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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Central Building and Changes to the Albion College Campus

Front side of Robinson Hall postcard (ca. 1908).
Anyone who really knows me understands the special connection that I have with Albion, Michigan. Not only is this the home of my alma mater Albion College, this is also the place that launched me in my career in historic preservation.Needless to say, when I ran across a postcard of the Central Building I had to acquire this for my personal collection. What I did not expect, however, is how this one postcard launched me on a path of discovery that helped me to better understand changes to this building and the broader Albion College campus.

What jumped out to me initially was how the postcard captured the structure, form, and materials of the original "Central Building" as it was constructed on the campus of Albion College around 1841. The Central Building was originally 100 by 50 feet and set atop a rise of ground called "the hill." Built of brick, it was covered in stucco to simulate the appearance of stone. Sometimes the original building was referred to as Ladies' Hall. There was a reception room, rooms for the preceptress, and well furnished rooms to accommodate 60 women students. 

After decades of service it was announced in the 1905-1907 Albion College Catalog of the intention to rebuild this first college structure. At that time a three-story, 45 by 60 foot addition was added off of the center of the east elevation. The work completely renovated the structure and along with upgrades to the original building delivered a like-new building. Within the new addition were biology laboratories, biology lecture room, work rooms, and store rooms. The building was renamed Robinson Hall in honor of George O. Robinson of Detroit who contributed the funds for the improvement of the building.

The Albion College Catalog of 1922-1923 stated "within the old walls a modern interior will be constructed providing an adequate home for the Biological Department and its laboratories." Regrettably the building was severely damaged by a fire on December 16, 1922. The Biology Department was the worst hit. Only quick action by students managed to save Dr. Chickering's prized microscope. A collection of original slides documenting nine years of work were lost. The English Department faculty also lost personal notes, photographs, and furniture. Many of the College's historical records from 1835-1922 were also likely lost during the fire. Following the fire the building was rebuilt again with an atrium rising from the basement to the upper floors. This created lounge areas for students and faculty on each floor. 

While this article could ostensibly be just about Robinson Hall, what impressed me was something on the reverse side. The senders name was "P.N. Ogden" who lived in Albion at the time that the postcard was sent in September 1908. The return address that he listed was 606 East Porter Street. This date placed the postcard some time after the first campaign to rebuild the structure between 1905-1907, though well before the disastrous fire of 1922.
Reverse side of Robinson Hall postcard from P.N. Ogden to Miss Grace Ball (ca. 1908).
The specific date that the house at 606 East Porter Street was built is as of yet unknown. The 1900 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows houses at 604 East Porter and 608 East Porter, though no house at 606. By the time of the next available Sanborn Fire Insurance Map in 1907, the house appeared for the first time. This indicates the house was built some time between 1900 and 1907. Returning to the postcard, the 1908 postmark would seem to indicate that Mr. Ogden was one of the first people to reside in the house in the years just after it was constructed. In many ways the house at 606 East Porter Street was tied up in the growth and development of the campus over time. 

Location of 606 East Porter Street in red (1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
Development of the Albion College Campus
The historic core of the Albion College Campus was the Central Building (1841), flanked by the North Hall (1854) and South Hall (1870) where chapel services were held. One last later addition was the Old Gymnasium (1892) to the east of the Central Building. 

A pivotal moment in the growth of the campus was in September 1874 when the Albion Common Council vacated Ingham Street between East Cass Street and East Porter Street. This effectively led to creation of the central Quadrangle or the "Quad" as it is known today. Additional buildings followed including the Observatory on East Cass Street just west of the area of Ingham Street that was vacated. The McMillan Chemical Laboratory (1893) and the Gassette Memorial Library (1902) were both built on East Porter Street anchoring the south side of the Quadrangle and leading to its present form. We also see a shift beginning around this time in which the Quadrangle was given over exclusively to academic uses and residential areas for students were pushed outwards to areas immediately around the Quadrangle.

The campus continued to expand and grow from this historic core. Originally the core area was surrounded by buildings of residential character. Over time countless homes were lost as the campus expanded and new college buildings were put in their place. East Porter Street was particularly prone to this process of creative destruction, whereby earlier buildings were demolished and replaced by newer ones. 

Albion College Campus, 1888 (Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
Albion College Campus, 1913 (Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
Albion College Campus, 1947 (Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
The 1947 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map captured an interesting moment in the growth and development of the campus. Relatively few additions or changes had occurred between the 1910's and 1947. One notable exception was addition of the Epworth Laborary (1916) and the construction of the Stanley S. Kresge Gymnasium (1925) anchoring the western edge of the Quadrangle. The Sanborn map from 1947 showed the campus well-developed within the historical confines of the Quadrangle, and with even a little room to spare.

Following the end of World War II the student body as well as the campus grew by leaps and bounds. This required expanding out from the central core, and taking over surrounding blocks that had once been used exclusively for residential use. Students increasingly were housed in large institutional buildings specifically built for them, rather than the private residences and boarding houses that had been more common before. One after another of the older houses on streets facing the campus were taken over and demolished as this process progressed. This deliberate strategy to concentrate students in College owned housing on an ever-expanding campus had a considerable downside. Students had once been more integrated into the Albion community, and this provided opportunities for learning and exchange not afforded by being surrounding only by other students. Also, students not finding the once-friendly and comfortable associations of small town living, identified how there was "nothing to do" in Albion. This required each student to have a car of their own. All of these cars needed spaces to be parked. So this further led to an further unraveling of the rich tapestry of historic buildings surrounding the campus, and along with this increasing disassociation between city and college.

An interesting birds-eye view drawing was published on the back inside cover of James Fennimore's voluminous The Albion College Sesquicentennial History that was published in 1985. This provided a snapshot, albeit somewhat stylized, of how the campus appeared then. By this time the campus had expanded northward (which is in the lower section of the map as it is oriented). The block on East Porter Street between the railroad track and South Hannah Street had been fully cleared. The Carl A. Gerstacker International House (1971) was built at the southwest corner of East Porter Street and South Hannah Street. As the campus expanded northward, the two blocks between the Quadrangle and Susanna Wesley Hall (1926) began to be cleared and taken over by institutional uses such as the Bobbitt Visual Art Center (1966), Goodrich Chapel (1958), and the science complex between East Cass Street and Michigan Avenue. By 1985, Albion had consolidated nearly all housing on campus, including the fraternities which were relocated from their large and stately houses on East Erie Street, to several cookie-cutter buildings between East Porter Street and East Erie Street, just east of South Hannah Street. What this 1985 birds-eye drawing also showed is that the house formerly at 606 East Porter Street along with all others nearby had been ignominiously replaced by a surface parking lot.

The original academic buildings (North, Central, and South) had staying power though several subsequent building were demolished at one point or another. East Porter Street did not fare well. The McMillan Laboratory on East Porter Street was demolished to make way for Olin Hall. The nearby Gassette Memorial Library (1902) was demolished in early 1998 just months before my matriculation as a student. 

Birds-eye view of the Albion College Campus, ca. 1985. Areas demolished in red.
(The Sesquicentennial History: 1835-1985)
The story was not all loss. The Bonta Admissions Building (1996) was constructed at the corner of East Cass Street and North Hannah Street on the site of a former parking lot to give prospective students a warm and welcoming introduction to campus. The Dean Aquatic Center and adjacent athletic fields were greatly expanded too.  An extensive renovation was carried out in North Hall, upon which it was renamed Vulgamore Hall in 1997. The former South Hall, also received an extension just as the Central Building did nearly a century before, and was renamed the Kellogg Center. And the Ferguson Administration Building was built on the former site of the Gassette Memorial Library in the early 2000's. Expansions to the science complex on East Michigan Avenue also took place, along with construction of a new residence hall for students on East Erie Street.

Despite these clear signs of progressive growth and development of the campus, there were a number of notable losses as well. The Epworth Building was demolished and a labyrinth walkway put in its place. The compactness and integrity of the Quadrangle was compromised as a result, creating a hole in the well-defined northern edge. In an even more bizarre move, the Carl A. Gerstacker International House was demolished in December 2009. The removal of one of the newer buildings on campus from 1970 was quizzical. At the time College officials stated "The design was such that (the building's) usefulness today was limited. It was at a point in its life where the mechanics needed to be upgraded." When considering a pricetag of renovation from $3 million to $4 million dollars, it was decided that the more expedient solution would be to demolish the building for $128,000. Never mind the associations of several generations of Albion College students had with this building. As an aside, I spent one summer living there myself and found the building charming and exceptional at a number of levels from its landscaped courtyard, glass interior walls surrounding the courtyard, and soaring ceilings in several dorm rooms that allowed ample light in. Never did I ever think that this building would be a candidate for demolition. Indeed, it was one of the finest and most welcoming residences that I stayed at on campus.

Some college officials tried to claim that salvaging materials as part of the demolition was somehow sustainable. A truly sustainable action would have found ways to have kept the existing building in place. Many commentators nationally have already noted how the "greenest building is the one already built." Regrettably, the opportunity for a truly sustainable project was lost as a result of a poorly calculated demolition.

Some Closing Thoughts
This brings us roughly back to the point where we began - to that postcard of Robinson Hall and the newly built house where the writer of the postcard lived at 606 East Porter Street. Were Mr. Ogden to return to Albion today, he would surely be shocked by what he saw. While there are several notable additions and great evidence of progress (new dormitories, new academic buildings, etc.), the loss of so many iconic buildings (Gassette Library, McMillan Laboratory, Epworth, and too many houses to mention including his own) would be startling and disorienting. 

Not having the benefit today of being able to query Mr. Ogden of his views, I would like to close with a reflection on the impact that removal of his house as well as all other houses along East Porter Street has wrought. Had these buildings been maintained all in a row facing the campus, today they would make ideal residences for faculty, older students, and everyone with an interest in the life of the college. Instead, there is a massive surface parking lot. In addition to the loss of rich historical and cultural associations associated with each of these houses (and the many other buildings in Albion that have been demolished), the City has been deprived of tax revenue, and this whole area between the railroad tracks, East Porter Street, East Erie Street, and Hannah Street has proven difficult to develop ever since. The International House anchored one corner of the block for some time, but with nothing else to buttress it, this newer building became vulnerable.

What passes for campus planning and urban design in Albion today hardly measures up to work that was carried out over 100 years ago. When Ingham Street was closed by Council action in 1874, this allowed for growth and development of the Quadrangle as we know it today. Regrettably, vacating East Porter Street and demolition of the nearby International House has failed to result in a design or space of similar quality to the Quadrangle. At various times in its history the College has demonstrated a sensitivity to preservation of important character defining features (North Hall, Central Building, South Hall, and others). This regrettably has not extended to buildings constructed from roughly the period of the 1890's now through at least 1970 when the International House was constructed. To have nearly a whole century of Albion College buildings threatened with demolition at any given time is something to give any administrator, alumnus, or potential funder pause. For the building put up today, may be gone tomorrow. Rather than allowing this destructive cycle to continue and along with it loss of the buildings and places that carry the rich academic and cultural history of Albion, I hope that a realization will emerge that the most enlightened action would be to re-purpose the extensive historic buildings that Albion still has, incorporate meaningful notions of sustainability into the growth and development of the campus (including meaningful notions of sustainability and historic preservation), and find ways to repair the damage that has been wrought by relentless demolition that has partially erased the history that makes Albion so unique.

During the time since I graduated from Albion College just over a decade ago, the change has been nothing short of dramatic. There have definitely been many positive improvements to the college, though there is plenty of work left to do. In my career as a preservation professional I have been able to affect positive change in numerous communities throughout the U.S. by encouraging people to celebrate and protect their rich cultural and built heritage. It was in Albion, however, where my journey in historic preservation got its start. I hope that someday Albion will be adopt a far more ambitious, comprehensive, and forward-looking vision of historic preservation. If and when that day comes, I'll be first in line to help out. Meanwhile, I continue to harbor grave concern that this place that I once knew and love is one that I will never be able to return to and still see familiar places tied to my own memories. In that sense, I suppose you could say that Mr. Ogden and me have something in common.

Albion College Campus, 1998 (Google Maps)
Albion College Campus, 2005 (Google Earth) 
Albion College Campus, 2012, showing the approximate location of 606 East Porter Street in red (Google Earth)

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