Founded in 1855, Michigan State University became a pioneer land-grant institution whose campus of 5,263 acres is an arboretum park, including thousands of species and varieties of trees and shrubs intermingled with over four hundred buildings.
The Red Cedar River divides the campus into its northern and southern components and distinguishes many of the pre-1945 buildings from recent designs. The initial buildings were erected on the north side in an “oak opening” or grassy knoll surrounded by large oak trees. According to old board minutes, even in its earliest days, there was sentiment expressed that “the premises shall be properly laid out and tastefully arranged.” Aesthetically, the influence of the English picturesque landscape tradition of Andrew Jackson Downing prevailed as random accents for such buildings as College Hall (1857–1919), an unadorned, classically inspired brick classroom facility known as the first to be erected in the United States solely for the purpose of scientific agricultural education.
By the turn of the twentieth century, in anticipation of growing needs, Ossian C. Simonds, a Grand Rapids landscape architect, was hired to assess the campus park development. In 1906, he informed the board that the area of the oak opening should be designated “as a sacred space from which all building must forever be excluded. This area contains beautifully rolling land with a pleasing arrangement of groups of trees, many of which have developed into fine specimens.” With this advice, in 1913, a committee of faculty and board members employed Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted. On May 10, 1915, the Olmsted brothers submitted their report to the board. They noted that “while the architecture was not good, it was not aggressively bad; and it so happened that a fortunate combination of a pleasing topography, a soil and climate favorable to the growth of trees, a fair sprinkling of fine native trees to start with, and a long period of generally judicious planting and care, created what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful examples, in some respects probably the very best example, of the type of landscape characteristic of the American college campus of the 19th century.”
For future building, they proposed the broad use of the college quadrangle as a spatial delineator that would be halfway between the “broad,” rolling picturesque campus of the small nineteenth-century college and the precisely defined courts and streets of urban campuses. Their proposal was accepted, although their subsequent specific recommendations were met with resistance.
From 1923 to 1945, T. Glen Phillips, a Detroit planner and landscape architect, served as a consultant who affirmed the spirit of the early campus with sensitivity to the picturesque intermingling of the terrain, extant buildings, and vegetation. After 1945, professor and landscape architect Harold Lautner served as planning director and worked closely with President John Hannah during a period of vast expansion of the south campus. In the Campus Development Plan (1966), strategies for establishing “a functional framework of varied land uses,” determining “systems of vehicular and pedestrian circulation,” and formulating “general guidelines for the preservation of open space” were established. In 1968 the Board of Trustees approved a zoning ordinance “to preserve the campus environment of spaciousness and landscape beauty, promote order and unity, and minimize congestion.”
The winding streets and sidewalks of the north campus were not manifested in these new developments. The topography did not allow meandering passageways, and the large-scaled academic buildings, dormitories, and parking ramps required blocks of land for pedestrians and automobiles. What does remain constant is the ongoing reassessment of walking and driving distances and their relationship to the siting of campus plantings and architecture.
Today, the entire campus reflects the mainstream developments in American architecture of the past one hundred years. Circle Drive is slightly larger than it was in the late nineteenth century, but its randomly arranged trees and shrubs still acknowledge the “sacred space.”
Cowles House (1857) is the oldest building on campus. More interesting is the group of buildings that stands along the intersection of E. and W. Circle drives and constitutes the old Laboratory Row and the Library-Museum (1881–1909). Stylistically, elements of High Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Beaux-Arts classical permeate these buildings: Eustace-Cole Hall (now Honors College, 1888); Bacteriological Laboratory (now Marshall Hall, 1902); Old Botany (1892, 1908); Dairy Laboratory (now Alfred K. Chittenden Hall, 1901); Entomology Laboratory (now Alfred J. Cook Hall, 1889); Agriculture Hall (1909); and the Library-Museum ( IN17.1).
In the 1920s and 1930s, like many other colleges and universities, Michigan State favored the Gothic. Beaumont Memorial Tower ( IN17.2) and the MSU Memorial Union ( IN17.3) are prime examples of the scholastic spirit. Between the world wars, numerous PWA buildings were erected, and after World War II temporary quonset huts were installed for classroom and residential use to meet pressing enrollment demands. In these postwar years, the International Style predominated. The Clark L. Brody Hall complex (1954–1955) is an accomplished example of the volumetric spaces and steel-skeletal construction that form the vocabulary for this style. More modest, but equally successful, was the former University Village Apartments (1953–1955; 2007 replacement, Neumann Smith Architecture) arranged in relation to cul-de-sac parking.
The more expressionist aspects of 1960s and 1970s architecture are reflected in the Clarence L. Munn Ice Arena (1974, Daverman Associates; 1999 rehabilitation and V.I.P. seating, Rossetti Associates), a reinforced-concrete structure with steel-framed sloping roof and berms, situated next to a stand of tall evergreens. The Clifton and Dolores Wharton Center for the Performing Arts (1982) is clearly visible from numerous streets and traffic circles and impressively asserts its presence as a postmodernist form in dark brown brick. The Breslin Center (1988–1989) is a more recent Postmodern example.
For the Office of Campus Planning and Administration, which oversees all development of the campus park, the basis on which Michigan State won the Architectural League of New York award in 1954 is still an essential ideal: strive toward “excellence in handling mass and space with relation to site and function and the integration of planting as part of the over-all composition.”