Iconic ASU pathway to celebrate turning 100 — or as close as we can figure — with new trees replacing those at end of their lifespan
Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.
Palm Walk, that iconic image of Arizona State University, turns 100 this year.
It’s an anniversary often repeated as fact, that school President Arthur John Matthews planted the trees in 1916.
The only problem is that it can’t be confirmed.
But what can be found in the musty documents and fading photos — and the story behind it all — is far more interesting. It’s a tale of establishing an oasis in a desert, of a tiny nascent college struggling to establish itself in an infant state with a bad national image. It’s about finding balance between transformation, preservation and the inevitable.
The palms are nearing the end of their natural lifespans. They will have to be replaced.
But before we get into the specifics of the trees’ fate, let’s look at their past.
The story of Palm Walk is a tale of trees, death, rebirth, history and mystery.
Palm Walk has been called the most photographed place on campus. The two rows of stately, elegant trees are the university’s iconic image. University landscape architect Byron Sampson calls them a “place of memory.”
In 1916, the state was 4 years old and the university 31, having been established on George and Martha Wilson’s 20-acre cow pasture at a cost of $500. The only devils on campus were dust, swirling in the fields south and west of Old Main.
If you attended the Tempe Normal School of Arizona around 1916, you studied teaching or agriculture. Other classes were available, but those two subjects were the institution’s focus. If you studied agriculture, it meant getting out in the field — literally.
“Emphasis is placed on the practical rather than the theoretical or technical,” the 1916 curriculum bulletin said. “To this end, work in the class room is supplemented by actual practice in the field and garden.” One requirement of Agriculture 1: Elementary Agriculture was making your own garden.
There are only five buildings left on campus from the teens: Old Main, the University Club, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, the Virginia G. Piper Writers House, and Matthews Hall.
What was life like for students the year the palm trees reportedly were planted? Let’s pull two names off the student rolls in 1916: Reathie Pfeifer of Phoenix and Howard Draper of Wickenburg. Both had roommates; all the dorms had were doubles. If it was hot out, they slept on sleeping porches. (The catalog goes to great lengths to describe dormitory sleeping porches. Having a sleeping porch in 1916 was like having air-conditioning in 1947. It was something you advertised that people sought out, especially Arizonans.) They paid $16.75 a month for room, board and utilities. Another dollar got their laundry done each month.
Both Reathie and Howard ate in the dining hall. The food was good. Nowadays it would be touted as artisanal, local, organic. The school had 50 acres for crops, a dairy, a hog lot and a poultry yard, all producing eggs, meat, milk and vegetables for the students.
Reathie might have belonged to the Zetetic Society, a drama club for women, or if she liked to read, the Clionian Literary Society. She might have played basketball or tennis. She had two parlors, a sitting room and a piano in her dorm. Howard’s dorm didn’t have any of that.
Howard might have belonged to the Athenian Debating Club or played football, which was in its second year at the school. School officials suspected the sport might take off. “By the interest and enthusiasm shown in this sport there is no doubt but that football will be played each year,” the catalog predicted.
For entertainment that year, they could have gone to see a male quartet from Manhattan, a dramatic reader of modern plays, or the Killarney Girls and Rita Rich, “six young women musicians in Irish costumes in an evening of music and Irish humor.”
Neither one of them whooped it up on Mill Avenue. “As the sale of liquors is prohibited in Arizona, the undesirable influence of the saloon is entirely eliminated,” the catalog reassured parents.
Those students were at Tempe Normal School right at the midpoint of Arthur John Matthews’ leadership tenure. He served as principal from 1900-1904 and then as the first president from 1904-1930.
Matthews has been called the “president-gardener” for his horticultural bent.
“He was very interested in beautifying the campus,” university archivist Rob Spindler said.
Matthews, an Irish ex-farm boy from a small town in upstate New York, planted 1,478 trees of 57 varieties; more than a mile of hedges; and 1,512 shrubs, reportedly some of them personally.
The “Our Campus” column in the Tempe Normal Student (the State Press of the day) mentioned areas near the infirmary “lately beautified” by “good cement walks and grass” in March 1917.