The Lost University - The Forgotten Campus of 1900

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1999,
December 1999

Author: Susan Wineberg

Ann Arbor today would be just another small Michigan town- no bigger, perhaps, than Saline or Chelsea- had it not been for one crucial event: in 1837, just thirteen years after its founding, it was designated the site for the University of Michigan.

The initial campus, situated on forty acres donated by the Ann Arbor Land Company, was a tiny affair, consisting of one combination classroom building and dormitory along with four professors' houses. The president's house on South University is the lone survivor from that first generation of campus buildings. Though still used as a residence, it has been vastly altered over the intervening 160 years.

The "Diag" took its name from the diagonal walk that crossed what was then largely an open field. But the campus grew quickly, particularly under dynamic presidents Henry Phillip Tappan (1852-1863) and James Burrill Angell (1871-1909).

Except for Tappan's observatory and Angell's Catherine Street hospitals, almost all of the nineteenth century construction took place on the Diag. By the turn of the century, campus was thick with structures, most built of a red brick in a weighty Romanesque style.

Almost all were swept away as the U-M's growth accelerated in the twentieth century. The Diag was completely rebuilt, and surrounding properties were acquired to extend the university's presence far beyond the original campus borders. Today only tiny Tappan Hall, hidden away between the art museum and the president's house, survives as a reminder of the red-brick campus of 1900

When James Burrill Angell arrived as president in 1871, the U-M had nine buildings. He oversaw the addition of fifty more before stepping down in 1909. The elegant oval shape of Angell's 1883 University Library had been truncated by the turn of the century with the addition of new book storage "stacks" at the rear of the building (left), but a gracefully curved reading room still looked out on the center of the Diag. Though the older portions of the building were torn down in 1918, the stacks were incorporated into the present Graduate Library, completed in 1920.

The Waterman and Barbour gymnasiums, at the comer of North University and East University, were the longest-lived of Angell's great red brick buildings. Their demolition was also a turning point in campus interest in historic preservation. In 1976, when the university announced its intentions to tear down the historic complex, a group called the Committee for Reuse of the Barbour-Waterman Buildings was established and lobbied hard for the university to take another look at alternative uses for the structures, which dated to the 1890s. Petitions were circulated and signed by thousands, citizens wore buttons saying "Recycle Barbour-Waterman," and many spoke before the regents to urge reconsideration.

The regents were not swayed, and the buildings were demolished in 1977 (their site is now part of the chemistry building). But the university has since shown greater sensitivity to historic buildings. And one unexpected result of the regents' intransigence on Barbour-Waterman was the listing of the entire original Central Campus, and other significant buildings such as Rackham and the Law Quad, on the National Register of Historic Places.

President Tappan's Law Building stood at the corner of State and North University. It was completed in 1863, the same year that the U-M's visionary founding president was fired by the regents (see "President Tappan Fired" in "The Top Ten Ann Arbor Stories of the Millennium," p. 31).

The formidable turret was added in a remodeling in 1893 but didn't quite make it to 1900—it was removed during another expansion in 1898. After completion of the Law Quad in the 1920s, the building was renamed Haven Hall and used for LS&A faculty offices. In 1950, a disgruntled student determined to obliterate a bad grade burned it down.

The modern Haven Hall is closer to the center of the Diag. The place where Tappan's Law Building stood is now a lovely, tree-shaded lawn.

When it opened in 1881, the U-M's natural science museum was the first owned by a public university. Designed by architecture prof William LeBaron Jenney—later
famous as the "father of the skyscraper"—the museum had a collection ranging from stuffed animals to Asian manuscripts.

The exhibits moved to the present Ruthven Museums Building in 1928. Jenney's building housed the Romance language departments for three decades before being demolished in 1958.

Exceot for the crowning dome, this long, massive building parallel to State Street bears an uncanny resemblance to Angell Hall. University Hall, completed in 1871, was the U-M's first great classroom building. The impressive dome shown here was actually the building's second- the first was deemed structurally unsound and replaced in 1896. Hidden from State Street when Angell Hall was built directly in front of it in 1924, University Hall lingered on for another twenty-six years before being torn down in 1950.

Stretching the tum-of-the-century date slightly, this multipanel postcard shows the U-M's hospitals as they stood following completion of the Palmer children's ward in 1904. One of the two hospitals flanking the Palmer ward had been built for the U-M's medical doctors, the other for its homeopathic physicians. By 1900, however, the homeopaths had moved out to a new hospital on North University.

The low, many-windowed "pavilion" hospitals reflected the emerging medical thinking of the nineteenth century before the role of germs was understood, disease was thought to be spread by "morbid" air exhaled by sick patients. It wasn't a bad guess, since it led to the division of hospitals into isolated, well-ventilated wards—steps that did help reduce the rate of hospital-induced infections.

By the turn of the century, the germ theory and antiseptic surgery were fueling great strides in health care. The homeopaths soon faded, while the M.D.'s moved into a succession of huge new hospitals—on Ann Street in the 1920s, and overlooking Fuller Road in the 1980s. The site of the old pavilion hospitals is now occupied by the Victor Vaughan Building, Med Sci II, and the Taubman Medical Library.

An impressive testimonial to the growing importance of the physical sciences, the 1885 Engineering Laboratory bore a striking resemblance in both style and scale to the University Library just to the north. It was designed by Gordon Lloyd, the celebrated Gothic architect best known locally for his work on two prominent churches, St. Andrew's and First Congregational.

The engineers expanded into larger quarters bordering the southeast comer of the Diag (home of the famous "Engin Arch"), then leapfrogged East University, and finally relocated en masse to a still-growing complex on North Campus. By then the 1885 laboratory was long gone—it was torn down in 1956.

As the university expanded in the early twentieth century, it acquired and demolished many of the buildings that had bordered the original campus. Between 1909 and 1920, the university gained title to some 114 separate parcels of land, including the Arboretum, the Botanical Gardens off Packard Road, and the site of the power plant on Huron Street. But perhaps its most dramatic acquisition was professor Alexander Winchell's spectac-ular octagon house on North University.

Winchell served at various times as professor of geology, zoology, botany, physics, and engineering. The strong-minded Winchell was one of president Tappan's most vociferous opponents but also a powerful advocate of opening the university to women, and perhaps America's most influential supporter of Charles Darwin's then-novel theory of evolution. His unusual octagon home, built according to the tenets of Orson Fuller, a well-known phrenologist and prolific writer on health, happiness, and sex, was surrounded by extensive gardens that complemented his collections of flora and fauna, some of which are now at the Smithsonian.

After Winchell left the university in the mid-1870s, his home was rented by various fraternities. Acquired by the university in 1909, it was demolished shortly afterward to make way for Hill Auditorium.

The original professors' residences from the 1840s found new uses as the campus grew. This one facing South University housed the Dental College from 1877 to 1891, adding a wing (right) in the process. The engineering department took over in 1892 and stayed until 1922. when the building was demolished to make way for the Clements Library.

The U-M Law Quad has a timeless feel, but in fact it is of comparatively recent construction. Two entire blocks of residences were demolished in the 1920s to make room for it. One of the more spectacular of the buildings lost was the 1880 Psi Upsilon fraternity house, which faced South University at the comer of State. A newspaper account from June 30, 1923, noted that "since the beginning of the second semester men have been tearing down the former fraternity houses on State Street, which occupied the land needed for the new [Lawyers] Club. Practically all of the work of the demolishing of the Psi Upsilon house has been completed and the steam shovel will clear away the remainder of the ruins. . . . Practically all of the homes in this block are now being torn down."

Until recently, it seemed that the same fate might befall the row of four nineteenth century houses the U-M owns on Huron across from the Power Center.But after years of designating the location as a future building site, the university is now renovating and rehabbing the houses—an encouraging sign that it has finally begun to develop a preservation ethic.