Botany Laboratory (1880—1890)
First Botany Laboratory, circa 1880. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives.
The first Botany Lab was built in 1880 on the north side of the Botanic Garden, on a site just east of where Circle IM stands today. It was the first building erected in the United States expressly for the purpose of botanical study, and was designed by the architectural firm of Watkins & Arnold, which had previously created Wells Hall in a similar eclectic style. The Botany Lab was the dominion of William J. Beal, Professor of Botany, who filled the building with an immense collection of specimens and exhibits. Across the ravine, and accessible via footbridge, was a complex of greenhouses. The first of these was built in 1874 and razed in 1918, though the complex lasted until 1955, when the Main Library was built.[Beal, p. 270. Lautner, p. 58]
The elaborate Botany Lab, with its tall, peaked towers and two-tone brick façade, was less than ten years old when it burned down in the early morning hours of 23 March 1890, taking with it a major and invaluable portion of Professor Beal’s life’s work. Today, a commemorative marker rests at the northeast corner of the lab’s foundation. It reads: “N.E. COR./ Botanical Laboratory / Built 1879. / Burned March 23 1890.”
Botany Lab marker, close up, showing 115 years of wear—and the turf that constantly threatens to encroach upon it. May 2005. Photo Credit: Andrew J. Johnson.
Botany Laboratory—Old Botany (1892) SR
The good doctor was undoubtably traumatized by the loss, for his 1915 history bears little mention of the fire. The school brickyard quickly began generating the materials for the building’s replacement, and Dr. Beal had the bricks delivered to a site east of and immediately neighboring his residence of № 7 Faculty Row. One can only presume that he intended to keep a nightly watch from his bedroom window, ready to take up a fire bucket at the merest hint of smoke from his new lab, so to avoid the fate of its predecessor.
Unfortunately for Beal, the site he chose encroached on the “sacred space,” the original oak opening that had, even then, already been reserved such that no buildings would ever be erected upon it. President Oscar Clute (M.A.C. ’62), espying the accumulation of bricks from his office in the Administration Building (Library–Museum), ordered them moved from the sacred space to a new site south of the Horticulture Lab—a site, in fact, that had already been specified for this use in a resolution by the Board of Agriculture. Despite Beal’s willful attempt “to dictate the location,” this is where the new Botany Lab, today known as “Old Botany,” was completed in 1892. The first campus commission by Edwyn Bowd, it was smaller than its predecessor, and in Professor Beal’s estimation, “never large enough.” A 25x50-foot two-story addition, also by Bowd, was completed in 1909.[Beal, pp. 250, 272. Kuhn, p. 182. Lautner, pp. 63–64. Minutes, 30 Jun 1909, p. 22]
As part of the Laboratory Row, Old Botany is listed on the state historic register.
Old Botany, Autumn 1992. The rampant ivy, though beautiful in its fall colors, has since been removed for the health of the building. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.