Williams Hall (1869—1919)
Williams Hall, date unknown. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives.
With the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, friends of the University in Ann Arbor began to covet the potentially lucrative grant of lands to the Agricultural College. That year a joint legislative committee recommended that the grant, and the agricultural school, be transferred to the University. The proposal drew substantial support from around the state, particularly in the southeast where, as some put it, “the state’s better farmers could more conveniently visit.” Its opponents had a stronger argument, however, not merely limited to the costs of relocation and the unavailability of farmland close to Ann Arbor: Nothing would prevent the University from using the Morrill grant to educate, “not farmers and mechanics, but students of law, medicine, and the liberal arts.”[Kuhn, p. 77]
The 1863 Legislature voted to assign the biennial Morrill grant to the Agricultural College, but the merger debate reared its head again in the sessions of ’65, ’67, and ’69. However the 1869 debate was short-lived, and the Legislature in March of that year gave the College not only the standard grant, but also $30,000 for a new dormitory. This sent a firm message—“end of discussion”—and the College’s separate existence was never again seriously challenged, Engineering notwithstanding.[Kuhn, pp. 78–79, 81]
The new dormitory, designed by William Henry Mallory of Ann Arbor and built by Edwards & Cooper of Ypsilanti, was begun almost immediately and was ready for occupancy the following year. The final cost was $1,500 over budget. Located on the hill about midway between College Hall and Saints’ Rest (where the Museum is today), it stood four stories tall with a dramatic mansard roof and a tower that loomed one hundred feet above the grade. It held living space for as many as eighty-six students, thus enabling the College to expand by admitting those who previously could not enroll due to lack of space. The basement held a large dining hall that served the entire student body. In later years this room was cut into thirds,* and while continuing to serve as dining rooms the separate spaces were also used as meeting rooms for student clubs, literary societies, and the Y.M.C.A., which affiliated with a local student group in 1881.[Minutes, 31 Mar 1869, p. 184. Beal, p. 268. Kuhn, pp. 81, 83, 92]
At first, the dormitory was simply known as the “new hall,” distinguishing it from the “old hall,” later known as Saints’ Rest. When Saints’ Rest burned down in 1876 and another “new hall” was built to replace it, it became necessary to give the two “new” halls proper names. The 1869 dormitory was named for Joseph Rickelson Williams (1808–1861), a Harvard-educated politician and founder of the Toledo Blade newspaper, who served as M.A.C.’s first President from May 1857 to March 1859.[Beal, pp. 22, 385–386] The other “new hall” became the first Wells Hall.
Hon. J. R. Williams, M.A.C. President (1857–1859).
Photo Credit: Beal, p. 23.
Williams Hall surely was the center of collegiate life for many years. The bell in its tower chimed each morning to wake the students, and tolled the end of each class period. Fondly known as “Bill’s Hall” or “Old Bill,” it was the site of many a sophomoric prank—the ’90-’91 Y.M.C.A. Handbook warned freshmen, “don’t sit on the steps, nor stand long near them. You may get wet if you do.”[Kuhn, pp. 189, 264] The basement hall even acted as a temporary classroom for the new school district when it was formed in 1900 until Central School was completed the following year.[Miller, p. 34]
Somewhat prophetically, Beal wrote in 1913 that “a marked defect in the building was discovered later, viz: in not deafening the floors and separating into wards after the manner of new [second] Wells Hall.”[Beal, p. 268] Little did Beal know that on January 1, 1919, Williams Hall would burn to the ground. Thankfully there were no injuries, as the hall was vacant in the interim between Army trainees that had been billeted there while learning truck maintenance, and the regular students who had not yet returned from vacation.[Kuhn, pp. 263, 270]*
Williams Hall burns, 1 January 1919. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives.
Unfortunately the College received no appropriation, and its own budget was stretched too thin, to replace the dormitory, so housing once again was tight. Compounding the problem, in 1920 Abbot Hall was made into a women’s dormitory, reducing even further the number of men’s rooms on campus. And finally in the winter of 1920–21 the Board of Agriculture, previously opposed, first allowed the literary societies to affiliate with national Greek letter fraternities.* The combination of these three factors caused an explosion in off-campus housing, and within a year or two “four-fifths of the men were living off the campus… [and] eating at such places as the Wildwood Cafeteria, Ed Higgs’ College Cafe, or the College Drug.”[Kuhn, p. 325]