minnesota in 1972, at the end of what he calls the "golden era" of campus planning in the United States. For almost three decades he served as the U's associate vice president for campus master planning.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

In 30-plus years as head of campus planning, Clint Hewitt has helped shape the U

By Rick Moore

When you stroll around the Twin Cities campus with Clint Hewitt, the walk down Pleasant Street becomes a trip down Memory Lane.

There's his story about the mostly underground Williamson Hall and how it was designed to yield to views of its neighbor to the north—the majestic Folwell Hall. Or the one about the person who suggested building a 5,000-car parking ramp in the middle of Northrop Mall.

When it comes to handing down stories of how and why the campus looks the way it does, few are better qualified than Hewitt, one of its modern-day architects.

He arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1972, and for almost three decades served as the U's associate vice president for campus master planning, which means he has helped shape the Twin Cities, Crookston, Duluth, and Morris campuses. He is also an associate professor in landscape architecture. He will be retiring from the University in September.

Hewitt is quiet and unassuming upon an initial handshake, but take him out into his element—the campus landscape—and he quickly beams with pride for the place that recruited him when he was an assistant campus planner at the University of Michigan.

Despite arriving in the Twin Cities for the first time on a 20-below winter day, Hewitt immediately took to the look and feel of the campus and accepted the offer. "That's when the romance began," he says.

Sitting in the historic Knoll, his favorite place on campus, he is quick to point out his admiration for the U's visionaries of yesteryear, including the famous architect Cass Gilbert (who originally conceptualized Northrop Mall), Anthony Morell and Arthur Nichols (the landscape architects who brought it to life), and landscape architect H. W. S. Cleveland, who believed that the physical landscape of a campus was of critical importance for students—a vision Hewitt seems to have channeled.

"People hear me say over and over again, [that this] campus is all about relationships. Achievements are wonderful, but if you have a relationship with another person who can be helpful or supportive, and you can be supportive [to that person], that's what it really boils down to."

He came to the U at the tail end of what he calls the golden era of campus planning in the United States. "There was this boom in campus development and the recognition that we've got to place [the buildings] and site them in a way that maintains some of the character of the campus," he says.

Hewitt says he was fortunate to be working at the University of Minnesota, where the campus planning and development office comprised professionals from virtually every related field, such as interior design, space management, engineering, landscape engineering, and project management.

"At the time that we were at our peak, I had the envy of literally any college or university staff in the country, mainly because we had all of the professional people in one group," he says. "What it allowed us to do was take an idea and see it all the way through to completion."

A path through campus, the link to the river

Hewitt is hesitant to take much credit for any of the campus features he has helped usher into existence, but he has his favorites, including the Scholars Walk and Lilly Plaza, the beautifully landscaped tract of land bounded by Northrop Auditorium, Pillsbury Hall, Morrill Hall, and Church Street—an area he calls a "reclaimed" space.

He's also proud of the 1996 campus master plan that outlined a vision and guiding principles for all of the University of Minnesota's campuses. It led to the linking of the campus mall to the Mississippi River behind Coffman Union, part of Gilbert's 1907 vision.

We can be grateful he helped nix the idea of the mega ramp in the middle of the mall. The idea's owner thought that if the ramp were connected to Walter Library, the physics building, the chemistry building, etc., that commuters could leave their coats in the car in the winter and comfortably walk to class. Hewitt's reaction? "That was a joke, wasn't it?"

Above all, Hewitt cherishes people, and that's evident by his involvement with a host of organizations, including the Minneapolis/University Rotary Club, the University YMCA, and Hope Community, Inc. in south Minneapolis. He has served as president of the Society for College and University Planning and worked extensively to bring other minorities to the profession of landscape architecture. And it's people that anchor some of his fondest memories of the U.

"People hear me say over and over again, [that this] campus is all about relationships. Achievements are wonderful, but if you have a relationship with another person who can be helpful or supportive, and you can be supportive [to that person], that's what it really boils down to.

"There's a joy for me walking across this campus, and maybe meeting one of the custodians that I've known for the last 25 years and he'll stop and we'll talk about what's going on. And that's the value of this place."

Nearly three hours after commencing a conversation on a writer's favorite bench in Hewitt's favorite place on campus, it was time to head back to "work;" in this case, one of the final chapters of Hewitt's storied career at the U.

"A person is fortunate, and I say blessed, when they find something they really like to do," he says. "It's been a romance with the University and its people for over 30 years. My wife will tell you that, because she would always say, 'Do you have to stay over there so long. What in the world are you doing?'

"I've always said that when I go to bed on Sunday night I get excited about what might be going on at the University on Monday. There are certainly bumps in the road. That's what most romances are. The fun part about a romance is smoothing out the bumps."

 

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