What took me by surprise was a chance encounter with this beast in the southern half of the campus:
And of course, this pole’s identical siblings stand approximately 250 feet away in either direction. It’s rare to see such a jarringly large utility line in the interior of a campus. In fact, it’s rare to see utilities on a campus at all—nearly all private schools are willing to front the cost to run the lines underground.
In many ways, the presence of overhead wires in urban settings distinguishes the
Conversely, undergrounding cables never completely eliminates the possibility of power outages, and a severe outage on an underground system may be harder to access or repair. In addition, cities that engage in a fair amount of road alterations such as widening or storm sewer additions may find that underground cables are far easier and cheaper to maneuver around, while underground cables would cost a fortune to relocate. Regions with a high level of seismic activity also need to be conscious of the vulnerability of buried electrical cables. I have also read on occasion that the speed of electrical transmission across great distances is inferior on underground cables, thus explaining—beyond the sheer costs—why sparsely populated rural areas almost always depend on overhead cables. (My source on this last bit of information is questionable; perhaps an electrical engineer can confirm or contradict it.)
Arguments favoring and opposing overhead cables are clearly numerous, often leaving the investment decision at a stalemate, in which each location gets individual consideration. The one determinant in which buried cables always wins is aesthetics. Overhead cables are an unsightly blight on the landscape to most people—no doubt many commercial photographs of great vistas have had the power lines blotted out courtesy of Adobe Photoshop. So why did Vanderbilt choose not bury these lines that rest fully within the campus? My guess is the answer is quite simple—this is not a part of the campus that Vanderbilt leadership wants or expects most of the public to see.
In hindsight, I’m kicking myself for not taking more good photos of the campus, but the combination of what I did take and some campus maps should get the point across. The oldest part of the campus remains sequestered from the majority by busy
This area (outlined in blue in the campus map below) is known as the Peabody Campus, because it originated as the
The distinctive origin design of the
Apparently the biodiversity of this portion of campus has earned it the designation as a national arboretum. This section and the Peabody Campus receive the highest level of utility upgrades; not a single overhead cable is visible here.
The approximate spot where I took the original photo of the utility pole is indicated by the orange circle on the campus map. This area, and virtually everything to both the south and west of it, represents the preponderance of Vanderbilt’s expansions. Most of the university’s expansion began in the 1950s, and it shows. Whereas
Lupton Hall is one wing within a larger quad structure, but it rests on
The need for 22,000 square feet of parking would have seemed unconscionable prior to the expansion, but by the time the Kensington Garage was built at the intersection of
Most likely my original photo featured a different perspective of this 1920s-era power house. The prominent smoke stack is an unlikely feature not commonly seen in most campuses. Interestingly, the campus website claims here that all house-run utilities are underground, which leads one to question why it would make such a claim when above ground facilities are plainly visible. Could it be that the power lines running through campus service other parts of the city and the City of
Regardless of whether the utility placement is by-right or by easement, it clearly remains the underbelly of the institution—the mess of wires and gears that makes the place tick. Nearly every major campus has a portion like this—the section where aesthetics took a back seat to the convenience of parking, or vehicle unloading, or the necessity of a close electric substation. It would be lunacy for Vanderbilt’s admissions office to coordinate tours in this portion of the campus—the whole area feels like logistical roads for vehicle unloading, while the main entrances to the buildings themselves seems almost hidden. Like most urban development in the 1950s and subsequent decades, both the scale of the structures and the flow created by linear paths disfavor the pedestrian. The buildings might be generally close together and contiguous with the old campus—after all, students aren’t necessarily going to own cars and will still need access to the expansion sections of campus—but the planning seems far less cognizant of foot traffic than 19th century Vanderbilt, which is human scaled by necessity. The new campus seeks to accommodate both the car and the pedestrian, but it is axiomatic that only the pedestrian will make any sacrifices in this case. The result is sprawl, university style.
This dichotomy between old and may have little bearing on the overall success of the university, but the fact that campus facilities has made no effort to conceal those aggressive electric poles speaks much about the aesthetic stance the university takes to its new development. Most contemporary American cities are devoting an inordinate amount of resources to revitalizing their downtowns, largely because, no matter how much it may decentralize, the downtown remains the foremost location by which an outsider is going to form an impression of a city. Downtown is the city’s front door. Accordingly, old campus and