Lane Hall

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2000,
December 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

From the YMCA to women's studies

If the walls of Lane Hall could talk, they might recall discussions on ethical, religious, and international topics, and distinguished visitors such as Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Dalai Lama. The elegantly understated Georgian Colonial Revival building on the south-west corner of State and Washington has been an intellectual center for student discussions since it was built. From 1917 to 1956 all varieties of religious topics were examined; from 1964 to 1997 it changed to an international focus. In October, after a major expansion and renovation, it was rededicated as the new home for women's studies at the U-M.

Lane Hall was built in 1916-1917 by the U-M YMCA. Within a few years it came under the control of the university's Student Christian Association, which included the campus branches of both the YMCA and the YWCA. In addition to organizing traditional religious activities, SCA published a student handbook, ran a rooming service, and helped students get jobs.

Funded in part by a $60,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller, Lane Hall was named after Victor H. Lane, a law professor and former judge who was active in SCA. When it opened in 1917, students could read books on religion in the library, listen to music in the music room, meet with student pastors in individual offices, or attend functions, either in the 450-seat auditorium upstairs or the social room in the basement.

Photograph of Lane Hall when it was still
the Y.M.C.A.

Post card view of Lane Hall when it was still the Y.M.C.A.

SCA cooperated with area churches and also provided meeting places for groups that didn't have a home church, such as Chinese Christians and Baha'is. But Lane Hall is most remembered for its own nondenominational programs, which were open to all students on campus. Some, like Bible study, had an obvious religious connection, but the programs also included the Fresh Air Camp (which enlisted U-M students to serve as big brothers to neglected boys), extensive services for foreign students, and eating clubs.

Lane Hall became one of the most intellectually stimulating places on campus. "While the university was, much more than now, organized in tightly bounded disciplines and departments, our program was working with the connections between them, and particularly the ethical implications of those interconnections," recalls C. Grey Austin, who was assistant coordinator of religious affairs in the 1950s. "Religion was similarly organized in clearly defined institutions, and we were working, again, with that fascinating area in which they touch one another."

With the coming of the Great Depression, many students struggled financially. In 1932, looking for a way to save money, a local activist named Sher Quraishi (later an advocate for post-partition Pakistan) organized the Wolverine Eating Club in the basement of Lane Hall. The club's cook, Anna Panzner, recalled in a 1983 interview that they fed about 250 people three meals a day. She was assisted with the cooking by John Ragland, who later became the only black lawyer in town. About forty students helped with the prep and cleanup in exchange for free meals, while the rest paid $2.50 a week.

Lane Hall itself had trouble keeping going during the depression, often limping along without adequate staffing. Finally, in 1936, SCA gave Lane Hall to the university. The group didn't stipulate the use of the building but said they hoped it might "serve the purpose for which it was originally intended, that is, a center of religious study and activities for all students in the university." The university agreed and, while changing the name to Student Religious Association, kept and expanded the SCA programming.

The official head of Lane Hall would be a minister hired by the university, but the work was done by Edna Alber," recalls Jerry Rees, who worked there in the 1950s. "Alber ran Lane Hall like a drill sergeant," agrees Lew Towler, who was active in Lane Hall activities. "You'd try to stay on her good side."

The first university-hired director of Lane Hall was Kenneth Morgan. The high point of his tenure was a series of lectures on "The Existence and Nature of God" given by Bertrand Russell, Fulton Sheen, and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Morgan left during World War II and was replaced by Frank Littell. "He was a dynamic man who you either liked or didn't," recalls Jo Glass, who was active at Lane Hall after the war. "He made changes and left." After Littell, DeWitt C. Baldwin, who had been Lane Hall's assistant director, took over. Called "Uncle Cy" by many, he was an idealistic former missionary who also led the Lisle Fellowship, a summer program to encourage international understanding.

Although social action was important, religion as the study of the Bible was not ignored. For instance, Littell led a seminar for grad students on aspects of religion in the Old and New Testament. Participant Marilyn Mason, now a U-M music prof and the university organist, compares the seminar to a jam session, saying, "They were very open minded."

Other Lane Hall activities were just plain fun. Jerry Rees enjoyed folk dancing on Tuesday evenings in the basement social hall. Jo Glass has happy memories of the Friday afternoon teas held in the library. "You'd go to religious teas and meet people you met on Sunday, or go to international teas and meet people from other countries," she says, "but you'd go to Lane Hall and meet a mixture of everybody--all kinds of people wandered in."

Doris Reed Ramon was head of international activities at Lane Hall. She remembers that in addition to providing room for international students to meet, the building had a Muslim prayer room and space for Indian students to cook meals together. After World War II, with the campus full of returning servicemen struggling to make it on the GI Bill, a new eating co-op was organized, called the Barnaby Club. Member Russell Fuller, later pastor of Memorial Christian Church, recalls that the group hired a cook but did all the other work themselves, coming early to peel potatoes or set the table, or staying afterward to clean up.

The Lane Hall programming came to an end in 1956, when the religious office was moved to the Student Activities Building. The niche that Lane Hall held had gradually eroded as more churches established campus centers and the university founded an academic program in religious studies. Also, according to Grey Austin, there were more questions about the role of religion in a secular school. "The growing consensus was that the study of religions was okay but that experience with religion was better left to the religious organizations that ringed the campus."

In the 1960s, centers for area studies began moving into Lane Hall--Japanese studies, Chinese studies, Middle and North African studies, and South Asian and Southeast Asian studies, all of which were rising in importance during the Cold War. Many townsfolk, as well as students, remember attending stimulating brown-bag lunches on various international topics, as well as enjoying the Japanese pool garden in the lobby. During this time visitors ranged from president Gerald Ford and governor James Blanchard (who was delighted with the help the center gave him in developing trade with China) to foreign leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Bashir Gemayel, who became president of Lebanon, and famous writers such as Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz.

One of the people who passed through Lane Hall during this period was Hugo Lane, great-grandson of Victor Lane. In response to an e-mail query, Lane recalled that he had an office in Lane Hall when he worked as a graduate assistant for the East European Survey, a project of the Center for Russian and East European Studies. "Needless to say, I took great pleasure in that coincidence. . . . On those occasions when my parents visited Ann Arbor, a stop at the hall was obligatory."

The centers for area studies eventually joined the U-M International Center in the new School of Social Work building across the Diag. After they left, Lane Hall became a temporary headquarters for the School of Natural Resources and Environment while its building was renovated. Then Lane Hall was vacated for its own extensive addition and renovation.

Today, the new and improved Lane Hall is home to the U-M's Women's Studies Program and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. "It's wonderful space to the occupants, very affirming," says institute director Abby Stewart. "It feels good to be here."