PHILADELPHIA - Several exquisitely landscaped colleges outside this city offer a chance to meditate on America's quaint notion that a campus might be a spiritual haven.
The Gothic archways marking the entrance to the Princeton University campus about 35 miles from here in Princeton, N.J., signal that learning is a sacred endeavor. The visitor might easily imagine the grounds to be an expansive monastery.
While Princeton displays a decidedly elegant version of the country's academic tradition, there is a more modest style in Quaker country about 10 miles west of the city. Here the attractive college hamlets of Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford can be easily visited in an afternoon.
After driving the 11 miles to Swarthmore College from Philadelphia International Airport, I wandered the gentle inclines on campus, everywhere coming across freestanding Adirondack chairs in the grass that invite the student or visitor to sit in reflective solitude. A few long-branched trees sport rope swings, reminding the scholarly that an earnest schedule still affords time for playful release.
Swarthmore appears picturesque yet spare, reflecting its modest spiritual roots. On the 350-acre campus, a designated arboretum, the older buildings have been constructed with stone masonry mostly using material excavated from a local quarry, reflecting the Quaker interest in harmonizing human design with the local environment.
"The idea was to create an architecture of serenity that does not dominate the landscape," said Alfred H. Bloom, the college president, as we looked out on the central campus from his Parrish Hall office. Visitors should be sure to walk beyond these buildings into Crum Woods and view the grass stage outdoor amphitheater where each year on a September evening the entire school gathers to reflect by candlelight on the year ahead.
Swarthmore town offers pleasant walks, but lacks restaurants and accommodations, so continue the day's itinerary with a 15-mile drive up Interstate 76 toward Bryn Mawr. You can stay overnight on campus at the reasonably priced Wyndham Guest House.
Bryn Mawr is one of the country's premier women's colleges and its gorgeous campus set back from the town has the mood of a modern cloister. Designed by landscape architecture pioneers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the 135-acre campus is a broad meadow bordered by high stone walls that ends in a magnificent vista, providing the inspiration for the school name that means "high hill" in Welsh.
Inside Thomas Great Hall stands Athena, the school's patron goddess, at whose feet appear odd offerings requesting assistance. I noticed the stub of a train ticket to New York with a handwritten tag reading, "Athena, you know what this is to ask for."
Another tradition involves the Moon Bench at the end of the central walkway known as Senior Row, where kissing one's significant other supposedly will doom a relationship. Standard romantic practice would dictate the Moon Bench be avoided, but junior Amber Moore of San Diego explained an alternative approach: "If you no longer want to date someone, and you're too immature to break up directly, take them to the Moon Bench."
Bryn Mawr women traditionally have dated men from Haverford a mile up the road, sometimes resulting in marriages that produce "bi-co babies," after the schools' so-called bi-college relationship. A Haverford visit completes the trio of tours to the area's Quaker colleges before evening entertainment. The towns of Bryn Mawr and Haverford are quiet, but offer several excellent restaurant options. Try Primavera Pizza Kitchen in the old high-ceilinged Merion Title & Trust Building on East Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, where the bank clock and night deposit vault remain attached to the stone façade.
A drive the next morning to Princeton takes about an hour and a half following Interstates 476, 276, and 95. The day in Princeton might include a lecture, concert, or art museum visit on campus, and to offset all the intellectual energy, a shopping diversion along Nassau Street and Palmer Square across from the university. Venture beyond the immediate campus. One of Princeton's beauties, in contrast to the more urbane feel of some of its Ivy counterparts, is its modest pastoral setting. Extend your tour with a drive down the Old Post Road to Lawrenceville. Consider getting up just after sunrise the next morning and driving out Washington Road to the Princeton boathouse along the gentle Delaware River tributary to catch a view of a crew stroking in unison on the water.
The campus, its archways aligned along lovely sight paths and nestled gardens, is a trove of academic history. Passing Jones Hall, I identified the window of Room 109 where Albert Einstein worked from 1933-39. Its current occupant, Andras Hamori, professor of Near Eastern Studies, said, with scientific detachment, "It's just a room, a very pleasant room, as it happens. I have never given it any thought." Proximity to genius was perhaps more relative to the visitor.
Hamori's statement reflects a characteristic of Princeton and the smaller colleges around Philadelphia, that is, a tendency to approach brilliance with grounded modesty. The architecture here does suggest lofty aspiration, but everyday conversation can be as low-key as in any small town. Though Einstein devoted himself to uncovering the secrets of the universe, had I run into him along the flagstone walkway on an April afternoon, he might well have been more inclined to discuss the surrounding elm trees with their leaves approaching the height of springtime abundance.
Erik Gleibermann, a freelance writer in San Francisco, can be reached at email@example.com.