Correction to This Article
An Oct. 24 Style article on the Sweet Briar College incorrectly identified a student as Kristin Baines. Her name is Kristin Barnes. This version has been corrected.

Sweet Briar College: Beauty and Brains

Miles of hiking and riding trails wind through the 3,250 acres of Sweet Briar College.
Miles of hiking and riding trails wind through the 3,250 acres of Sweet Briar College. (By Al Cook)
By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

All right, I have to admit it. It's stunning.

Even though the summer drought has leached the verdure from the grand, sweeping lawns. Even though I've seen dozens of gorgeous college campuses in my time. And even though I knew that a small Southern women's college with a twin-set-and-Pappagallos past couldn't hope to rival my Upstate New York alma mater for splendor of landscape and architectural design.

Yes, you might say I was a wee bit skeptical when I hit Route 29 one recent weekend, headed for the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains 165 miles away to check out the Princeton Review's verdict that Virginia's diminutive Sweet Briar College (only 636 students, the size of my high school class!) boasts the most beautiful campus in the United States.

The day was glorious, and the Virginia countryside worked its old devil magic, lifting the Washington weight off our shoulders as high-rises gave way to pastures and pumpkin patches. We caught lunch in Amherst, a town of about 2,000 just a few miles from the college, where Holly Mills, director of the local history museum, considered the school's ranking perfectly duh. "This is a place that takes beauty very seriously," she said, informing us that the local garden club had just won a prize for its design of a traffic circle.

And there's some seriously pretty country in the Old Dominion, for sure, so I was primed for a lovely getaway. But, boy, I wasn't expecting what we rode into when we entered the Sweet Briar campus, which greeted us with nothing but rolling knolls of windswept grass and a tree-lined drive marked by a brick gateway. There wasn't a building in sight. Nary a Gothic tower or Colonial spire to announce, "College campus this way, folks." Driving up the long, heavily forested road that led us finally to the back of the quad, it was hard to avoid the sense that we'd glided into another world. Because we had.

Welcome to the Pink Bubble.

That's what the Sweet Briar women have dubbed their school (whose colors, yes, are proudly pink and green). So divulged Meredith Newman, a junior making her way across the leafy quad in a T-shirt and camouflage sweats (bye-bye, twin sets and Pappagallos). "This is definitely a place where you can lose yourself and forget the outside world, if that's what you have to do," the 20-year-old lacrosse player and equestrian said.

She was speaking figuratively, but it would not be hard to get lost for real, believe me, in this self-contained world that runs its own inn and conference center (busy-busy that weekend with a wedding and a language workshop; a second wedding had people piling into the stately college chapel). Because what is it that gets you voted the country's most beautiful campus? Try 3,250 acres of lush Virginia real estate with sweeping vistas studded with lakes, ponds and nature sanctuaries, crisscrossed by miles of hiking and riding trails. And an academic-residential quadrangle of graceful Georgian buildings, some designed by noted turn-of-the-20th-century architect Ralph Adams Cram.

On grounds of this scale, it's easy to get away from it all -- not that there's that much "all" to get away from. "We're not really a campus that's ever abuzz," Jennifer McManamay, the college's associate director for media relations, noted wryly.

You'd think all the peace and seclusion and nature-communing might drive hot-blooded 18- to 21-year-olds stir-crazy after a while. But no. "I've loved it here," avowed senior Kristin Barnes, who said there's plenty of diversion within an hour's drive, at other universities or in Lynchburg, 12 miles to the south, with its restaurants and shops. ("Barnes & Noble on a Friday night is a regular event.") But many students are content to hang out on campus, reading on the lawns, partying at the boathouse on one of the lakes or in their dorms. Well, so they told me.

I hadn't brought the best walking shoes, so McManamay took us on a driving tour of the three-mile "loop" that winds past the art studios, housed in the buildings of a former dairy (it used to supply milk to the college and a popular yogurt to the neighboring community); the equestrian center (one of Sweet Briar's biggest draws); and the farm that operated until the 1990s. It may be gone, but the pulse and palette of rural life remain. In the fall, the grass in the Dell, the undulating field north of the quad, is cut and rolled into bales of hay. We watched deer lope across a distant field.

It was easy to project back to the early 19th century and the days of Sweet Briar Plantation. The college is the legacy of the last owner, Indiana Fletcher Williams, who signed over the estate -- the president lives in the original Sweet Briar House -- and her fortune to the founding, in 1901, of a college for women. All to honor her only child, a daughter named Daisy.

Daisy died in 1884 at the age of 16, and a pilgrimage to her grave in the family cemetery on Monument Hill is de rigueur. So up we went. We could actually see the white grave marker, topped with a statue of a woman with arm upraised, from the middle of the campus, a mile or more below. But up close, it was a jaw-dropper. And a neck-craner: It's at least 25 or 30 feet tall (no one seems to know precisely).

And yet, it seems fitting. I stepped outside the cemetery gate to take in the vista that greets the statue's stone eyes: Green and grassy meadows roll endlessly down to the horizon. In the valley, framed by rustling trees, the red-brick campus nestles like a miniature village, its towers and spires rising to the unbounded azure skies.

From its giddy height, Daisy's monument presides over the real monument her mother created for her.

The Pink Bubble. A little world to get lost in.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company