A Legacy of Fire: Morrill Hall

Morrill Hall on fire, Fire department attempts to stop it, photo by Bethany Slon
Morrill Hall on fire, Fire department attempts to stop it, photo by Bethany Slon

 

Casual Wednesday night, I was sitting at my friend’s house scrolling through twitter on my iPhone (can you say 21st century girl?) when I saw that the State News had tweeted that Morrill Hall was on fire. I was out of the door and on my way to Morrill faster than you can say that’s-my-favorite-building-on-campus.  By the time I had gotten there the flames had been extinguished, but the top of the building continued to smoke, and the caution tape surrounding the area was enough to paper a whole library (that is, if books were made from caution tape).  Luckily, as the building has been being prepped for demolition, no one was in the building when the fire started around 7pm, and no one was injured.  The roof of the four-story building had fallen through all the way to the first floor, and as of the writing of this blog, the cause of the fire is yet to be determined.

Morrill Hall is, in fact, my favorite building on campus, and since doing research on it as an intern for Campus Archaeology in the fall of 2012, I’ve grown quite attached to it.  If you’ve read any of my other blogs, you’ll already know that Morrill Hall was built in 1900 and was then called the Women’s Building.  It was the first dormitory for the women of Michigan Agricultural College (later to become Michigan State University), and it included everything from bedrooms to culinary and woodshop classrooms to even a two-story gym.  Eventually the amount of women enrolled in the college far exceeded the amount of dorm rooms available in the Women’s Building, and the name of the building was changed to Morrill Hall and the rooms were converted into offices and classrooms, most recently that of the English and History departments.  The women were placed in other dorms, most in what are now called the West Circle dorms, but Morrill Hall continued to thrive through the use of professors and students.

Demolition at Morrill Hall beginning with the stairs, Photo by Katy Meyers
Demolition at Morrill Hall beginning with the stairs, Photo by Katy Meyers

Unfortunately, Morrill is no longer what it used to be – one hundred and thirteen years has really taken its toll on the building.  The floors are sagging and before the departments were moved to other locations on campus, professors had to line the walls with books to ensure that there was equalizing weight on the floors.  In 1990 the ceiling of the first floor collapsed into the basement, and that was only the beginning of the building’s unfortunate demise.  The ceilings leak, the ventilation is extremely poor, asbestos can be found around every corner, and the amount of bats that fly around the building when the sun goes down is enough to give anyone a spook.  As far as the university could see, there was no other solution than to demolish the building, which was scheduled to happen early this June.

However, since the fire, demolition has been postponed.  Until officials know what caused the flames, the building is being treated as a crime scene, meaning our work with Campus Archaeology on the Morrill Hall front is also postponed.  Personally, I think it’s sort of fitting that some of Morrill’s last moments were spent on fire.  Many of the other original buildings and dorms on campus have also gone up in flame; Williams Hall in 1919, Saint’s Rest in 1876, Old Botany Building in 1892, the original Engineering building in 1916, and the original Wells Hall in 1905.

Engineering Building on fire in 1916, via MSU Archives and Historical Records
Engineering Building on fire in 1916, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly sad to stand there and watch the beauty that is Morrill Hall smoke for over an hour, but it’s almost as if there was something bigger going on last night – a pattern of some sort that the campus continues to uphold.  I realize that sounds sort of morbid and strange, but hey, there’s some truth in it.

If you’re in East Lansing for the summer, be sure to take a walk by the red-bricked building and say your last goodbyes.  Morrill – you’ve held up strong for over a century, and we’ll sure be sad to see you go.

Author: Bethany



2 thoughts on “A Legacy of Fire: Morrill Hall”

  • Most importantly is that the fire will provide the building with the attention it so sorely deserves. The University has been pretty mum about its demolition, while the removal of the smokestack was such a huge deal. Morrill is an incredible building: it was one of the first buildings to support women’s education at a Land Grant institution. It is entirely built of Michigan materials: those sandstone foundations were brought in from the UP. The building’s demolition is not the fault of the building, it’s the cause of neglect. It is a staple of the early landscape, and one of the few structures left that represents that era.

  • I was walking past Morrill right as it caught fire a few weeks ago, and I’ve been watching its demolition this week, so I was excited to come across this blog as I was looking up other facts about the building I didn’t know. (Like you, I became fascinated with the building’s history a few years ago and have been smitten ever since.) It’s quite surreal to see open space where the building used to stand now, but it’s definitely had a good run. I love what you said about the fire being a fitting end for Morrill — I thought the same thing, although I didn’t make the historical comparison to other building’s going up in flames. But it was the perfect way for Morrill to go out, to say “Hey! Look at me one more time!” Whatever tribute MSU ends up putting in the green space that remains there, I hope it lives up to the building’s legacy.

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