the MSU Campus Master Plan

History of Campus Development

The fundamental question that a master plan seeks to answer is how the physical campus of the University should grow. In other words, what physical patterns should it adopt to best fulfill its purposes and serve its mission. It is appropriate, therefore, that master planning begin with an understanding of how the campus has evolved to its present form. The following is a summary that traces the University's planning and growth from its founding in 1855 to the present day campus.

Founding of the College

In February of 1855, the Michigan Legislature passed an enabling act to establish a State Agricultural College. The Act mandated that the site be within ten miles of Lansing, be between 500 and 1000 acres in size, and that the land be purchased at a price not to exceed 15 dollars per acre. In those days, the latter restriction would only allow for the purchase of uncleared, forested land. Although this would pose an immediate problem with respect to quickly establishing the College as an experimental farm, it would later prove to be invaluable in the establishment of the park-like campus landscape.

By July of 1855, a site of approximately 677 acres was recommended to the State Board of Education. It was reported that, except for an occasional opening, the property was densely covered in hardwood timber and had a picturesque river flowing through the northern portion of the property.
 

 

1855-1913

During this period of development, the design and evolution of the campus plan was strongly influenced by the literature of the time regarding how to lay out a campus. The plan was a direct and skillful expression of the ideas of Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted. Two major campus planning themes were emphasized. The first was the idea of creating a cohesive academic community where no building exceeded a comfortable walking distance. The second driving idea was that of enhancing the natural beauty of the existing landscape. The creation of pastoral scenery was intended to elicit emotions of tranquility in order to improve the mental and physical health of the members of the community.

In 1871, President Abbott proposed that the Board of Trustees "take steps to provide for the proper layout of the college grounds, planting of trees, location of buildings, etc., by a competent landscape gardener, as soon as means can be spared." Within one year, Adam Oliver, a practicing landscape gardener, was hired. During his tenure from 1872-1887, he was responsible for the layout of walks and drives and the siting of numerous buildings, including Linton Hall in 1881. He was responsible for the closed roadway system, an altered form of which remains today as West Circle Drive, and was also responsible for the informal arrangement of campus buildings. The character of the campus is described in President Abbott's 1882 report to the Board as follows:

There are in the park no straight rows of buildings or of trees, but its...buildings...are separated by undulating lawns, shallow ravines, and groups of trees.


Figure 3: Opening Day Campus - 1857

The early campus park consisted of undulating lawns and groups of trees
Image 1: The early campus park consisted of undulating lawns
and groups of trees

 

The 1899 plan illustrates the results of campus planning in the first fifty years of the campus' existence. The simple plan consisted of a central park, with a winding, circumferential road. Faculty homes were sited along the northernmost road and academic buildings were sited on high ground in the clearings within the wooded grove of the park. Land to the east had been cleared for agricultural use and contained a number of barns and farm-related buildings.

In 1906 the College hired O. C. Simonds, a well-known prairie school landscape architect. Simonds' planning contributions included simplifying the roadway system by reducing the total number of roads in the park and the planning of walks and planting areas. He was also instrumental in reaffirming the informal naturalistic landscape ideal as the underlying landscape style for the campus. It was Simonds who labeled the campus parkland as a "sacred space" from which all buildings must forever be excluded. In a 1906 letter to the Board, Simonds described the campus park in the following manner:

This area is, I am sure, that feature of the College which is most pleasantly and affectionately remembered by the students after they leave their Alma Mater, and I doubt if any instruction given has a greater effect upon their lives.

This advice crystallized the idea of preserving and protecting the campus park of undulating lawns and stately trees.


Figure 4: Map of the Campus - 1899

A "sacred place" from which buildings must forever be excluded.  Circle Campus - circa 1895
Image 2: A "sacred place" from which buildings must forever
be excluded.  Circle Campus - circa 1895

The formal axis of Farm Lane connected the North and South Campuses - circa 1910
Image 3: The formal axis of Farm Lane connected the North and
South Campuses - circa 1910
 

 

1914-1922

In 1914, the college hired Frederick L. Olmsted Jr., one of the premier landscape architects of the time. In 1915 the office of Olmsted Brothers issued a plan and report with regard to the future development of the grounds. The Olmsted Brothers were dealing with several issues. Firstly they needed to resolve the preservation of the existing campus landscape character. Secondly, they were struggling with the creation of an efficient pattern of new and larger buildings that needed to be closely related in order to minimize walking distances. They recognized the need for compactness and sought to replace the old campus form with a new spatial framework of quadrangles. Although the plan was clear, Olmsted was presenting the College with a new and revolutionary concept for the future growth of the campus. It came under intense scrutiny and criticism, from both students and alumni. Most were arguing for the preservation of the "sacred space" and an extension of its informal and naturalistic style. After eight years of consulting and advice that resulted in very little physical change on the campus, the last recorded collaboration with the Olmsted Brothers was in 1922.


Figure 5: Proposed Plan by the Olmsted Borthers
1915

Buildings frame the "sacred place." Linton Hall can be seen in the center of the photograph - circa 1920
Image 4: Buildings frame the "sacred place." Linton Hall can
be seen in the center of the photograph - circa 1920

 

1923-1945

In 1923, T. Glenn Phillips was employed as the campus landscape architect. In his plan of 1926, he envisioned the comprehensive use of all of the land north of the river for academic expansion, and dedicated the land south of the river to athletics and agricultural use. Following on the heels of Olmsted's controversial plan, the most saleable aspect of Phillips' plan was his informal and spacious placement of buildings. He retained O.C. Simonds' "sacred space" and extended the concept of the original campus eastward, connecting groups of buildings together with a curvilinear road system. The plan opened up ways in which the campus could be expanded, yet did not require a drastic parting with the college's past. For these reasons, his plan was embraced and became the guiding vision for the next 25 years. Yet, Phillips' plan lacked the clarity of the original campus. One can see that this plan does not use buildings to define spaces, but rather the buildings are loosely ordered in a random way. It is important to recall that the space east of the original campus had been previously cleared for agricultural use and therefore lacked the interesting terrain and groves of trees that made the sacred space so successful.

O. C. Simonds was responsible for simplifying the roadway system on the Circle Campus.  The tower of Linton Hall is visible above the trees in the right half of the photograph - circa 1925
Image 5: O. C. Simonds was responsible for simplifying the
roadway system on the Circle Campus.  The tower of Linton Hall
is visible above the trees in the right half of the photograph
circa 1925


Figure 6: Proposed Plan by T. Glenn Phillips - 1926

Using Phillips' 1926 plan as a guide, additional roads were built on east campus.  At the same time, several things were happening that deepened the ambiguity of the newly developing east campus. Both the demand for larger buildings and the increased use of the automobile consumed space available for open lawns and trees. The landscape was reduced to irregular fragments between buildings and parking lots. It was apparent, even before the campus moved south of the river, that there were two different campuses in terms of form. The original campus was a delightful park and the new east campus was developing on cleared agricultural land and trying to make sense of large new buildings arranged along a roadway framework that had been laid out 25 years previously.


Figure 7: Campus Plan - 1945

 

1946-Present

The push of development south of the river was hastened by the returning GIs after WWII. Temporary GI housing and academic buildings were built. At this point, it is evident that the campus plan was no longer guided by an open space idea. The original 19th century campus was intact, but no new ordering idea was following development southward. Largely because of the increased emphasis on the automobile, the campus form was no longer restricted by pedestrian walking distances. The Capital Improvement Plan of 1958 clearly illustrates that a new ordering idea of streets and parking lots had emerged.

The street grid that had been established for the agricultural campus was amplified by a new enthusiasm for the automobile. By today's standards, the south campus expansion sacrificed human scale, landscape aesthetics, and the virtues of compactness in a period when the emphasis was on rapid growth and convenient automobile access.


Figure 8: Campus Plan - 1948

Larger building footprints and parking lots consumed space available for landscape.  Visible are Natural Science, Physics & Astronomy, and Giltner - 1950
Image 6: Larger building footprints and parking lots consumed
space available for landscape. Visible are Natural Science,
Physics & Astronomy, and Giltner - 1950

 


Increased use of the Automobile in the 1950s affected campus growth.
Image 7: Increased use of the Automobile in the 1950s affected
campus growth.



Figure 9: Proposed Capital Improvement Plan
1958


Next: Land Use

Prev: Project Area

Plan Revision: 

  • 2001