Stand on Locust Walk for an afternoon. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a student who’s heard of the Morris Arboretum, much less one who can even pronounce the name correctly.
Paul Meyer, executive director of the Morris Arboretum, described it as one of Penn’s arts and culture institutions. He said, “[It’s] a living museum of trees.”
The arboretum is home to the university’s first LEED Platinum building, a centuries-old mill, adult classes, community gardens and a spectrum of wildlife.
And this past September the arboretum, which spans 170 acres and attracts about 130,000 visitors a year, celebrated its 125th anniversary. It celebrated with special exhibits and a children’s theater program that narrated the institution’s history.
The land was originally a summer home for John and Lydia Morris in the 1880s. And while Penn has administered the arboretum since 1932, Wells Fargo owns it in trust. The bank holds assets for income that helps support the arboretum.
Penn students head to the arboretum for different reasons, but often find it difficult to make time for a visit. As a Penn resource, students have free admission.
College sophomore Madeleine Stevens went to the arboretum her senior year of high school as part of a reception for Philadelphia-area students who had been accepted to Penn. She would visit again, but “I would have to have a weekend without work and know I could put in the time commitment to actually go there and enjoy myself,” she said.
Wharton sophomore Penny Zhang agreed. “It’s kind of a hefty journey, but [it’s] amazing,” she said. She ended up going by chance.
Zhang had won a raffle for a free PennCycle membership, happened to see a Morris Arboretum brochure, found herself with free time over fall break and biked there with a friend. “It seems totally removed from Philly,” she said. The arboretum exists mostly within city limits, but also spills out into Montgomery County.
Director of Public Programs Robert Gutowski stressed the arboretum’s rejuvenative nature for anyone who visits. “Here, our minds are a little freerer. Here you can take advantage of that distance from the University,” he said. “I’ve seen Penn seniors out here finally breathing, as if for the first time.”
College sophomore Xavier Flory visited the arboretum as part of “Living Deliberately,” a class last semester where students recreated the lives of monks — though no one expected students to make the journey Flory did. “I walked there,” he said. The route he took stretched for about 14 miles.
Flory awoke at 5 a.m., arrived when the arboretum was empty of people, brought his own food with him and meditated. He was at Morris for nine hours, then returned to campus by 8 p.m. on foot.
“Once you’ve gone there and back, you feel as though you’ve gotten a good sense of the city,” he said.
“If one goes for the purpose of getting away, walking is the best way. Set aside the whole day — if you worry about time it defeats the purpose,” Flory said. He recommends making the trek during April, when “the most exquisite blooms begin to show themselves.”
Most students take other forms of transportation, however. College junior Aelita Parker went by car. “It’s a place for solitude … I was there for four hours, but not even that was enough time,” Parker said.
Plenty of Penn students need a break from the university bubble, she said, “but they need something more drastic than a trip to Rittenhouse.”