Early M.A.C. Development

17 09 2012

This photograph shows the land acquisitions of M.A.C. from its establishment in 1855 until one hundred years later. Tracts of land were integral to the development and expansion of the college.

The early years of the Michigan Agricultural College were a constant battle for survival – lest the school be integrated with the university in Ann Arbor, or the farmers of the state deem M.A.C.’s program to be unsatisfactory, or the location too isolated.  When the idea of an agricultural school was in its infancy, state-wide arguments ensued as to where the institution would be housed, whose jurisdiction it would fall under, and what courses would be appropriate for the new curriculum.  There were proponents for both sides, but the founders of M.A.C. prevailed: the college would purchase its own land (which turned out to be the Burr Farm), and they would preside over their own affairs.  The plan for the establishment of a school that provided practical scientific farming education was first written by one Bela Hubbard of Detroit in 1849, and was finalized by Governor Kingsley Bingham six years later.  Two years following, in 1857, the first students of M.A.C. arrived for training in scientific agriculture.

A view of campus is shown here from 1872. The “Sacred Space” – the area that early M.A.C. planners deemed should be left untouched – is in the foreground of the photograph.

However, the school was incredibly isolated; the capitol had only moved to its current Lansing location in the year 1847, and the nearest railroad was found forty miles away until 1862.  To some, though, this was not a burden.  The location and size of the M.A.C. property was beneficial in that it allowed for the institution to both literally and figuratively grow – the professors and farmers-in-training needed expansive land tracts for their agricultural experiments, in addition to having the space for addition and development of school buildings.

The founders of M.A.C. were conscious from the beginning of the relationship between the students and the location they were in.  As Linda Stanford phrases the situation in her book MSU Campus, Buildings, Places, Spaces, “A school dedicated to the study of agriculture and the mechanic arts with a ‘liberal and practical’ curriculum

Cows cross the bridge at Farm Lane in this photograph to get to the south of campus, where the largest farms were at the time.

should be set in an environment reflective of nature…its architecture should reflect the nature of its curriculum.  Therefore, early buildings were inexpensive, almost unadorned…”  By the 1860s, twelve buildings in this style had been erected on campus.  College Hall was completed by 1856, although it collapsed in 1918.  The Cowles House was built the following year and is still standing.  The first simple wooden bridge over Farm Lane was built in 1861. Another wooden bridge built over the ravine in Beal Garden was supposedly styled in the likeness of one in New York City’s Central Park.  By the 1870s, President Abbot realized the extent to which the campus might expand and created the Committee on Buildings and College Property in order to plan the location of drives, walks, buildings, and plants.  It is doubtful, however, that he truly understood the outstanding institution M.A.C. would become one hundred and fifty years later.


MSU’s Whitehouse: A history of the residence of the president

19 04 2012

The Cowles House has become one of those staples of the MSU landscape. This beautiful farm cottage adorns the south side of West Circle Dr. and stands as one of the landmarks of MSU. Not many people, however, know the history behind this intriguing building…

With bricks molded from the mud of the banks of the Red Cedar, this house is currently the oldest existing building on our campus. It was one of four original residences built for faculty and and initially served as the house for the serving president of MSU. It was constructed in 1857 and housed past presidents until 1874. It was then converted into a faculty residence, the offices for the College of Education, and a female dormitory. The college eventually realized the need for a house specifically to serve as the residence of the president as the farm cottage had turned to other uses.

In 1873, a house designed by E.E. Meyer was constructed on the current site of Gilchrist Hall. This house would provide the home for Abbot, Willits, Clute, Gorton, and Snyder during their terms until 1915 when it was converted into a dormitory for women. It would serve this purpose for 10 years until it was then turned into a hospital in 1925. In 1939 the building was demolished as a way to make room for the new West Circle dormitories.

Over time, the farm cottage began being identified on maps as the residence of the professor of Botany. We can attribute this title to Dr. William Beal for he lived in the residence for 38 years from 1874 – 1941! In 1941, President John Hannah moved in postponing a much needed renovation. After World War II, the house underwent remodeling. This project, headed by alumnus Fredrick Cowles Jenison, turned the farm cottage into the structure that it is known as today. The project became very dear to Jenison as his grandfather, Albert Cowles, was a student of the first class of 1857 and helped gather material for the original foundations of the house. Jenison named the house after his grandmother, Alice B. Cowles, and we refer to the house as such today.

In 1986, the Michigan Historical Commission declared the Cowles House as a state historic site. Students can now, on the exceptional chance, have the opportunity to visit the house for a special dinner, graduation reception, or any other special gathering. If you walk inside, you will find three levels, all adorned with beautiful furniture. The first level is primarily used for gatherings and receptions. The two upper levels are home to a total of 6 bedrooms and the office of the president. It was tradition for the president of MSU to live in that house, however, our current president Lou Anna K. Simon does not reside at the Cowles House.

The Cowles House is a beautiful piece of architecture that defines the beauty of our MSU campus. I encourage you all to stop by soon and appreciate the splendor of the oldest building at MSU.