A detail of the master plan shows the relationship of the cabins to the site and existing vegetation. Courtesy of Penny Russell.

Form Follows Funding

Lone Oaks Farm  had a master plan as ambitious as they come. Implementation has been rocky.

By Timothy A. Schuler

The cabins opened in summer 2023, but the site was cleared prior to construction.
The cabins opened in summer 2023, but the site was cleared prior to construction. Image by Penny Russell.

From the beginning, the idea behind Lone Oaks Farm in Middleton, Tennessee, was ambitious. Acquired by the University of Tennessee (UT) in 2015, the 1,200-acre property was to be a new home for 4-H summer camps; offer hunter education programs and a world-class sporting clays course; host corporate retreats and private events; and serve as a model for ecological restoration and environmental conservation, all while continuing to operate as a working cattle farm. The goal was to connect people of all ages, especially youth, to the Tennessee landscape, which the farm would do through education, sport, hospitality, food, and agricultural science.

David Dowell, whose architecture firm, El Dorado, worked with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and W. M. Whitaker & Associates (WMWA) Landscape Architects on a 2017 master plan for the farm, says that in its mash-up of programs and aspirations, Lone Oaks is a “new kind of institution,” a public landscape where divergent land ethics might begin to find common ground. This summer, after six years of planning and construction, Lone Oaks hosted its first 4-H summer camps, following the completion of a new dining hall, a youth STEM education center, and the first four of 16 planned cabins, all designed by El Dorado.

An Ambitious Program for Restoration

An emphasis on environmental restoration was a core component of UT’s vision. “[Lone Oaks] is part of the Institute of Agriculture, which isn’t just traditional ag,” says Ben West, who served as the director of Lone Oaks Farm from 2015 to 2018. “It’s forestry and environmental conservation, wildlife and fisheries. It’s a big program.” The ecological goals were also a response to a pastoral landscape that had been refashioned multiple times over the past 200 years. New-growth forests were interspersed with huge swaths of lawn and constructed lakes. Streams had been channelized. Erosion had filled the lakes with sediment. Parts of the site, particularly around the edges of those lakes and streams, were essentially dead, says Jeff Aten, ASLA, an associate principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz. “You basically had lawn running straight into water,” he says. “Maybe it’s picturesque, but it’s not ecologically beneficial.”

A detail of the master plan shows the relationship of the cabins to the site and existing vegetation.
A detail of the master plan shows the relationship of the cabins to the site and existing vegetation. Image courtesy Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

Informed by a months-long analysis of the site’s history, ecology, and existing buildings, the master plan included key recommendations for how the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture and UT Extension, the two primary partners in the venture, could realize its multifaceted vision. The plan divided the site into three zones for hospitality, agriculture, and youth education and called for restoring streams’ natural meanders and establishing riparian buffers along their banks, revegetating the banks of the main lake, converting lawns to meadows and successional habitats, and preserving the largest contiguous forest areas to support bird populations. “From a design perspective, I don’t know how it could have been better,” West says.

Goals on Hold

The university has followed the programmatic contours of the plan, establishing and maintaining three main zones of activity and user groups. But aside from a current effort to restore a two-mile stretch of Cub Creek—funded by Ford Motor Company as part of a deal to develop its 3,600-acre BlueOval City EV-manufacturing hub in West Tennessee—Matt Whitaker, ASLA, the founder of WMWA, says that the plan’s ecological goals have gotten less attention. What’s been built to date has continued an aesthetic of buildings amid a sea of lawn. “In the shooting range, and in the cabins and STEM [building], there was no budget for plants,” says Whitaker, who was also the landscape architect for the Hunter Education Station and sporting clays course.

A detail of the master plan shows the relationship of the cabins to the site and existing vegetation.Courtesy of Penny Russell.
A rendering of the first group of 4-H cabins, designed to sit within an existing woodland. Image courtesy El Dorado.

The first group of 4-H cabins, dubbed the “forest cabins” for the way they nestled into an existing pine grove, also ran into issues. In the original design, all four cabin groupings were located within specific ecotones, “where you would enter the building in one kind of ecosystem and you’d leave on the other in a different [ecosystem],” Dowell says. During construction on the forest cabins, however, the contractor “just cleared the site,” he says. “Everyone was like, what do we do now? So they became the ‘sunset cabins.’”

Whitaker says the implementation struggles are the result of capital campaigns that value buildings over landscape but also of a cap on the fees that UT can pay consultants, which have prevented his firm and Nelson Byrd Woltz from being substantially involved with construction administration. He worries that a piece of the master plan is getting lost. “They’re tackling these bigger capital pieces, which is understandable in one sense, but I think you back yourself into a corner, where it gets difficult to go back and re-create some of the habitat and the planting the way that it should be,” he says.

Despite the challenges, the designers see promise in what Lone Oaks is attempting to do. “I think it is a great model,” Whitaker says of the farm. “Of course, the devil’s in the details, and they’re not there yet, but it has great potential to solve a lot of the problems that we’re dealing with.”

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