The Evolution of Cornell’s Living Museum

At the founding of Cornell University in 1865, its early leaders envisioned a place in which “plants are displayed so appropriately that at first there is interest, then appreciation for their many values for human use and enjoyment.”

Our History

Securing and protecting the natural treasures that make up the dramatic landscape of the university and providing areas for natural study, research, and enjoyment was part of the earliest vision for Cornell University.

From this intention, Cornell Botanic Gardens was established, grew, and flourished, with responsibility for the iconic natural beauty of the campus and beyond.

The first incarnation of this vision was an arboretum, established in 1875 on the grounds of Sage Hall, the university’s first residence for women.

Floyd R. “Flood” Newman

Shortly after the turn of the century, Cornell alumni began advocating for the preservation and protection of the gorges surrounding the university. Two of these—Cascadilla Gorge and Fall Creek Gorge north of Stewart Avenue—today are stewarded by Cornell Botanic Gardens. In 1925, the university Board of Trustees approved the first plan for an arboretum, including these two gorge areas. A small part of what is now the F.R. Newman Arboretum was set apart and named “Cornell Arboretum” in 1935.

It took another nine years before the formal founding of the arboretum and botanic gardens, under the leadership of Professor Liberty Hyde Bailey. He envisioned a sprawling series of gardens, nurseries, greenhouses, and crop and livestock fields that would demonstrate Cornell’s vast and growing expertise in agricultural sciences. In 1944, the first of these areas was established and named Cornell Plantations.

Liberty Hyde Bailey

In subsequent years, what was then Cornell Plantations developed and built 10 specialty gardens, expanded and completed its arboretum, and undertook capital improvements to accommodate its growing collections and role in university and community life. By 2010, Cornell Plantations completed its most ambitious capital project to date—the LEED Gold-certified Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center, acknowledged as one of the most significant biophilic buildings constructed at Cornell in recent decades.

Looking to the Future

In 2014, we embarked on a thoughtful examination of our organization and our resolve to make a positive impact on people and the planet. After engaging stakeholder groups and embracing a new mission and vision, our name was changed to Cornell Botanic Gardens from Cornell Plantations. This new name better reflects our commitment to core pillars cultivation, conservation, and education.

Subsequent to this broad re-branding effort, Cornell Botanic Gardens developed a strategic plan to help us achieve our objective of being leaders in connecting plants and peoples for a world of beauty, diversity, and hope.

More on our History and Direction

Board approves Cornell Botanic Gardens naming
Cornell Botanic Gardens was officially approved Oct. 28, 2016 by the Cornell University Board of Trustees, the final step in a broad rebranding effort.

Discover Cornell’s rich history
Cornell Chronicle article on Cornell’s history that includes Cornell Botanic Gardens.

History Timeline
How Cornell Botanic Gardens grew since the founding of Cornell University.