The Kelsey's Stone Castle

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, March 1992,
March 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

Was it a case of religious one-upmanship?

Newberry Hall, the miniature stone castle at 434 South State, is a fitting home for the U-M's Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. But the sumptuous structure wasn't built as a museum, or even by the university. It was completed in 1891 as the headquarters of the U-M Student Christian Association.

Most early American universities were founded by churches. Even at the state-financed U-M, organized religion was a powerful force during the nineteenth century. The board of regents' insistence that religious indoctrination was essential to higher education was partly responsible for their dismissal of Henry Tappan, the university's visionary first president. And the Student Christian Association's palatial headquarters very likely also reflected a lively case of sectarian one-upmanship.

When the SCA was organized in 1858, "there was no Union, no League, no deans of men or women, no counselors in religion or workers with foreign students," notes C. Grey Austin in his 1957 booklet, A Century of Religion at the University of Michigan. The group became a social as well as religious center of campus. It sponsored lectures, published a student handbook, ran its own employment and room-listing service, and established a library open to members and guests.

By its twenty-fifth anniversary, the interdenominational SCA had over 300 members--more than 20 percent of the student body at the time and twice the number that could fit into its meeting place in South College. As an anniversary project, members decided to raise money to build a permanent home. They purchased a lot on State Street across from University Hall, predecessor of Angell Hall, and in 1887 began construction.

The SCA's first plans called for a simple, one-story structure. But at some point the group's ambitions expanded drastically. Austin's book doesn't say why, but SCA leaders could hardly have missed the sight of a rival student religious center rising just three blocks to the north, at the corner of State and Huron. Completed in 1887, it was renamed Harris Hall in 1888 in honor of its sponsor, the Right Reverend Samuel Smith Harris, Episcopal Bishop of Michigan.

The evidence of a rivalry between Newberry and Harris halls is all circumstantial. But the resemblances between the two are too numerous to be entirely coincidental. The SCA first discussed building a headquarters in September 1883. The first mention of building an Episcopal student center appears in the minutes of St. Andrew's Church one month later. Harris Hall was built of brick in the then-fashionable Richardson Romanesque style. Newberry Hall was built in the same style, but with stone. Both centers had parlors and libraries on the first floor and auditoriums upstairs. Harris Hall's seated 500; Newberry Hall's seated 550.

The expanded Newberry Hall was finished as impressively inside as out, with inlaid wood floors and tile fireplaces. For the head of the imposing central staircase, the SCA commissioned a Tiffany window in an abstract, Art Nouveau style--one of only two Tiffany windows in Ann Arbor.

In all, the SCA raised $40,000 to build Newberry Hall. That's exactly the amount that Bishop Harris raised for Harris Hall. The Episcopalians' list of donors included fur baron John Jacob Astor. The SCA's largest gift came from Detroiter Helen Newberry in honor of her late husband, Judge John Newberry, U-M class of 1849. Newberry Hall is named for him. (After Helen Newberry's death, their children donated the money to build the U-M's Helen Newberry Residence, next door to Newberry Hall.)

The SCA flourished in its stone castle. In 1917, it built and moved into an even bigger headquarters, Lane Hall, at the corner of State and Washington, and made Newberry Hall available to the U-M. During the terrible flu epidemic of 1918, Newberry was used as an infirmary. In the 1920's the U-M used it for classroom space before turning it into an archaeological museum in 1928. Francis Kelsey, the museum's eventual namesake, was a Latin professor at the U-M from 1889 until his death in 1927. He was both a distinguished scholar (his edition of Caesar's Gallic Wars was a standard text for many years) and an inspired fund-raiser who single-handedly launched and built the U-M's Near East collection. His greatest coup was persuading Detroit attorney Horace Rackham, one of the founding investors in Ford Motor Company, to finance a U-M excavation at Karanis, Egypt, a farming community about fifty miles southwest of Cairo that for several centuries was part of the Roman Empire. Findings from the eleven-year dig--textiles, coins, glass, papyri, wood, dolls, pottery, and terra-cotta lamps--account for almost half of the Kelsey's holdings.

The SCA fell on hard times in the irreligious 1930's. In 1937 it deeded Lane Hall and Newberry Hall to the U-M, and its services were taken over by a new U-M Student Religious Association. The association was later absorbed into what is now the Office of Ethics and Religion. (A similar fate befell Harris Hall: it was leased rent-free to the USO during World War II, then rented to the U-M for decades before St. Andrew's finally sold it in 1974. Beautifully renovated in the late 1970's, it's now home to Harris Advertising.)

The first floor of the Kelsey Museum still looks much as it did in the SCA days. The upstairs has been divided into offices and storage areas. However, the stage is still discernible, and the floor, which slopes slightly, is full of drill marks where the auditorium's 550 seats once were bolted down. The Tiffany window, unfortunately, is no longer publicly accessible, but it still graces the north side of the stairwell, now protected from weather and vandals by Plexiglas.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Newberry Hall today (top) and under construction in about 1890 (left). Completion of the ecumenical Christian center was delayed four years to allow fund-raising for a much more lavish building than originally planned. The upgrade may have been spurred by rivalry with the Episcopalians' new student center, Harris Hall (above).