The Beginning

Walter Cudnohufsky wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. He had received a Master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard in 1965, spent eighteen months traveling, and was teaching design at a large university. He was frustrated with traditional design education, which he considered too compartmentalized, inflexible, and theoretical.

Conway's directors: Donald Walker, Paul Cawood Hellmund, Walter Cudnohufsky (Photo: Molly Hutt '12)

Conway’s first three directors: Donald Walker (1992-2005), Paul Cawood Hellmund (2005-2015), Walter Cudnohufsky (1972-1992) Photo: Molly Hutt ’12

He had explored design education in his graduate thesis and had been reading progressive education theory. He wanted to try a new way of doing things, with hands-on learning, more like a working design office. He thought it should be student-based, not institutionally organized, and he wanted it to be a shared experience that emphasized teamwork. He wanted to start a new school that would turn design education on its head. And he did.

A personal loan launches the school

Although he hadn’t envisioned a design school in a rural setting, for reasons of economy, Walt began the school in his Conway home and peripheral buildings—a sugar-house and a converted barn. He secured an $8,000 personal loan to pay for renovations and float the school in its first year. Construction took place over the summer of 1972, in anticipation of the first class—seven men and two women, mostly from Massachusetts.

Class of 1973

Class of 1973

Classes were held every day, at times with studio also every day. There might be an impromptu stone wall building demonstration or other invitations to “learn by doing.” Chores were always part of the sharing, potlucks and games part of the fun. Communications always was and still is an important focus of the school.

Walt’s belief was that if you can’t explain your ideas in writing and speaking, then you’re not in charge of yourself or what you’re doing.

Second director arrives as student

Don Walker, who would prove to be a major force in the evolution of the school, came as a student in 1978. He already had two degrees in landscape architecture and much experience in teaching and practice. He, too, was disillusioned with his teaching experience and the persistent pressure to do research. With Don’s addition to the staff came an increased focus on environmentally sound design. Increasingly applicants were seeking a way to speak for the silent client—the land.

Accreditation Achieved

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges granted full accreditation effective 1989. In 1992, Walt left the school to put into practice the things that he had been teaching. He began what continues to be a thriving private practice, one that has many ecological and community building dimensions. Today he regards the Conway School as his greatest lifetime contribution, while giving credit to the people who are carrying the school forward.

Don Walker became Director in 1992, a position he held until his retirement in 2005. Don and staff oversaw the move from the school’s thirty-year home to a nearby wooded hilltop.

21st Century: Continued Evolution

Conway’s third director was Panama-born landscape architect and conservation planner Paul Cawood Hellmund. While dedicated to the school’s unique teaching approach and sustainable design, Paul expanded Conway’s commitment to urban and international communities. After ten years at the helm, Paul returned to independent practice.

In 2014, Conway changed the name of its degree from Master of Arts in Landscape Design to Master of Science in Ecological Design, which reflects Conway’s applied curriculum and fundamental commitment to sustainability.

In 2015, Conway opened a second campus in the former mill town of Easthampton, Massachusetts, in an effort to better reach the potential students and community partners who would benefit most from an ecological design approach.

At the end of 2015, alum and former board member Bruce Stedman stepped in as executive director and initiated a period of strategic planning, which invited extensive participation and feedback from trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors. The five-year strategic plan, formally adopted in 2017, helped guide the school during the five-year period leading up to our fiftieth anniversary in 2022-23. The plan prioritized increasing diversity among applicants. We are also increasing fundraising for project fees, to allow our students to work with communities with limited financial resources. Conway is adapting to changing times while continuing to teach a proven design process.

Conway embraced a collaborative governance model in early 2017, where three employees share responsibility for primary leadership of the school. Currently, Ken Byrne is Academic Director, Priscilla Novitt is Administrative Director, and Kara Schnell is Finance Director. Together, the three serve as co-executive directors.

The current co-executive directors are Ken Byrne (Academic Director), Priscilla Novitt (Administrative Director), and Kara Schnell (Finance Director).

In the school’s lively history, some things, such as its outward appearance and personnel, have changed. Other things, especially its focus on individualized learning, will always remain constant.