A touch of Eden

Chatham University is turning donated farm into model of sustainability

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Whenever H.J. Heinz was out of town, his first cousin, Sebastian Mueller, ran the famous food company.

Bearded and distinguished, Mueller lobbied for the Pure Food Act of 1906 and made sure Heinz's female employees received medical care, even paying for it if they could not afford it.

But from boyhood in Bavaria to adulthood in America, Mueller suffered a string of soul-wrenching losses. His father, Wilhelm Mueller II, drank and abandoned his family. His brother, Wilhelm III, disappeared on a boat bound for Baltimore and was presumed drowned. In 1892, his young daughters, Elsa and Alma, died of diphtheria within a week of each other.

Six months after his only son, 18-year-old Stanford, died of scarlet fever in 1912, Mueller bought Eden Hall Farm, a country retreat 20 miles northeast of the city in Richland.

There he built a brick-and-stucco, Craftsman-style home with an enclosed porch, a picturesque white barn for his prize-winning horse, Jazzbo, a caretaker's cottage and a storage shed. With its white picket fences, rolling land and towering trees, the place resembles a Kentucky horse farm.

Today, the 388-acre spread -- the largest undeveloped tract of land in Allegheny County -- is the Eden Hall campus of Chatham University. It will be "developed as a demonstration site for how to live sustainably in the 21st century," said Chatham's president Dr. Esther L. Barazzone. It also will serve as headquarters for Chatham's school for the environment and sustainability.

The Eden Hall Foundation donated the property to Chatham last year. Since then, the university's faculty and staff have considered the best way to use the buildings, as well as the land, water and second-growth forest.

"We've committed to building green, always, on that property. We have commitments to keep a significant portion of the land open," Dr. Barazzone said, adding that more than 75 acres will remain undeveloped.

Chatham's leaders have traveled to Warren Wilson College, Duke University and Berea to see how those schools have integrated green building into their campuses.

Nearly a century has passed since Mueller built his country home, but its Craftsman simplicity, woodwork and tile have worn well. Just off the foyer is a living room with a 6-foot-high fireplace, beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, oak crown molding and wainscoting.

There's a spacious dining room, a commodious butler's pantry and five bedrooms. A large porcelain tub in the second-floor bathroom affords a spectacular view of the grounds, and the same is true of a clawfoot tub one flight up.

The screened porch, which runs around three sides of the home, is especially inviting and has already hosted retreats for the university's president, faculty and staff.

In front of the home is a butterfly garden and a long, elegant fringe of six Japonica bushes. On the back lawn, a curved concrete path fringed by peony bushes leads to the large white barn.

Just steps from the Mueller home's front porch is a lodge built in 1951 that contains offices, an industrial kitchen, recreation room with bowling alley and pool table, and an outdoor swimming pool. Chatham students have attended orientation there, and film students held a retreat at the lodge.

But the scene that would gratify environmental pioneer Rachel Carson, the school's best-known graduate, is playing out near the large white barn, which has recently been repainted, gotten a new roof and reinforced with new wood.

Here, a group of students are tending an organic vegetable garden that offers a subscription to produce through a community-supported agriculture program.

On a sunny May morning, Dr. Lynne Bruckner, a Shakespearean scholar, supervised young women more accustomed to rapid texting than rototilling. The students weeded vigorously around 25 vegetables and harvested the arugula, which they ate in a salad at lunch.

Enclosed by a 5-foot-high fence, the garden contains 25 vegetables, including red cabbage, lettuce, mesclun, spinach, Swiss chard, peas, carrots and radishes. The top of the fence is arched to deter invaders such as ground hogs and deer. Allysium was planted to attract bees and ladybugs.

"We started in January ... by learning about organic practices," such as soil, seeds and composting, said Dr. Bruckner, an articulate, vivacious woman. Installing the fence ate up an entire Saturday.

Dr. Bruckner and her husband moved to a 71/2-acre "farmette" in Butler County after they realized the cost of boarding horses had outstripped their mortgage on a home in Bloomfield.

"Our new neighbors called us hicks in training," she said, smiling.

But for members of "Net Gen," college students who have always had access to the Internet, spending time outside is not a regular habit and "nature is a chore," Dr. Bruckner said.

Before her students ventured outdoors, she showed them samples of poison ivy and poison oak contained in plastic bags. Even then, some tenderfoots were reluctant to touch the sealed samples.

"I had never planted a thing," said Emily Newby, a 23-year-old junior from Bloomington, Ind. "It's not as hard as it seems. It's helped me to understand where my food is coming from. "

Kathryn "Katie" Stratmann, a landscape architecture student, loved the experience of weeding beside her classmates.

"There can be a comfortable silence. There was definitely a flow of conversation," Ms. Stratmann said.

Beyond the large organic garden in another field, Ms. Newby has planted several rows of what Iroquois Indians called the three sisters. There's squash on the outside, flour corn in the center and beans that grow up the corn stalks. The large squash leaves help keep the weeds down.

Ms. Newby, who will work part time at the Eden Hall campus this summer, learned this planting technique from Nancy Gift, acting director of Chatham's Rachel Carson Institute.

Professor Gift, author of a book called "A Weed by Any Other Name," studied agronomy and weed science at Cornell University, where she planted the three sisters with classmates and sold the flour corn to five groups of Iroquois Indians in New York state.

The organic garden will play a role in future classes. Chatham is searching for faculty to start a program in undergraduate and master's degree programs in food studies.

"We are very aware of the importance of local food sources for cities. It's a matter of security for urban areas," Dr. Barazzone said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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