Morrill Hall (1900—2013)
Morrill Hall (“Women’s Building”), circa 1934. Note the balustrades on the porch and main roof. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Physical Plant.
Women were first admitted to the Michigan Agricultural College in 1870, ten in that first year. In the years that followed many more women submitted applications, but most were rejected—mainly because the College lacked the necessary housing accommodations. By 1895 only twenty-two women had graduated from the agricultural course, and in the eyes of Mary A. Mayo, this was hardly sufficient. In a lengthy address to the Michigan Grange, Mrs. Mayo wrote, “Thinking parents of today are anxious that their daughters shall be as thoroughly trained for the practical work of their lives as are their sons.” Her eloquence inspired the Grange to ask for a women’s course at the College.[Beal, p. 150. Kuhn, p. 220]
The Division of Home Economics, more commonly known as the “Women’s Course,” debuted in 1896 and was initially ensconced in Abbot Hall. Classroom subjects included cooking, sewing, human nutrition, household management, home nursing, and house architecture; these were later augmented with dietetics, color and design, food manufacture, and institutional management. A third of the required work was in mathematics, chemistry, botany, physics, anatomy, and entomology, though these sciences were gradually reduced in emphasis.[Kuhn, pp. 221–223]
The course was exceedingly popular, and enrollment soon outstripped the capacity of its location. Therefore in 1899 the Legislature appropriated $95,000 for a new “Women’s Building,” an “unexpectedly generous… sum equal to a third of the inventory value of all the buildings and tool-sheds on the campus and, unbelievably, ten per cent above the Board’s request.”[Kuhn, p. 211]
Begun in 1899 and ready for the coeds at the opening of the fall term the following year, the new building in Neo-Classical style was constructed of red brick and Lake Superior red sandstone, with a pediment and cornice painted white for contrast. It was formally dedicated on October 25, 1901. As originally designed by Pratt & Koeppe of Bay City, “the building was to be symmetrical with regard to the central entrance; but the sudden rise in the price of building materials made it necessary to lop off the north wing, that the appropriations not run short.” A stand of evergreens was planted to conceal the asymmetry.[Beal, pp. 105, 275–276. Stanford, p. 62]
The grand, if lopsided, edifice held dormitory rooms for one hundred twenty students, cooking and sewing laboratories, music rooms, a woodshop, a two-story gymnasium, and a dining room on the third floor. To the east, a low tamarack swamp was drained and turned into a vegetable garden for use as an outdoor classroom.
Sewing class in Morrill Hall, 1901. Photo Credit: Kuhn, p. 198a.
The building’s name, if it in fact had one at first, generated a kind of tacit consternation. Dr. Kedzie recommended that it be named in honor of Sen. Justin Morrill (see below), who had recently passed away, and it seems likely that this suggestion was taken to heart by the Board. However, during the entire time that it served as a women’s dormitory it was listed in official descriptions as the Women’s Building. Perhaps the intent was to burke the wit of any wiseacre male students who would inevitably find humor in a female residence called “Morrill.” Those same students, according to Kuhn, called it “‘The Coop,’ no doubt because their ‘chicks’ lived there.”[Kuhn, p. 221]
Female enrollment expanded steadily over the years, resulting in a return of women to Abbot Hall in 1920, a separate Home Economics building in 1924, and a new dormitory, Mary Mayo Hall, in 1931. The Division’s growth even resulted in a number of extension services, such as the annual Farm Women’s Week, introduced by State Home Demonstration leader Louise H. Campbell in 1926. During the first summer session “two hundred women lived in Morrill Hall while attending lectures on home management, health, citizenship, and farm economics.”[Kuhn, p. 308]
When Sarah Langdon Williams Hall was completed in 1937, Morrill Hall was converted to house exclusively classrooms, laboratories, and offices. Several departments were then moved in from other buildings, including the Departments of English, History, and Religious Studies. It was at this time that “the name ‘Morrill Hall’ was affirmed.”[Stanford, p. 62. Kuhn, pp. 355–356, 366]
Senator J. S. Morrill.
Photo Credit: www.HistoricVermont.org.
Justin Smith Morrill (1810–1898), while serving as U.S. Representative from Vermont, was the chief sponsor of the Land Grant Act of 1862. Commonly known as the Morrill Act today, this legislation was based on the model of the Michigan Agricultural College and enabled each state to create an institution of higher learning “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes on the several pursuits and professions in life.” A second bill in 1890, sponsored by then-Senator Morrill, established an annual cash subsidy of $25,000 for each college created with the original land grants, as the initial endowments were starting to be depleted. Morrill is quite rightly known as the “father of the land-grant institutions,” and more than a dozen buildings have been named for Morrill at land-grant schools around the nation.*
By the 1990s Morrill Hall was showing its age. For one thing, choice of building materials, while appropriate from a state pride point of view, was ill-advised. The red sandstone, quarried near the shores of Lake Superior, proved to be highly porous and susceptible to severe erosion. Balustrades of this stone that once ran along the rooflines of both the main building and its front porch had been removed long ago. Many of the porch’s other decorative details had melted into dust.
Front porch of Morrill Hall, showing the decades of erosion to its red sandstone elements. Sand has pooled in the corners of the steps, and at least two balusters are missing from the railing. What appears to be a diagonal crack in the left-hand column is actually a runner of ivy, itself an agent of erosion. Autumn 1992. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
Morrill Hall, after more than eleven decades of use, is no more. Its interior load-bearing structure consisted of wood framing rather than steel, with a foundation that rested on timber pilings. While adequate one hundred years ago for a residence hall, it was woefully underbuilt for modern office and classroom use. The cost of upgrading the structure—in effect, a complete rebuild from the inside out—was astronomical. For this reason, the University deemed Morrill Hall unsalvageable and marked it for demolition. The hall’s remaining departments, most of which had resided there since the 1930s, moved out by the end of 2012: English and Religious Studies to the newly expanded third Wells Hall; History to the Old Horticulture building. Demolition of Morrill Hall took place in May 2013. An open space dubbed Morrill Plaza now fills the site, and Justin S. Morrill's name has been reapplied to Agriculture Hall.