Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

December 27, 2012

Enchanted Forest, Part II: How a dream sanctuary took wing

Andover Stories Tom Adams, Andover Historical Society
The Andover Townsman

---- — This is the second part, of a two-part Andover Stories.

By the spring of 1929, the construction of the Moncrieff Cochran Sanctuary, named after Thomas Cochran’s older brother, was in full swing on the campus of Phillips Academy. Although the original plan embracing the Rabbit Pond area was proving highly successful, Cochran envisioned something far more expansive. Looking beyond Rabbit Pond, Cochran saw the old Missionary Woods and beyond as a larger tract of land that he’d need to acquire to realize his plan for the school grounds.

Along with Charles Adams Platt, Cochran brought in the landscape expertise of the Olmsted brothers, who were already transforming the main school campus. Their remarkable body of work included New York’s Central Park, the Emerald Necklace, a linear system of parks including the Boston Common, Chicago’s Columbian World’s Fair, the landscape surrounding the U. S. Capital building in Washington, D. C., and dozens of college campuses across the country.

Cochran quietly purchased over 150 acres to the east of Samuel Phillips Hall.

With the vast amount of newly acquired land now in hand, the Olmsteds began to carve out the sanctuary. A brook running through the newly acquired property was dammed, creating two ponds providing a habitat for the sanctuary’s bird population. The land was reasonably well forested with oak, pine, maple, ash, and birch trees. The Olmsteds enhanced the natural beauty of the area adding azalea, blueberry, laurel and rhododendrons which would quickly grow and flourish.

Thomas Cochran’s vision was finally coming to life. Described in the Oct. 5, 1929 Phillipian, the Phillips Academy newspaper, the sanctuary was fast becoming “a fine park with beautiful broad roads and many wooded paths alive with birds, honeycombing the whole area.”

The Olmsted’s oversaw the construction of three miles of gravel roads and pedestrian-only bridges. Automobile traffic was not allowed. Further securing the vastly expanded grounds, Cochran commissioned a fence – 11,000 linear feet at a cost of $39,000. Popularly referred to at the time as the “Great Wall of Andover,” the fence surrounded the entire property where its remains stand today.

Designed to keep the birds safe by deterring predators from gaining access to the sanctuary, it also eliminated the need for pens and cages, allowing the hundreds of birds introduced – ducks, geese, swans, quail, and pheasants - to live freely in a far more natural habitat. The fence rose to 7 feet in height with one foot going into the ground and then horizontally underground for a foot preventing animals from digging their way in from underneath. The fence also had a metal flashing preventing animals from climbing over and onto the grounds. If you look carefully, you can still see the flashing today.

Cochran also commissioned artist Stuart Travis, who had done work on the campus for many years, to design a set of gates for the entrance to the sanctuary. Built in 1932, the gates are made from rusticated wood supported by stone piers. Across the top of the gates is a charming wrought iron frieze of birds and flowers. Beyond the gates, memorial benches hewn of rock and stone were conceived, designed and placed throughout the grounds, offering spectacular vistas where one could rest and contemplate the quiet, calming majesty of nature.

The crowning touch to Thomas Cochran’s dream was a meeting place where students could gather, relax and take in the natural beauty the sanctuary had to offer.

Cochran turned to the man he’d appointed as the first warden of the sanctuary, his old friend Augustus P. Thompson, to help create the center. Working together with his brother Moncrieff, a simple log cabin was designed. It was built in 1931 on a hilltop at the highest point at east end of the Sanctuary using logs from Nashua, N.H. The cabin, with a hot air furnace, offered all the comforts of home. One large room held a fireplace along with space and facilities for dining. On weekends, a caterer stood ready to prepare sandwiches and hamburgers, served on china, as well as soft drinks. The cabin also had a well-stocked library. Beds, blankets and camping equipment were on hand so that students could stay the night. Outside, benches were placed at the back of the cabin offering a breathtaking vista. The cabin grounds included two manicured putting greens for golfers to practice and hone their games.

If there is even the slightest downside to the realization of Thomas Cochran’s dream, it is that the sanctuary never took hold as a popular gathering place for students. Yet, meticulously managed over its long history by its superintendents, and now by the manager of grounds, it has evolved into what Cochran envisioned – “a natural piece of ground intersected by paths and adorned by ponds ...inhabited by birds and trees and wild flowers.”

Today, it is a natural woodland enjoyed by walkers and runners throughout the year and cross-country skiers in the winter months. Located at the end of Chapel Avenue, the sanctuary is open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The sanctuary offers a breath of fresh air, one well worth taking.