MSU College of Music expands nearly 80-year-old school
In the name of outreach, MSU Opera Professor Melanie Helton took her class on a cross-campus field trip. They went to the business school to sing for a particular integrated studies class.
“We walked into the business building, and everybody looked at it and said, ‘They’ve got a Starbucks?’ It was like being in Disneyland. That’s what we want.”
Though a coffee shop is an amenity many buildings on campus couldn’t function without, MSU’s College of Music simply doesn’t have space for that — or much of anything. The infrastructure is old. Close to a century old.
“I keep laughing that my floor is made of some substance not known either to man or nature,” Helton said.
That’s because MSU’s current College of Music buildings were built in 1939, as part of the New Deal.
“It was a WPA building,” said College of Music Dean James Forger, referring to the President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. “With the same original single-pane glass, without any climate control, and we have a second building, a music practice building, which was built in the late 1960s.”
Clearly, the space is outdated. But as of June 21, the plans for an expansion were set in motion.
“It finally got the Board of Trustees’ approval,” Helton said. “We’ve been in planning for I think about two years. I was on a faculty subcommittee that looked very carefully at what were our needs. We’re absolutely bursting at the seams right now.”
The college that serves more than 5,000 students will annex 35,000 square feet to the western portion of the building and renovate 8,500 square feet in the existing structures.
Besides the building’s antiquated construction, workspaces are cramped, and inefficient. Students sometimes have to wait hours for practice rooms, and frequently they waste time trying to navigate the its narrow passageways. Helton said it’s a hazard to health as well.
“It’s a health and safety issue of being in very small, confined, quarters where you need to play loud for periods of time,” Helton said. The expansion will mean “people will be able to hear themselves better, folks won’t have to use ear plugs. So, there are many, many benefits like sound insulation, sound isolation.”
Helton believes that the expansion will help student schedules as well.
“Basically, the building is scheduled from 8, until midnight,” Helton said. “(Especially) for the kids who need to make recordings — which is a great deal of them — because you have to record for jobs, you have to for competitions, you have to record for graduate school. As a teacher, I want to be at those recordings, but sometimes, I’ve gone to a recording at 11 at night”.
Faculty too, has suffered. Helton calls the office space “formal closets.”
The estimated $35 million project was made possible thanks to a gift by MSU alumnus James Billman Jr., the amount of which hasn’t been disclosed.
Billman has donated to the school before. He endowed a professorship that bears his name to the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department at MSU and then endowed his first scholarship in the 1990s. Since then, he has given 17 more endowed scholarships to the school. Billman said he is hopeful that the expansion will eventually result in a near total replacement of the building.
“Ideally, the College of Music building should be replaced, saving the historic façade facing West Circle Drive with its Samuel Cashwan carving and art deco lettering above the entrance. This new expansion will form a transition and can be attached to the complete replacement someday.”
The college’s current goal is to raise at least another $9 million toward the final sum.
This isn’t the first time that the College of Music has tried to expand.
“We had plans for a whole new building, but that was in an era where the state had capital outlook in play,” Forger said. “At one point, there was a 100 percent state funding for new buildings, and that went to 75 percent and then it declined to 50, it went to 25 and then, except in special cases … the money from the state has evaporated.”
To reconcile the loss of the new building project, Forger said the philosophy of the college was to do many small improvements to the school, to create a better whole.
“Over time our position has been, ‘What can we do in an incremental way to gradually move the facilities forward?’” He said that’s been done with renovations to Cook Recital Hall, Demonstration Hall and Fairchild Theatre, Forger said.
As for the main buildings, “We’ve continued to do work in less-than-stellar circumstances, and we’ve done it with a smile. But it feels like the university has given us a big pat on the back and said, ‘We see what you’ve been doing, and we’re going to help you,’” Helton said. “I know that when the dean announced it to the faculty in April, he actually had tears in his eyes, and I think many of us did too. I get a little touched just thinking of it now, because it’s really a major, major, thing.”
Because plans are still in their preliminary stage, it is uncertain when the project will be finished, but Forger is optimistic that work on the building can begin soon.
“Although I don’t know for certain, the planning elements will take the balance of this next academic year,” Forger said. “And if we’re fortunate to continue the momentum with the fundraising, perhaps it could begin next May.”
Forger said he hopes students and faculty will receive a new space that is “acoustically terrific” and provides technology that allows students to learn together, both formally and informally.
“We’ve worked very hard as a faculty and as a college to get this right, and unless we got what we needed, there was no point in doing it,” Helton said. “That’s where we’re thrilled that the dean, the trustees and the president listened to us, so, so, carefully and so supportively.”