By James Searing and Dr. Mary Myers
Stroll the broad sidewalks of Market Street from City Hall to Front. Take a walk through Society Hill. Spend a few quiet moments in Chestnut Park near 17th Street. Bike along the river at Schuylkill River Park. Take in the quiet beauty of the Temple University Ambler campus. Wander along the banks of the Wissahickon Creek.
The legacy of John F. Collins, FASLA — his impact on urban and suburban landscapes — is everywhere you look in these places of superb design and natural beauty and many more throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs.
In April 2007, Temple University Ambler formally opened a retrospective on Collins’ remarkable body of award-winning work as a landscape architect, planner, nurseryman and educator — Collins founded Temple’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture.
The John F. Collins Retrospective became a permanent exhibit of 29 pieces in the Ambler Campus Learning Center, graciously donated to Temple by Collins and his family.
Collins began his professional career at a time when the challenges of urban sprawl were radically affecting cities throughout the country. It was a time when planners, developers, and landscape architects moved away from “bigger, grander, more,” and began to embrace the idea of human-scale, walkable, and diverse communities.
“My interest in landscape architecture was pretty straightforward. I had a love of art — my mother was an art teacher and I always assumed I’d become an illustrator,” Collins said, a resident of Glenside. “I had also cultivated a love of nature from a young age (he started a commercial nursery in his parents’ backyard at the age of 15) and throughout my life. I felt that anything that combined those two elements would be a great deal of fun — and it was.”
In 1963, Collins co-founded the firm of Adleman, Collins & DuTot in Philadelphia with colleagues Marvin Adleman and David DuTot. Later, this firm became Collins, DuTot & Associates and in 1971, the firm joined with others to form The Delta Group, a regional landscape architecture, planning, engineering and architecture firm with offices in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
“The idea was to put together all of the major professional disciplines — architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering, city planning, and graphics. We created designs — particularly public landscapes — with a clear premise; to place them where there people were and place them well,” Collins said. “There needed to be better facilities that were better maintained that were closely related to neighborhoods, towns, and each other. I thought, what a marvelous opportunity to be able to provide the public with places they otherwise can’t afford, or wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate in. It hit me very strongly that public landscapes were important.”
Collins’s designs for Philadelphia’s Society Hill, completed early in his professional career with Collins and DuTot, reflected an understanding of human proportion and behavior and how design can respond to this knowledge. Intimately scaled and comfortable, tree-lined brick and cobblestone streets evoke the days when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. A series of interior pedestrian ways, varying in size and character, provide multiple pathways linking the community and its parks to the rich historical sites of Philadelphia.
In 1965, Collins helped develop Delancey Park (now known as Three Bears Park) — a dynamic neighborhood landmark with greenways, fountain, sculpture, and playground facilities. He also created a master plan for the Fairmount Park Commission, centering around a 1.25 mile park along the Schuylkill River east bank from the Art Museum to South Street. For the next 40 years, Collins continued to work, often on a volunteer basis, to realize the vision of Schuylkill River Park, which was dedicated at a lighting ceremony in 2004.
“Schuylkill River Park joins Market Street East, the nationally recognized vest pocket park on Chestnut Street, and dozens of other public and private venues across our city and region as places that have been transformed by your talent,” said Philadelphia Mayor John Street in a letter to Collins. “It’s no wonder Ed Bacon has said your work deserves the highest accolades. On behalf of the people of Philadelphia, I extend my belated but heart-felt thanks not just for Schuylkill River Park but for your life-long efforts to make Philadelphia a more livable and beautiful city.”
Collins efforts to ensure that there would remain an abundance of green amid the city’s steel, glass, and stone certainly didn’t end there. In the 1970s, the Delta Group designed a Fine Arts Plan for the University of Pennsylvania and received numerous awards and honors for their planning and involvement in environmental projects.
“The human element always should go hand-in-hand with the design element,” Collins said. “You need to provide public spaces that are tough enough and big enough to withstand the test of time.”
In 1978, Collins designed the award-winning Chestnut Street Park in Philadelphia to celebrate the region’s natural landscape and native people.
“The William Penn Foundation has long shared John Collins’s life-long belief that high quality green urban places, parks, and civic spaces are essential components of a healthy and vital city. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to partner with John and to put into practice his beliefs as well as demonstrate his impressive design skills in creating the Chestnut Street Park,” said Feather O. Houstoun, President of the William Penn Foundation. “For nearly three decades this small oasis — comprised of only native plants and materials — has offered a delightful respite to Center City residents, workers, and visitors. And throughout its existence, John has personally cared for and tended the park further demonstrating his commitment to, and stewardship of, the green places that enhance the quality of life of the people of our great city.”
In 1982, Collins launched a program to train inmates in urban horticulture skills at the House of Corrections in Philadelphia. The program PLANT — Philadelphia Landscape and Nursery Training — trained inmates to plant and maintain greenery in public spaces. The program continues, on a smaller scale, to this day.
“I worked with John Collins training prisoners to raise and care for plants in the greenhouses at the House of Corrections and then to install those plants in community gardens across the city,” said James M. Dickerson, Nursery Superintendent of PLANT from 1982 to 1989. “The prisoners learned how to nurture a plant through its life cycle, how to make a garden, how to start and finish a job. John Collins grew plants, and he grew people too.”
Collins also helped the city retail district grow and flourish. He and his partners played an integral role in the 1980s revitalization of Market Street East — a project supported by local business under the leadership of G. Stockton Strawbridge, CEO of the Strawbridge & Clothier department stores.
The Delta Group’s design eliminated unnecessary and ugly traffic islands and signals, established “lay-by” bus lanes, widened sidewalks, installed new passenger shelters and benches, added lighting fixtures with planters and banners, all while accommodating the street’s busy commercial and rush-hour traffic. The project was extended to the eastern portion of Market Street through the historic Old City section. Collins personally went door-to-door and met with retailers to advocate the creation of a Center City business improvement district (BID) to ensure that the street and improvements would be maintained. Between 5th and Front Streets, Collins’ design recaptured the feel of 18th Century Philadelphia. The Delta Group was part of the team that constructed the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing.
“Here is a man who cares deeply about his fellow human beings, their well-being and their relationship to the world around them. (Collins’) whole life is a seamless totality of dedicated service through education, environmental planning and design and horticulture,” stated the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Program for Collins’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1995. (Collins has) brought together business executives and inner city youth, prison inmates and community volunteers, revitalized neighborhoods with green spaces and livable landscapes in scale with the people they serve.”
Throughout his career, Collins demonstrated a commitment to educating young professionals, serving as a lecturer, professor, and visiting studio critic at major landscape architecture programs at Penn, Penn State, Harvard, Cornell, Drexel, Virginia and Louisiana State. He also taught at the School of Architecture and Planning in New Delhi, India. In addition to developing horticultural therapy programs to help prison inmates, he also established community and teaching gardens in Philadelphia for public school children.
In 1988, Collins became the founding Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at Temple University. Under his leadership, the department advanced in academic standards, achieving accreditation for the landscape architecture program; hired new faculty; and reached out to the community with urban design-build programs.
From a small horticultural school for women with just three students and one instructor to home of a strong Landscape Architecture and Horticulture Department offering full four-year degree programs and highly regarded faculty, Temple University Ambler — where the new department was established building upon the legacy of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women — had certainly come a long way.
“The Horticulture and Landscape Architecture programs were developed into strong programs that were appropriate for an urban university,” said James Blackhurst, dean at the Ambler campus from 1984 to 1995. “They started focusing on urban environmental planning, which was something that hadn’t been done before.”
In practice with his own landscape architecture and environmental planning firm for 25 years at that time, Collins said he “needed some soldiers,” in the battle to preserve the environment.
“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. If you are going to be involved with land planning, land development, or civil engineering, you should have appropriate knowledge of the plants you’re working with. ”
In the first year that bachelor’s degree programs were offered in the two disciplines, the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture programs took home a “Best of Show” award from the Philadelphia Flower Show, an achievement repeated in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2011.
In 1989, the Landscape Architecture program received accreditation from the American Society of Landscape Architects, a measure Collins said was critical for the program and its graduates.
“By state law, you must graduate from an accredited program in order to take the licensing test,” he said. “It was a lot of fun putting together the curriculum. I approached it as bringing ecological understanding to the design phase; expanding and including an environmental approach to land development and construction.”
In addition to creating a new master plan for the campus, Collins led an extensive program to directly involve students in design-build projects. Many new projects were completed on campus, including the Cottage Hall courtyard; new pergolas and stonework around the entrance near the Administration building; gardens for native plants, groundcovers and herbs; handicapped ramps and new ramps leading from Dixon Hall to the formal gardens; a ring road to route traffic around the campus; and a sustainable wetland garden. Collins also established a native plant nursery as a teaching, research, and plant production facility.
The central campus roadways became primarily for pedestrian traffic, removing the “noise and fumes from the main drive, which were horrendous,” Collins said.
“I think the design-build aspect of the programs at Ambler is critical — you need to develop respect for the landscape. I don’t see how you can attempt to design something without the knowledge and training necessary to actually construct it,” he said. “Construction is a continuation of the artistic process — I don’t distinguish between hardscape aspects such as pavement, walls, and built elements and the organic aspects of plants and soil. The boundaries between disciplines should be blurred, with design intermingled with construction, landscape architecture, planning, and horticulture.”
While at Temple, Collins continued his involvement in neighborhood revitalization. He created a partnership between the University, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Green program and Sea Change, Inc. to establish an urban tree farm in North Philadelphia’s Cecil B. Moore neighborhood. Collins established a campus greenery program and proposed a Center for Sustainable Environment at Temple University Ambler. Today, the Center for Sustainable Communities at the Ambler campus develops and promotes new approaches to protect and preserve quality of life through sustainable development, improving public health and safety, and balancing the relationship between environmental integrity, economic prosperity, public safety and social equity.
Collins has also spent years planning and advocating the restoration of the Wissahickon Creek. In 1999, The Delta Group completed a Wissahickon Creek conservation plan for a 21 mile-long corridor in southeast Pennsylvania.
“If there is one project that I would like to continue working on, Wissahickon Creek conservation and restoration would be it. As a country, historically, we haven’t been able to protect these smaller hunks of landscape, but it is critical that we do,” Collins said. “I’ve provided an idea to develop a nursery that all municipalities within the watershed would support jointly. It could be done simply and they could share the cost.”
One of Collins’s most enduring contributions was the early advocacy for designating the Ambler campus as an arboretum to create an environment for learning and promoting ecologically sound planning, design, development, and management. In 2000, the campus was formally registered as an arboretum by the American Public Gardens Association.
“John Collins’s legacy is in his built works and in the people whose lives were changed as a result of his advocacy, teaching, and professional example. His enthusiasm, confidence, integrity and devotion to the highest professional ideals have inspired several generations of landscape architects,” said James Searing, a student in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture who has be extensively researching Collins’ legacy for the retrospective. “He anticipated the need to reach out across disciplines to solve complex problems, while helping government officials, community leaders and the public see the consequences of their decisions and actions. As a result, he has advanced the region’s ability to work cooperatively toward meeting major, social and environmental challenges.”
Dr. Mary Myers, Acting Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture agreed, adding that perhaps most important “is his celebration of creativity, the notion that cities can be civilizing places that promote an enduring human connection with the natural world.”
For more information on the John F. Collins Drawing Exhibit at Temple University Ambler, please contact Linda Lowe, Director of Development and Alumni Affairs at 267-468-8440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
James F. Duffy contributed to this report.
The John F. Collins Drawing exhibit was made possible by a generous donation of twenty-nine drawings and prints by the John F. Collins family in 2011. The artwork in this exhibit, drawn by John F. Collins or created under his guidance, will continue to inspire Temple University students.
These interpretive panels were developed from the John F. Collins FASLA Retrospective brochure written by James E. Searing and Mary Myers and interpretive material on specific drawings prepared for the John F. Collins FASLA Retrospective exhibit in 2007.
Our thanks to Pauline Hurley-Kurtz, Linda Lowe, Joseph P. McLaughlin, Jr., Saul Katzman and Kathy Beveridge, for their efforts in developing this permanent exhibit and collection. Graphics by 21xDesign. Panel production by Seth Davis.
The initial 2007 John Collins Retrospective was organized by a group of dedicated alumni from Temple University Ambler, friends of John Collins, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture.
Premier sponsors include:
Edmund Hollander Landscape Architects
Ann D. Marshall
Peter G. Schlotterer
Robert and Heidi Shusterman
S.R. Wojdak & Associates, L.P.
Mr. and Mrs. Philip R. Albright
Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture of Temple University
Doris H. Kessler
Dr. and Mrs. Joseph P. McLaughlin, Jr.
PA/DE Chapter of the American Society of
James E. Searing and Gayle Goodman
Elmore & Sally Boles
Andy & Allison Hamilton
Dr. and Mrs. James W. Hilty
Donna M. Swansen, APLD
University of Pennsylvania Department of
Susan Kay Weiler
Neal H. Belanger
Amy R. Borer
Joseph P. Collins
Pete & Sherry Collins
James Corner, ASLA
David Brothers Nursery
Gail & Herb Henze
Marjorie Epps Kennedy
Dennis C. McGlade
Joan W. Meschter
Don & Nancy Richardson
Lucinda Reed Sanders
Tom and Barbara Schraudenbach
Louisa Spottswood and Robert Coughlin
Beth Van Vleck
Elizabeth H. Anderson
Virginia M. Carter
Gordon & Nancy Conwell
Mark A. Focht
Mr. and Mrs. Mario L. Schack
Carter van Dyke
Marvin & Susan Adleman
Mary D. Bowe
Bob and Mary Lou Brown
Francis & Angelina Collins
Mr. and Mrs. David Dutot
Vicki L. Ferguson
Robert J. Fleming
Frank A. Gansz
Thomas A. Grahame
Susan Hadden & Jamie Wyper
Mary Anne Hunter
Terry Jacobs & Sally Harrison
Marlys C. Johnson
Anita Toby Lager
Susan M. Mattison
Dorothy M. Orsini
David B. Rowland
Sal’s Nursery & Landscaping, Inc.
Betty Jean Smith
J. Nathan Sullivan
Derik & Ann Sutphin
Alison and Brad Thornton