From the Archives: Jenison Field House

Bethany and Josh digging around Jenison Fieldhouse

Bethany and Josh digging around Jenison Fieldhouse

Earlier this summer, the Campus Archaeology team surveyed the green spaces behind Jenison Fieldhouse, next to the Red Cedar. We weren’t finding much, just the occasional nail or piece of glass, but regardless, we still wanted to know more about the building and the land around it. So with quite a few research goals in mind, we all took a trip to MSU’s Archives and Historical Collections to do some digging around.

The fieldhouse was built in 1939, opened in 1940, and was named the Frederick Cowles Jenison Fieldhouse, after the alumnus who willed his entire estate to the university. The Jenison Estate along with funds from the Public Works Administration, were used to fund the construction. Jenison Fieldhouse housed the men’s basketball team until 1989 when it was moved to the Breslin Center, today it houses the women’s volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling, and indoor track and field teams as well as the administrative offices for the Athletic Department. The fieldhouse was built on an open field south of the Red Cedar, and northwest of Demonstration Hall. It cost more than $1,100,000, and at the time of its opening was perhaps the finest building of its kind in the world.

Jenison Fieldhouse, 1940, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Jenison Fieldhouse, 1940, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

It originally featured several handball, shuffle board, and table tennis courts, numerous locker and equipment rooms, offices, a swimming pool, fencing, dancing, and wrestling rooms, as well as a gymnasium and running track all within the building.  North of the fieldhouse there were two regulation size baseball diamonds, to the west of those was a large golf practice green, and immediately south of Jenison’s south entrance was an archery range. Jenison Fieldhouse has undergone a series of renovations since then, including replacing the golf green and archery range with parking lots. The most recent large scale renovation was in 2003, which is how it is seen today.

The reason we went to dig at Jenison Fieldhouse was that there a few patches of sidewalks that were being replaced and we needed to shovel test pit underneath the old sidewalks before the new ones were laid down. We were also going to survey the remaining green space around the parking lots and near the river that hadn’t been done during previous surveys of the area. We started out surveying the green space in the morning; we set up a grid and had upwards of 15 test pits to dig.

MSC Golf Team 1931, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

MSC Golf Team 1931, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Aside from a number of large rocks and troublesome tree roots, the test pits were relatively empty. Like I mentioned before, we found the usual scatter of miscellaneous artifacts, some nails, tiny ceramic sherds, bits of metal, and a few pieces of glass. But we did find something that at the time seemed unusual, a golf ball. It was certainly an unexpected find, but after a foray into the Archive’s collections we were able to put it into context. The ball was a Titleist, and the only markings on it were the words “Titleist 2.” The dimples were also larger than most of the golf balls we see currently, which led us to believe it might be an older ball. After some online research we found out that Titleist golf balls have been around since 1930, and that combined with our new knowledge of the golf green that is now a parking lot to the west of the building, the same parking lot we were surveying next to, led to a better understanding of why we had found a golf ball in such a seemingly wrong location. So with a little research and the help of the MSU Archive’s staff, we were able to fit the golf ball we pulled out of the ground into Jenison’s historical context.

Excavating Saints’ Rest

Saints’ Rest was first erected in 1856. It is the second building constructed at Michigan State University and the first dormitory. The name, Saints’ Rest, was a nickname from the students to the building more commonly known as the ‘hall’ or ‘home’. It was named so after a religious devotional book by Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, which was first published circa 1649 and was required reading for the first class of MSU students. A three story building, it served as the primary dorm until 1871, when Williams Hall was built. Sadly, Saints’ Rest was poorly constructed and, in the winter of 1876, it burned down.

Saints' Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

Saints’ Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

In 2005, excavations uncovered much of the northern portion of the structure as part of MSU’s Sesquicentennial. This dig was able to capture much of the last days of the building’s life- the cellar was full of brick from the collapsed building, there was charred wood beam, and the stoves from the different floors collapsed and stacked on top of each other. Due to the fact that it was winter break and that Williams was becoming more highly used, very few household artifacts were found. In 2007, more of the interior was investigated during a sidewalk realignment. In 2008, a refuse pit from the building was recovered during a tree-plating. These artifacts included ceramic whiteware, glass tumblers, and cut animal bone, all dating to the 1860s and 70s. The refuse pit was further excavated during 2009 during Grandparents University. In 2012 the northwest corner of the building was excavated during another sidewalk replacement project, and we were able to map a corner that had not been discovered previously.

This past week, Campus Archaeology got another chance to explore a new section of this historic building. Sidewalk removal and placement caused one walk above Saints’ Rest to be completely taken out and replaced with sod, and a new one was being placed in. The goal of this change in sidewalks was to protect the trees in the area, however it also allowed us the chance to explore the southern portions of the building. We opened up two trenches along the area where the new sidewalk was being placed, one in the north and one in the south. Shovel tests were done in between these areas.

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North Trench, via Katy Meyers

In the northern trench, we uncovered almost 80 centimeters of pure brick. Some were burnt, most were in small pieces, and only a few were whole. As we slowly moved through the brick and soil, a tough task in the hot sun, we found that there was a distinct change in soil color about halfway through the trench. As we progressed, we found all the components (minus the wood) for a door including the hinges and handles, portions of a stove door, and large amounts of nails. At 86 centimeters down we hit a dark level of compact plaster- the floor of the basement. We carefully revealed the floor, and halfway through the trench it stopped. There was a section of bricks, and then the second half of the trench was compacted sand. We think perhaps we found the division between two rooms, one with a raised plaster floor and the other a sand floor.

South Trench

South Trench, via Katy Meyers

The second trench to the south contained fairly high numbers of broken glass, whiteware, porcelain, metal, and even a complete spoon. However, as we got deeper around 40cm we found more brick and eventually hit an entire layer of brick that was stuck together in place with mortar. At first glance it looked like a patio or floor, but the bricks weren’t aligned correctly for that. Further digging we found that the bricks were in mortared sections, and had the appearance that they had been once upright instead of horizontal. In the eastern wall of the trench we found a pipe that ran the length of the trench through the bricks. It is highly likely this pipe was a chimney flue and the brick was the support for the chimney. It probably fell down during the fire or razing of the building, and was simply buried.

These two trenches have further helped us understand the layout and makeup of the building, and hopefully in the future we will be able to explore this southern area more!