When Archbishop Dowling selected the 89-acre site on Lake Johanna as the setting for Nazareth Hall, it was described by the Catholic Bulletin as a "beautiful and convenient site" (June 25, 1921). The land was heavily wooded and included a hilly peninsula that extended into the lake. The site also included part of another smaller body of water, Little Lake Johanna, which was linked by a channel to the larger lake.
Architects Maginnis and Walsh chose to locate the main building near the north end of the peninsula where it could be seen from several directions rising above the lake. To further add to the picturesque effect, they proposed that a channel be dredged across the north end of the peninsula to create an island.
Landscape Architects Morell and Nichols' 1923 "General Plan for Arrangement of Grounds" shows the original main entrance driveway for the 89 acre parcel entering from the south. The picturesque drive circles the main structure of Nazareth Hall to the north. The plan also depicts formal gardens in the courtyards reminiscent of the Papal gardens at the Vatican. A formal loggia was designed to face northeast toward Lake Johanna to align with the sunrise during mid-summer. Unfortunately, the Venetian style boat docks planned by the landscape architects were never completed.
In keeping with the European architectural prototypes of the building, the overall effect is rather formal in and around the main building and more naturalistic and informal elsewhere. An aerial photograph taken in 1970 shows that many of the campus and landscape features planned in the 1920s were realized, including the road system, the athletic and recreation fields, the site of the vegetable gardens, the circular court northeast of the main building and the courtyard gardens.
When University of Northwestern purchased the campus, it made a number of landscape modifications to accommodate its needs. In addition to new buildings, Northwestern constructed a new entrance drive (1987) from Lydia Avenue and the original entrance drive from Snelling Avenue was converted into a pedestrian entrance.
Both the main (west) and south courtyards are enclosed by three wings of Nazareth Hall and a brick wall. Originally the courtyards were laid out in the form of an Italian knot garden, divided into geometric sections with a central circular section. Each section was planted with grass and shrubs. Planting beds contained vines that eventually climbed up the walls to the roof. Morell and Nichols specified the plantings and the knot garden design.
The basic architectural forms of the main courtyard—wall, raised terrace and steps—have been retained. The central area has been modified over time with changes in pathways, now paved in concrete, and the location of planting beds. The gazebo in the main courtyard was installed in 1984. A thunderstorm in September 2005 felled a tree outside the main courtyard's west wall. As the tree fell, it struck and damaged the wrought-iron arch. It has been removed and awaits repair.
The south courtyard was planned as a more secluded space, accessible to the Franciscan nuns who served the school and the priests. It has been more altered than the main courtyard, primarily to accommodate building services.
A granite signpost now identifies the area leading to the island as Sunbeam Alley. The rectangular lawn area was created at the ridge of the peninsula. The cleared areas flanking the lawn were planted with evergreens, which are now mature trees.
The original Sunbeam Alley, which was built by the Class of 1938, was located south of Nazareth Hall on the site of Saint Austin's House (Riley Hall). When that building was constructed in 1960-1961, the granite signpost was relocated to the present site. An asphalt path leading to the island bridge has been installed across the lawn.
Maginnis and Walsh proposed dredging a channel to create the island. Early published accounts refer to a "rustic bridge" and state that it was built by the students. A photograph published in Hallmark—47 Years (1971) shows the bridge with two flat arches constructed over the walkway. One of the arches is surmounted by a gabled projection. University of Northwestern replaced it with the current bridge.
The landscaping of the island was carried out by Morell and Nichols Inc. (Morell died in 1924, so Nichols was the responsible designer.) Nichols devised a more informal approach to the island landscape. The area around the island chapel was cleared and a curving path was planned that led from the bridge to the northwest and up the slope to the island chapel entrance. Elements of this path still exist in the form of granite steps and limestone flagstones that follow the original curving form.