By James F. Duffy
Temple University Ambler
“Change, and somewhat explosive growth, have been a normal part of your Ambler experience. Probably this has been exciting, annoying, stimulating or frustrating at times, but you have weathered it all very well,”— Jonathan W. French Jr. in a letter to the Class of 1961, the first class at Ambler to be officially recognized as part of Temple University.
A letter from Jonathan W. French Jr., director of The Ambler Campus of Temple University, to the Class of 1961:
“To the Class of 1961,
Change, and somewhat explosive growth have been a normal part of your Ambler experience. Probably this has been exciting, annoying, stimulating or frustrating at times, but you have weathered it all very well.
For the first time in the institution’s existence, we have had Sophomores in the liberal arts, and an almost equal distribution of men and women students. For the first time, Ambler students will take part in the University’s impressive Commencement Exercises at Convention Hall in Philadelphia.
As you leave Ambler, I hope you will take with you an affection for the college which gave you your start and a desire to support it in the future. I extend to you my warm personal wishes for your success and happiness in the years ahead. May your lives be filled with health, courage, and service to others; and may God bless you!”
Jonathan W. French Jr.
In 1957, change was in the air at the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women.
The Pennsylvania States Council on Education gave the Horticulture School permission to change its name to Ambler Junior College and to grant the Associate of Science degree. The school had received provisional accreditation as a junior college in 1952.
A 1957 edition of the Pen and Trowel, the alumni newsletter, called this “a tremendous step forward, reflecting the many changes over the past few years in curriculum improvement, building expansion, and other fulfillments aimed toward a recognized standing among other educators.”
At the time, the subtitle “A School of Horticulture for Women” was featured prominently on all letterhead, catalogues, and other publications.
“Eventual accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools will be the open door to full recognition and acceptance in the educational field,” the Pen and Trowel editorial continued. “But before we come to that, we must build to freshman classes of at least 40. First, last, and always, our plans must be centered on the 17-year-old girl of today.”
Of course, even the best laid plans often fall short of fruition. It may be that the school’s financial bottom line precluded the visions of the alumni from becoming a reality.
It was at about that time, depending on which historical account you read, that either the Horticulture School first approached Temple University or Temple University first approached the Horticulture School.
According to “The People’s University,” an unpublished account of the history of Temple, it was the Horticulture School that made the first move.
“For 45 years, it had served with distinction a small but influential clientele. Then the school let it be known that it was interested in affiliation with Temple University,” the historical piece states. “Temple’s board of trustees appreciated the honor but felt, because of other commitments, it could not accept at this time. Not so easily put off, the Ambler institution waited three years, then renewed its proposal for togetherness. Its enrollment by that time had dropped to 39 girls, but it still had 150 acres that were appreciating in value every year.”
In 1958, the horticulture school’s already established Ambler Junior College began its relationship with Temple University. It was also the first year programs were made available to men — all of two applied that first year.
“Every effort was made by the administration, the faculty, and the rest of the student body, of course, to preserve these male specimens in the hope that they would attract others of their kind by providing evidence that this one-time all-girl school was now indeed co-educational,” according to the historical account.
In 1960, Bright Hall opened and was dedicated to Jane Linn Erwin Bright, a supporter of the school for many years. The building provided additional classroom space, laboratories, and a library wing. What is now Bright Hall Lounge was used as a dining hall.
According to the unpublished university history, then Provost Millard Gladfelter, who would shortly become university president, “was aware that the Ambler venture would be financially painful for the time being, but he was also confident that within a few years it could be made into one of the university’s most valuable divisions.”
“He promised to give the school direction and to provide means and personnel to revitalize it. Most of the courses in the school’s pre-Temple days were organized around horticulture, landscape design, and horse husbandry,” the historical account states. “To aid in effecting a smooth transition, Temple agreed to continue this program as long as ‘a reasonably sound economic demand exists.’”
On January 27, 1961, to emphasize the now close relationship of the campus to Temple University, the Board of Trustees formalized the transition to The Ambler Campus of Temple University.
“Ambler Junior College was a self-limiting title. True, the school began its Temple history with only a two-year program, but the hope was always that young people introduced to college life in Ambler’s idyllic environment would find it easy and natural to move to the main campus to complete the work for a four-year degree or, as thoughtful observers pointed out, the transfer might be in reverse,” the historical account states. “The day would come when enough advanced courses would be established on the Ambler campus…to enable students there to meet all requirements for graduation without so much as stepping across the line between Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. These were among the possibilities written into the broad and simple title, Ambler Campus of Temple University.”
In 1961, sophomores at Ambler were taking courses in the liberal arts and the student population was almost evenly split between male and female.
When Jonathan French retired as school director in 1963, Dr. Eugene Udell became the first official dean of the campus. He had been working for Temple since 1950, teaching in the College of Education. He had also founded Temple’s audiovisual center. After his five-year stint as dean, he would continue working for Temple until 1985.
Udell said that first year was a literal baptism of fire.
“Within the first week, the dormitory burned to the ground,” he said. “We built small buildings to house the residence students at the time. Those buildings eventually became Cottage Hall.”
“The People’s History,” called the incident “an administrator’s nightmare — days and nights of working around the clock, cutting red tape to be sure that what had to be done would be done, enlisting help from the community, building temporary structures, renting mobile all-purpose campers and wheeling them into place on campus.”
“Despite the stress and strain, Udell and his staff survived, and instruction at Ambler began according to schedule,” the historical account states.
Some students, however, had difficulty adjusting to the new “cottage” dormitories.
“The new dormitories, which we call cottages, have separated us not only from the beauty of the campus but from each other. Girls in one cottage are apart from a group of girls in another cottage. Our uniting factor seems to have been lost,” wrote Toni Tosco, a Class of 1964 alumnus in an article for the Pen and Trowel published in the spring of 1964. “The lost dormitory provided more convenience, allowed more freedom than the small cottages. A formal atmosphere existed in the dining room of the old building. It gave a relaxed effect that we do not have in the dining section of Bright Hall lounge. However, despite the lack of space, and a loss of character that the lost dormitory had, the new cottages provide for comfortable living.”
Tosco said students who lost personal belongings in the fire “realized for the first time that one never knows when disaster might strike.
“Suddenly, we had lost all clothing, books, notes, and a few items of sentimental value. The loss of our books and notes was a great inconvenience, since we had to continue with the summer session,” she said. “Materialistically we were left with hardly anything except what we had with us. We were left with just memories and probably more important, we realized that sometimes all we really have is within ourselves. With courage and tremendous effort, we began anew.”
Tosco said a new dormitory was expected to be completed the following year that would offer “co-ed facilities, the most modern conveniences, and a commercially-run cafeteria.”
“The passing of the “old” dorm will bring many changes to the campus, but the purpose will still be the same: to educate and graduate better practitioners of horticulture and landscape design,” she said.
Both East and West Hall and the Dining Hall opened in 1965. While West Hall today primarily houses faculty and staff offices, East Hall remains exclusively a residence hall. The Dining Hall also opened its doors in 1965. In the following year, the campus stable closed and the last horse was sold.
“As for horse husbandry, the university tried to justify its continuance, but announced in 1965 that it was being ‘regretfully terminated.’ Readers will be pleased to learn that only the program was terminated, not the horses,” according to the unpublished history. “These fine animals, some now past their prime, were sold with the greatest of ease to women who had fond recollection of those days when they, too, were just a bit younger and were part of Ambler.”
There were about 60 students at Ambler when Udell arrived as dean, he said, “and about 600 when I left.”
“Students were able to start the first two years of their four-year programs,” he said. “You couldn’t complete your degree at Ambler at the time.”
According to “The People’s History,” even with the new residence halls and other facilities, Udell did not have a smooth road to travel, particularly when it came to faculty.
“Unfortunately, a few of the department heads seemed to think of Ambler as a kind of academic Siberia to which they could banish without embarrassment those men and women who represented, for whatever reasons, departmental problems,” according to the historical account. “Udell had to handle each case diplomatically and on an individual basis, but in general such problems receded as Ambler’s place in the scheme of things became fully understood on the main campus. Ambler was not a junior college; it was Temple University in microcosm.”
Udell agreed faculty in those early years as part of Temple were often “not too anxious to be out here.”
“But I think the faculty changed to a degree. I think they recognized they could work intimately with students, which is very satisfying,” he said. “It was a very nice setting. I remember at one point I wanted to build a platform in Bright Hall Commons where students could speak their mind with immunity to any repercussions. It didn’t really take off, but I thought it was a good idea — I still like it.”
In 1968, a stage of a different sort was built at Ambler. Performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Van Cliburn marked the debut season of the Temple Music Festival and Institute, ushering in a time of expansion and growth on campus.
“I thought it was a wonderful thing,” Udell said. “There were opera singers, plays, musicals, it was just superb. It was a very high-class, cultural addition to the community.”
In 1971, Dr. Sidney Halpern started his 11-year tenure as dean and began the transformation of Ambler to a four-year campus. Enrollment would reach an all-time high of 6,500.
Junior- and senior-level courses were offered at Ambler for the first time in 1972 in areas including: humanities, business administration, teacher education, the social sciences, and journalism. The current Library and Computer Services building opened as a “general use” building in 1973.
“(Halpern) was a driving force. He drove and drove to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish for this campus,” said Bonnie Frumer, Assistant Dean for Curriculum and Planning who began teaching mathematics courses at Temple in 1968. “Enrollment went skyrocketing in the late 70s and early 80s. The question is how did we fit them all, how did we manage so many students? I’m not quite sure.”
In the earliest part of the enrollment boom, “all registrations were done manually,” Frumer said. There were no computer systems to help the process along.
New facilities didn’t come until 1978 with the addition of Widener Hall. Dixon Hall followed in 1983 with new science labs and classrooms on the site of the original dormitory, a site that, according to Frumer, was literally a large hole in the ground before the new building we completed.
Kevin Freese, former Assistant Dean of Academic Services, got his start at Temple as a student at Ambler in 1977.
“The late 70s were chaotic in its way. Registration meant going to a designated room and standing in line, hoping that computer punch cards (of the courses offered) would match up with the classes you were trying to put together,” he said. “The stakes were high for seniors.”
Freese said though Ambler might be considered a small campus, students were afforded excellent opportunities to gain new experiences.
“I remember Dean Halpern asked me and some of the other student leaders to take Fitz Eugene Dixon to dinner. At the time, (Dixon) owned the Philadelphia 76ers and was Temple’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees,” he said. “The reason we were taking him to dinner was to thank him for the funding he contributed for Dixon Hall. I was so impressed that the Dean trusted us, we went unescorted.”
That dinner was also the first time that Freese had encountered escargot, an experience with a far from desirable effect.
“I immediately spit it out and hit Mr. Dixon right in the middle of the tie with the snail,” he said with a laugh. “I thought I had ruined everything. But Mr. Dixon was truly interested in the students at Ambler — he thought it was hilarious. He gave me his tie.”
In 1984, James Blackhurst took the mantle of Ambler’s dean, a position he would hold until his retirement in October 1995. Blackhurst came to Temple after a long, esteemed tenure at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“I think one of the things that we were able to do was greatly increase the migration between the Ambler campus and the Main Campus. In 11 years, 20,000 graduates had attended Ambler for some part of their education,” he said. “We wanted students to experience the vitality of the city and have the Main Campus experience as well as experiencing the suburban population of Ambler. It gave students exposure to the pastoral and the urban and an appreciation for both.”
In 1987, Temple approved the formation of bachelor’s degree programs in Landscape Architecture and Horticulture — Ambler remains the official home to both programs. Two years later, the Landscape Architecture program received accreditation from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
The emergence of the four-year degree programs in the two disciplines in 1987 is something that Blackhurst is most proud of.
“The Horticulture and Landscape Architecture programs were developed into strong programs that were appropriate for an urban university. They started focusing on urban environmental planning, which was something that hadn’t been done before,” he said. “One thing that I always liked about Ambler was that an individual’s job description might be at the center of what they did, but it wasn’t a boundary. No one was inclined to say ‘that’s not my job.’ They were people that if something needed to be done, they did it.”
In 1988, John Collins came to Temple Ambler to help steer the fledgling four-year programs as a professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture. In practice with his own landscape architecture and environmental planning firm for 25 years, Collins “needed some soldiers,” in the battle to preserve the environment, he said.
“I wanted students that would look at nature, not pave over it. The thing that really excited me was the potential combination of horticulture and landscape architecture,” he said. “Nationally they had been growing further and further apart. I can’t separate the two. I don’t see them as isolated entities.”
Blackhurst, who grew up in a small town in Iowa, said he always liked the feel, “the idea,” of the Ambler campus.
“I always felt that every campus has its own culture,” he said. “With Ambler, you have this big city university and at the same time you have this sense of community and trust that you might find in other parts of America. I think it gives students opportunities to grow and be themselves.”
In 2001, more than 4,700 traditional and non-traditional students were attending classes at Temple University Ambler and at the Fort Washington Graduate and Professional Center, which opened in 1997 as a result of a renewed burst in enrollment.
Under the direction of Dean Dr. Sophia T. Wisniewska, who began her tenure in 1999, programs central to the Ambler campus — Landscape Architecture, Horticulture, and Community and Regional Planning (established as a program in 2002) were officially recognized as Ambler College, the 17th college of Temple University, in spring 2000 as part of an ongoing effort to enhance the programs and services offered to both students and the surrounding community.
“This new academic structure will help to give us a stronger identity and help to strengthen our relationship with the Main Campus,” said Dr. Wisniewska of the transition to college status. “It's important that we use this new status to develop our strengths, to create our own niche — our own voice — for higher education.”
In March 2000, the campus was officially designated an arboretum by the University Board of Trustees. The Center for Sustainable Communities was established shortly thereafter in July 2000 and awarded a $1.5 million federal grant.
“The Center allows us to expand upon our research and outreach mission, and it will showcase the campus as a scientific resource, a living laboratory for environmental concerns,” Dr. Wisniewska said.
Building upon the unique history of the campus, the Center serves as a local and regional resource that facilitates the development of collaborative solutions in land-use planning and management, environmental protection, ecological restoration, and community revitalization through education and consulting initiatives.
“As part of Temple, I think (Ambler) was noticed and then not noticed. I think now people are sitting up and saying ‘Hey, look at Ambler, maybe we should be taking more notice,’” Frumer said. “I think in particular the grant funding for the Center was a great thing. I think the impact of it, the recognition, was a good thing for Ambler in moving toward the future.”
Temple University Ambler's exhibit, "Progressive Women in Horticulture: A Driving Force in Philadelphia - 1904 through 1924," a comprehensive salute to a group of women that changed history, won Best of Show in the Academic Educational Category at the 2005 Philadelphia Flower Show with a perfect score of 100 from the judges.
Learn more about the award-winning exhibit here.