The green promise

By Laura Johnson

Group hopes to replace demolished MSU greenhouse with high concept biodome

Never make a promise you don’t plan to keep. You never know when someone will stick around for, oh, say, 15 years and hold you accountable. 

The Student Greenhouse Project has been chasing a promise made by Michigan State University since the botany greenhouse, located on MSU’s north campus, was torn down in 1998. The 22,000-square- foot greenhouse housed a waterfall, a stream, exotic plants, a fishpond and a butterfly house. 

“It was kind of a hidden gem on campus,” said Phillip Lamoureux, longtime MSU research assistant and director of the Student Greenhouse Project.  The space, which was free and open to students and the community, was used for a wide range of activities, including music events, K-12 school tours and medical walks for Sparrow Hospital patients. 

“While it wasn’t completely well known, it was a very beloved spot,” Lamoureux said. “I was there for drum circles, there were poetry readings, little theater events and fundraising dinners.” 

Lamoureux said word leaked out in the fall of 1997 that the greenhouse was to be torn down due to age and the cost of upkeep. “People were shocked,” he said. “So the Student Environmental Action Committee got involved with trying to save it and wrangled the university into coming to a public forum.” 

About 100 people from the university and the community showed up to protest the demolition. The greenhouse couldn’t be saved, but a deal was struck.

“A freshman girl put up her hand and said, ‘Well, if we can’t save it, can’t we just put something back there that everyone goes to and loves?’” Lamoureux recalled. “And everyone jumped on this.” 

Thus a promise was made:  The university would allow a student group to build a new greenhouse, provided the group could raise the funds — and a dream was born. 

“We have a legacy to uphold,” Lamoureux said. “The (Student Greenhouse Project) has been running since that promise was made. We made the university realize that people loved that place. They didn’t know there was a hornets’ nest.” 

“We’ve been carrying this for 15 years, having been promised a greenhouse,” said Jeff Herzog, Student Greenhouse Project community liaison and longtime supporter. “Everybody thought we would kind of go away, like the dust in Oklahoma.” 

While the group hasn’t gone away, there is little more to show today than a model, a small, fluctuating student membership and the dream. But that dream is a big one: A two-level biodome, 60 feet tall and 120 feet in diameter, with about 11,000 square feet of interior space. The model is a result of a winning student design from a contest held in 1999. 

Inside plans include two waterfalls, a canyon and bridge, a large fishpond, meandering pathways and spaces for studying and performance. It is complete with an array of plants, hummingbirds and, yes, even Wi-Fi. The space is to be open year-round to campus and the general public, free on weekdays with a small charge on weekends. 

“The goal is to have a beautiful tropical garden under a dome and really improve what was built years ago,” Lamoureux said. “It would be a beloved place, the new heart of campus.” 

“It’ll be a focal centerpiece,” Herzog said. “We have a lot of places on campus for people to experience nature, but most of that is May through September. We can fill that gap for people with a place where they can take a deep breath and relax, or meditate, where they can regroup and re-gather. It’s a place to just be. That’s what we’re looking to recreate and provide for people.” 

Memories of the old greenhouse are dwindling now, but there are some who remember. Like Margaret Beall of Okemos, who graduated from MSU in 1975 and supports the project. 

“It was such a wonderful place to visit, especially in the winter when there’s no green around,” Beall said. “It had butterflies in it, and all the greenery. It was like being able to take a mini-vacation from winter, a respite for other stressors in life. It was a sanctuary for wellness.”

Instead of being built on the original site of the old greenhouse, the tentative spot planned for the biodome is near the intersection of Shaw and Farm lanes. It’s hoped that the space will be used for concerts and performances, for educational classes and labs, for study groups, for first dates and weddings.

But the gap between this dream and the current reality is Grand Canyon-wide. For the biodome to be built, the group has to come up with $5 million upfront. As for how much they’ve raised: “We’re so far away from that it’s unbelievable,” Herzog said. 

Totally donation based, the project isn’t financially supported by the university, and it’s vague how much MSU supports the project at all. “They do have a very clear concept,” said Jennifer Battle, assistant director of the Office of Campus Sustainability. “But in terms of whether it has been vetted and gone through the channels, I don’t know if that’s the case.” 

Layne Cameron, media communications manager at MSU, said MSU President Lou Anna Simon acknowledges the project and has requested a feasibility study: “It’s our understanding that the parties involved in the study are interested in getting feedback from the campus.” 

To this end, project organizers are preparing to finalize and present the results of the study soon. “We’re doing our best to work hand-in-hand with the university,” Herzog said.

Since its founding, the group has hovered around five to 10 student members a year. The constants are non-students Herzog and Lamoureux; there since the beginning, Lamoureux describes himself as the “deep memory of the group.”

Hannah Sumroo, 23, who graduated this year from MSU, served as the Student Greenhouse Project’s student president for three years and involved since 2008. She said the group participates in events such as homecoming parades, small concerts and field trips. 

“We’re trying to pick up a little more speed,” she said. “We really need community involvement, which has definitely petered out after the memories of the old greenhouse were lost as students left.” Turnover of both students and administrative figures has been a major hurdle, making any real progress difficult. 

But the project is important, Sumroo said. “I know it’s not a fast process, but I feel like it’s worth it to try to get something like this built on campus where it’s sole purpose is to be a beautiful place that helps you feel better.” 

Herzog and Lamoureux remain positive. “It will get here sooner the more people help push,” Lamoureux said. “It’s not a standstill; it’s a glacial creep.”

Upcoming events to help with the push include a fundraiser Thursday night at Dublin Square. The event will feature multiple bands and the chance to learn more about the project. A donation of $10 at the door is requested.

The event is about raising funds, Herzog said, but more than that, it’s about raising awareness and seeking new members. “We want more people in the community to understand that this is a viable ongoing project, and we’d love to have more people behind it and gain support for it.” 

If and when this biodome is built, Lamoureux said, “There will be a sigh of relief and a cheer from all corners of the planet.”

“We’re pretty sure it’s going to happen, but it takes time,” he said. “It’s like rolling a giant snowball, and it takes more hands.” 

Student Greenhouse Project Benefit Concert 

6 p.m.-11pm Thursday 

Dublin Square 

327 Abbot Road, East Lansing

Featuring Mighty Medicine, Lil Ditties, Fade to Black, Jeremy Sprague, Cheap Dates and Pao Xiong.

$10 donation