Ben Smith doesn’t just dwell on history — he dwells in it.
Smith, a youthful, Cambridge-educated associate professor and expert in Latin America, has only been at MSU six years, but his third-floor office at Morrill Hall is sized like a bank CEO’s.
His office has a high ceiling, big windows, generous bookshelves, Mexican art on the wall and a spectacular view of the wooded “sacred space” at the heart of MSU’s north campus.
As he met with students last Monday afternoon, a cup of coffee rested on a thick wood windowsill next to his chair, sending steam through the late October sunshine.
“I suppose there are problems,” he said.
“Bats flying down the corridors, cockroaches in the coffee. But it’s incredibly enjoyable to work here. I’m very sad that it will be destroyed.”
When Morrill Hall was built in 1900, it was a huge house — a women’s residential college — and it still feels like one. The creaking floors, obsolete fireplaces and time-melted glass windows moan in the low frequency of memories. Generations of professors, diligent as paper wasps, have gradually fashioned the corner and outside rooms into dense honeycombs of books.
But they can’t pile books on the inside walls because it makes the floors bounce, and thereby hangs a tale.
Morrill Hall is homey, all right, but it was also built like a home, with ordinary brick walls and a cheap wood frame. That will soon be the big red pile’s undoing.
In Nov. 2008, the MSU Trustees approved a $36 million replacement plan that will move a major tenant of Morrill Hall, the English Department, to an expanded Wells Hall. The History Department will move to another old MSU building, nearby Old Horticulture.
In early 2013, Morrill Hall is scheduled to come down.
MSU officials say the demolition is a rare exception to the school’s commitment to save historic buildings on campus.
In the meantime, the denizens of Morrill Hall pad the creaking boards and dodging bats, soaking up the last couple years of funk.
After a student left, Smith started a quick history lesson on the ghosts of Morrill Hall.
“My predecessor died in this room,” he said cheerfully. “David Bailey — he had a heart attack and died right there. Actually, he was not my immediate predecessor. That one died when he jumped out of an airplane and the parachute didn’t open.”
Just then, floorboards creaked as David Bailey walked past Smith’s office. Ghosts in the afternoon?
“Not the one that died,” Smith said.“There’s another Dave Bailey.”
The living David Bailey, a cultural historian who has worked more than 30 years at Morrill Hall, picked up the thread.
“You know the basics,” he said, as if starting a seminar. “Women’s dorm and all that.”
In 1898, the state Legislature set aside $95,000 for a Women’s Building at MSU. The popular Women’s Course, begun in 1896 and centering on home economics, was growing out of old Abbot Hall, near where the Music Practice Building now stands.
Dormitories and regulated boardinghouses reassured parents their daughters would be safe at college. Male students immediately began to call the new Women’s Building “The Coop.”
There were offices, classrooms, a cooking laboratory, music and reception rooms, a woodshop, a two-story gym, a dining room on the third floor and quarters (bedrooms with sitting rooms) for 120 women.
“We often wonder where the toilets and showers were,” Bailey said. “Never could figure it out.”
When the West Circle complex of dorms was built in the 1930s, the building switched to classroom duty.
Balustrades of Lake Superior sandstone once ran along the porch and roof, but they were taken off decades ago. What’s left of the sandstone is crumbling, but squint a little and the building still looks sharp in its red brick and white trim.
“This is the closest you can find on campus to Chicago-style architecture,” Bailey said. “When you look at it from a distance, you think this could be a small building in downtown Chicago of the time.”
But those Chicago buildings have a steel infrastructure.
“There’s some argument that we’re being held together by plaster and paint,” Bailey said wryly.
Bob Nestle, university engineer at MSU, put to rest a persistent notion that Morrill was built on piles and is slowly sinking. The problem, rather, is the building’s wooden frame.
Morrill, Nestle said, was designed for a residence hall with a low carrying capacity of 40 pounds per square foot.
“It was not over-designed,” Nestle said. “It was adequate.”
For modern offices and classrooms, Nestle said, you need a floor design load of 80 to 100 pounds per square foot. Morrill was re-purposed for classroom and office duty in 1937.
To get a load of the kind of loads these profs have built up at Morrill since then, go to Bailey’s office on the third floor — a claustrophobic warren with thousands of books stacked floor to ceiling.
“Watch where you step,” Bailey said.
Nestle said he often gets calls about sagging floors at Morrill. He tells people to move files and bookshelves to an outside wall.
“If they get it near the end of the span where the floor joist is, you can get away with it,” he said. “Get it on the other wall, where you’re up in the floor joist span, it’s going to deflect.”
I told Bailey his stash was probably OK because he has a corner office.
“That’s a relief,” he said. Peter B. Knupfer, a fiddler-playing history prof, specializes in cultural heritage, but he speaks about Morrill Hall with resignation.
“The building’s flaws are becoming more serious than its assets,” he said. “We have a steam heating system that’s right out of the Roman baths.”
“All of us really like the tall ceilings and that kind of stuff, but when you’re in here and it’s 95 degrees with no air conditioning, it’s difficult to work.”
Lewis Siegelbaum, a history prof and expert on Russia, has worked at Morrill for 27 years.
“In a way, it’s like a second home, but I never found it all that comfortable and attractive,” Siegelbaum said. “It’s a pity it will be demolished, but I’m kind of reconciled to it.”
Down on the second floor, English Professor James Seaton dwells in his own book cave. The entire “Library of America” covers a fraction of one wall.
Seaton has worked in Morrill since 1980.
“The building has a kind of raffish charm about it,” he said.
“But I don’t much care for having bats fly around, and the roaches are a terrible problem.”
When Seaton works late, bats thunk against his door.
“I and several of my colleagues have gotten flooded out of the basement, and that’s no fun,” he said.Home versus fortress
an instructive contrast to Morrill Hall, walk southeast from Morrill,
past MSU’s historic Laboratory Row, a village of eclectic buildings from
the university’s earliest years. There you’ll find titanic Agriculture
Hall, built in 1909. The variegated Lab Row buildings look like a
collection of rare books, with Morrill and Ag halls as colossal
Like Morrill, Ag Hall
is a big red brick box with a white lid, but there the similarity ends.
“For whatever reason, they spent money there, and they didn’t spend it
on Morrill Hall,” Fred Poston, MSU’s vice president for finance and
operations, said. “If there was a tornado or earthquake, that’s where
you’d want to be.”
“Ag Hall is built like a fortress,” Nestle said.
years after MSU built an overgrown, wood-framed home for women, Ag Hall
was erected as a mighty temple to the college’s central mission. Its
elephantine concrete columns are wrapped in walls of heavy masonry,
supported by structural concrete.
building has gotten piecemeal renovations over the years, but nothing
comprehensive. Nestle said it’s “an excellent candidate” for renovation.
“There’s no discussion whatever about tearing down Ag Hall,” Nestle said. “It’s a keeper.”
so, according to MSU officials, are all five buildings in Laboratory
Row, collectively listed on the state’s register of historic sites: Cook
Hall (1889), Chittenden Hall (1901), Old Botany (1892), Marshall Hall
(1902), and Eustace-Cole Hall (the old Horticultural Laboratory) with
its shingled, barn-like gables, the only MSU structure on the federal
Register of Historic Places. Linton Hall (1881), the old Library-
Museum, is also on the State Register.
of these buildings dodged the wrecking ball twice, in 1926 and 1958,
when proposals to replace them with one big building fell through.
director of campus parks and planning, Jeff Kacos, said all of
Laboratory Row is slated for preservation and adaptive re-use. Two of
the buildings, Eustace- Cole and Marshall, have been renovated since
1990, thanks to private donors.
is next. (That’s the modest but solid edifice with the word “Forestry”
carved, as if out of trees, over the door.) Linton, with its tall
lantern tower and venerable history (first as museum and library, then
as administrative hub), is also in line.
Lab Row buildings will stay, and there’s no reason why Ag Hall can’t be
sitting there in another 100 years,” Poston said. “Morrill is really
the only one of the lot that’s structurally unsound.”
But Poston said the cost of renovating Morrill Hall would be “astronomical.”
have to tear the building down from the inside out, get rid of the
wood, and put up a steel frame,” Poston said. “You’d have to build a
building inside a building.”
Beyond Laboratory Row and Linton Hall, Kacos said, campus buildings are looked at on a “case by case” basis.
“We don’t tear very many buildings down,” Poston said.In recent years,
outlying residence halls in Spartan Village and University Village,
hastily built in the 1950s, have bitten the dust. But in the past 20
years, Poston said, only one central campus building has been
demolished: the Paolucci Building, a specialized set of demonstration
apartments used for home economics classes, razed to make room for the
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.
and Kacos re-affirmed the principle in MSU’s campus Master Plan to
“favor building reuse, renovation and refurbishing before disposal.”
“Most of these old buildings that are here are going to stay here,” Poston said.
The ghosts disperse
The demolition of
Morrill Hall may be an exception to MSU’s preservation principle, but it
will probably help fulfill another directive in the campus Master Plan:
to “protect and extend the park-like character of the historic Circle
When Morrill Hall goes
down, trees will be planted and a park-like area or plaza will remain.
The profs, students, bats and ghosts will disperse.
“Right now, we don’t plan to build anything there,” Poston said.
English and Religious Studies departments will move into expanded Wells
Hall by the end of 2012, but no professor expects to see 15-foot
“I really appreciate having these old-fashioned, good sized offices,” Seaton said. “That I’m going to miss.”
“We are a book profession,” Bailey said. “We need a place like this that can accommodate our behaviors.”
profs aren’t the only ones who will miss Morrill Hall. Architect Dan
Bollman, who serves on the East Lansing Historic District Commission,
said his first impulse is always to preserve an old building.
it’s Morrill Hall or Penn Station or the house down the street, it
represents a loss of what’s called embedded energy,” he said. “It’s a
loss of history.”
But he added that Morrill’s wood frame is unusual.
“It’s still a good-looking building, but I can’t say that it’s a good functioning building,” he said.
The History Department will be the last (human) occupant to leave
before the wrecking ball, and that seems fitting. Their job is to pick
at fallen temples, crumbling ziggurats and vanished cities, imagining
the lives inside them. Morrill Hall gave them the rare chance to inhabit
a temple before it crashed to the ground.
“That’s why we’ll all be so damn sad,” Bailey said. “We feel sort of like the last living cells in the dying organism.”