The Campus that Never Was
By James Tobin
Truly a magnificent design.– John D. Pierce, state superintendent of education
Chapter 1 Before the Beginning
This is a story about the University of Michigan before it really began, and about a road it did not take.
Was the road not taken better or worse? It depends on the eye of the traveler. But the moment of choice had a definitive impact on how the University would look, at first and ever after.
* * *
An educational entity legally constituted as the University of Michigan existed for a few years in Detroit soon after the War of 1812. But it was just a small high school. The real thing started just after the Michigan Territory became a state in 1837.
The proprietors of the Ann Arbor Land Company had hoped the legislature would designate their town as the new state capital. When they lost out to Lansing, they went for second prize — a new state university — and got it. Ann Arbor, then a town of roughly 2,000, rejoiced.
But the planning of a campus got underway with an embarrassing mix-up, thanks entirely to the first board of Regents, a collection of 11 lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians appointed by Michigan’s first governor, Stevens T. Mason, who headed the board himself, ex officio.
Not one but two prominent architects in the East were told they would get the job of designing the campus’s first buildings, or might get it, or probably would get it — if they wanted it. It took months to sort out the confusion.
Chapter 2 “Buildings Would Be Required”
Both architects were young, gifted, and rising.
One was Ammi Burnham Young, the son of an architect-builder in Lebanon, New Hampshire. As a teenager, Young had taught himself the elements of classical form. By 1837, though he was only 39, he already had designed Vermont’s splendid Greek Revival state capitol building and dormitories at Dartmouth College – a credit that may have attracted the Michiganders’ particular notice. He was just then entering a competition to design a massive U.S. Customs building in Boston.
The other architect was Alexander Jackson Davis. Born in 1803 in New York City, Davis grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and upstate New York, where his father made his living as a bookseller and small-time publisher. Davis left school at 14 to become a printer’s apprentice. By age 20, he was working as a typesetter while studying art in his free hours. There he found his true work.
He began to make drawings of buildings for publishers and architects, then to design buildings himself. In 1829 he launched an architectural practice and soon formed a new firm with the prominent architect Ithiel Town, Davis’s elder and mentor, in New Haven, Connecticut. Town owned a fine architectural library where Davis could further his studies.
In just six years, Davis and Town designed a remarkable array of significant projects, including the state capitol buildings of North Carolina and Indiana, the New York Customs House, and the Astor Hotel in New York City, not to mention a string of city and country houses for the well-to-do. Many of their public buildings were in the East, but they also fed the demand for public buildings across the rapidly developing states to the West.
With clients remarking on his extraordinary talents, Davis set up his own practice in 1835.
Both Ammi Young and Alexander Davis were richly qualified. But the question of which would get the Michigan job apparently turned on personal connections, not credentials.
Young had a friend or at least an acquaintance among the regents. It was probably the state legislator Elon Farnsworth of Detroit, since Vermont was Farnsworth’s home state, and Young had established his practice in the state capital of Burlington.
In any case, Farnsworth or another regent wrote to Young early in 1837, before the regents even held their first meeting in Ann Arbor, to whet the architect’s interest in this big commission in the West. According to Young, his contact informed him that “buildings would be required to be erected for the University of Michigan in a short time” and that he should “hold [himself] in readiness to engage as an Architect in the erection of them if wanted…”
That was premature.
Chapter 3 “Sewn Up”
Alexander Jackson Davis had an ally among the regents, too – someone who told Davis that he had the job “sewn up.” That was entirely untrue, though whoever gave the assurance likely did not know that regents were courting Ammi Young, too.
The mix-up seems to have developed simply because the Regents – all busy men in far-flung parts of the state – were neither meeting nor communicating very much.
In any case, both architects – Young in Burlington and Davis in New Haven – gave some of their time in 1838 to plans for the unborn University of Michigan, site unseen.
Finally, somebody told Davis that Young had received the commission. (He hadn’t.) Davis then wrote a “what-the-hell?” letter to Young, who quickly replied that he would happily give up the Michigan job – he was too busy, anyway – as long as the Michiganders paid him for the work he’d already done. That was that, leaving Davis as the sole candidate for the job.
(Here, Ammi Young leaves the story. He lost the Boston Customs job but went on to a distinguished career as the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designing and building customs houses and post offices throughout the country.)
Only a few letters dealing with the whole business survive. So even Julia M. Truettner, an art historian who turned over every stone in search of answers, never figured out exactly how these wires got crossed and eventually untangled. (Truettner’s definitive study is Aspirations for Excellence: Alexander Jackson Davis and the First Campus Plan for the University of Michigan, 1838, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2003.)
At his studio in New Haven, Alexander Jackson Davis awaited guidance on just what the regents of the University of Michigan had in mind.
Chapter 4 “A Country of Beginnings”
Most, perhaps all, of the regents had emigrated to Michigan from the mid-Atlantic states or New England, eager to make new lives in lands expropriated not long ago from the indigenous nations of the Great Lakes region. Since 1820, a land rush known as “Michigan Fever” had driven the territory’s population from 9,000 to nearly 90,000, making statehood a foregone conclusion.
Optimism and energy were running wild across the Midwest — in fact, everywhere in the United States. “It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of designs, and expectations,” the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1833. Town builders, frantic to attract residents, fought for top prizes – port facilities, transportation hubs, a state capital. If you couldn’t get one of those, you tried for a university or a college, whether students were available or not.
Indeed, one historian has written, “college founding in the nineteenth century was undertaken in the same spirit as canal-building, cotton-ginning, farming and gold-mining. In none of these activities did completely rational procedures prevail. All were touched by the American faith in tomorrow… Reason could not combat the romantic belief in endless progress.”
In precisely that spirit, Michigan’s new regents were dreaming big.
For their first faculty member they chose Asa Gray, a young botanist of high promise, and sent him to Europe to assemble an impressive collection of books. They purchased the University’s very first book themselves, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, a collection of stunning color engravings of birds in their natural settings. It cost $1,000, an exorbitant price that signaled the regents’ aim to build a university that would rival the elite colleges of the Eastern seaboard.
And they had chosen an architect of the first rank to design their campus.
Chapter 5 Collegiate Gothic
Surviving portraits of Alexander Davis show a smallish man with a neat beard and bright blue eyes in a face that suggests calm deliberation. His clients were struck by his renderings – the painted images of what his plans would look like when built. An historian called them “hauntingly beautiful,” the best any architect of his generation produced.
That talent was about to serve him well.
* * *
Anyone designing a new American campus was unlikely to seek ideas from American models. Harvard’s oldest buildings, for instance, erected in colonial days and still very much in use, were nothing much to look at. A Harvard historian said they were “vast brick barns, destitute alike of symmetry, ornament and taste.” A Harvard president agreed, saying that “not any of our older buildings is venerable, or will ever become so. They look as if they meant business and nothing more.”
Instead, architects like Davis and Young, following the path of the English universities at Oxford and Cambridge, were taking inspiration from the builders of ancient Greece and Rome and of the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe. In the U.S., the style they and others developed would eventually be called “collegiate Gothic.”
Buildings in this style would not be old, but they would look old. In this era of hustle and upheaval in the new states, one writer said, a new college needed buildings that would “give the public a pledge of the permanency of the institution – and something that will be a centre of attachment for its members.”
Chapter 6 Surveying the Site
Davis was now sure of his commission, but he needed guidance from Michigan, where it appears that three men were taking charge, at least informally, of plans for a campus. They were Lt. Gov. Edward Mundy; Asa Gray, the brilliant botanist already named to the University’s first professorship; and Charles W. Whipple, 32.
Whipple had graduated from West Point, then apprenticed in a Detroit law office. He won election to the territorial legislature and served as secretary to Michigan’s first constitutional convention. Now, as part-time secretary to the U-M regents, he made himself indispensable. Asa Gray judged him “a downright clever fellow in both the English and the Yankee sense of the term.” He was “the moving spirit of the whole, and throws his whole energy into the work.”
Meetings were held in Detroit in August 1837. Gray and Whipple argued for a main building comprising lecture rooms, a library, and a laboratory; a separate dormitory for students “and the tutors who have immediate charge of them”; and houses for professors placed away from the other buildings to secure privacy and quiet. Some regents argued for one or more alternatives; the details are unknown. But, over “considerable opposition,” Gray and Whipple won the day for their plan. Mundy then carried their rough ideas to a meeting with Davis in New York.
The architect had been sketching possibilities. But he needed to see the site. So, in September, he traveled to Michigan — by canal or stagecoach to Buffalo, then by steamboat across Lake Erie and up the river to Detroit. Upon reaching Ann Arbor, he was taken to the 40-acre site designated for the campus, just east of town. There he saw a wheat field, a peach orchard, and pastures where sheep were grazing.
He stayed for eight days, time enough to finish some formal sketches and painted renderings of how his buildings might look. On Sept. 16, 1838, he presented them to the regents at the old state capitol building in Detroit.
Chapter 7 “The Realm of the Spirit”
One drawing was a landscape design for the 40 acres. The site is bisected by a “public avenue” 100 feet wide. On one side, on a broad lawn, the dominant main building stands well back from State Street, gothic in style, with north and south wings. The wings reach eastward toward two botanic gardens and, at the far side of the site, ten houses in various shapes for professors. Another drawing shows a fringe of trees buffering the perimeter.
That was impressive enough. But Davis’s watercolor rendering of the main building was undoubtedly the showstopper.
It seems clear the architect had seen images of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University in England. Like that splendid structure, the “Library-Chapel,” as Davis labeled it, was dominated by spires on either side of a soaring arched window. The structure would have been enormous, dwarfing the human figure standing at the front doors.
If Davis intended to provoke veneration and awe, he must have succeeded.
His watercolor rendering is itself a work of art. The architectural historian Francis R. Kowsky attributed its quality to Davis’s use of “slanting rays of light emanating from the heavens to reinforce the romantic identification of the Gothic with the realm of the spirit.” Anyone who saw it that day in Detroit must have had to catch their breath.
The regents’ vote in favor of Davis’s plan was unanimous.
The architect returned to New Haven. Then, very quickly, everything began to go wrong.
Chapter 8 Panic
The Panic of 1837 had started the preceding spring with a run on banks. The fuel was out-of-control speculation in western lands; tight lending; currency shortages; and President Andrew Jackson’s refusal to protect the national banking system inaugurated by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
The banking panic in the East fed a recession, and by the time the regents met in Detroit that September, recession was stumbling into a nationwide depression.
The regents and Governor Mason had approved Davis’s plan. But they did not have the final say. That power lay with John D. Pierce, the new superintendent of education in Michigan. He held the University’s purse strings and was responsible not just for the campus in Ann Arbor but for a string of university branches across the state.
Regents presented Davis’s plans for Ann Arbor to Pierce. He looked them over closely. He asked how much it would cost to build them. He was told the figure would come to half a million dollars, possibly more.
Davis’s plan, Pierce said, was “truly a magnificent design.” Then, “most respectfully, but decidedly,” he said no.
“It would absorb so much of the university fund as would cripple it in all time to come,” he wrote. The true value of a university, he continued, “did not consist in buildings, but in the number and ability of its professors, and in its other appointments, as library, cabinets [museums], and works of art.”
It would absorb so much of the university fund as would cripple it in all time to come.– John D. Pierce, state superintendent of education
Chapter 9 A Piecemeal, Practical Campus
The regents had no choice but to rescind their commitment to Davis. They tried to keep elements of his plan alive, perhaps with cheaper materials than stone. But even that would be much too expensive. There would be no grand Gothic “Library-Chapel” at all, not any time soon.
One by one, the other elements of his landscape plan fell away — the broad central avenue, the botanic gardens. The number of houses planned for professors dropped from ten to four.
Finally, in the spring of 1840, the Regents commissioned the construction of two identical buildings in a plain classical style, not Gothic, plus the professors’ houses. (One would survive as the President’s House.) They would be made of brick covered in stucco and scored to look like stone.
First came North Hall, soon renamed for Governor Mason, then South Hall, with a gap between them. It was hoped they might eventually become the north and south wings of a more splendid building capped by ornamental towers or a dome — an echo of Davis’s monumental Library-Chapel. They were buildings of drab starkness, without elegance or ornament.
They were done by the fall of 1841, and in came the first students.
* * *
It is said among architects that buildings are books anyone can read. What message would the public have read if Davis’s blueprints had been built? How might the University have been different?
Imagine, for a moment, that Michigan’s Law Quadrangle, built nearly a century later, had been the first construction on the campus. Something like that statement of grandeur was what the regents intended when they chose Davis’s plans.
Was that the right statement for a mostly farm-bred generation of western students whom Andrew Dickson White, a professor of history who would join the faculty in the 1850s, called “hardy, vigorous, shrewd, broad, with faith in the greatness of the country and enthusiasm regarding the nation’s future”?
“It may be granted,” White wrote, “that there was, in many of them, a lack of elegance, but there was neither languor nor cynicism.”
Maybe so, maybe not. In any case, Davis’s design would have set a pattern. How could any new architect depart from Gothic grandiosity once that Library-Chapel was built? (When the Law School’s leaders decided in the 1970s that an addition to the Law Library was essential, alumni were so protective of the Quad’s venerable style that the dean had no choice but to bury the addition underground.)
Without Davis’s buildings to set the mold, the campus’s architecture was free to follow a pragmatic path, growing piecemeal to fit practical needs. There would be big buildings such as University Hall (completed in 1871, with Mason and South Hall as its wings) and the General Library (1883), but no unifying style.
The result was pure eclecticism — buildings designed by Albert Kahn in a variety of styles (Hill Auditorium, the Clements Library, Burton Tower, Angell Hall); by Irving and Allen Pond (the Michigan Union and League, echoed by Weill Hall, North Quad, and the Munger Residences); and the modernist Fleming Administration Building, Modern Languages Building, and the Ross School of Business.
The architecture reflects the University itself — pragmatic, diverse in its interests, a hodgepodge, busy, preoccupied with its work rather than its appearance.
* * *
Alexander Jackson Davis became one of the leading architects of his generation. A copy of his rendering of his Library-Chapel hung for years in the old University Library. It’s now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collections in New York.
Sources included Aspirations of Excellence: Alexander Jackson Davis and the First Campus Plan for the University of Michigan, 1838, by Julia M. Truettner; “Alexander Jackson Davis, Creative American Architect,” by Jane B. Davies, and “Simplicity and Design: The Public and Institutional Buildings of Andrew Jackson Davis,” by Francis R. Kowsky, in Andrew Jackson Davis: American Architect, Amelia Peck, ed.; Campus: An American Planning Tradition, by Paul Venable Turner; American State Universities: Their Origin and Progress, by Andrew Ten Brook.