Intern Update: Evolution of the MSU Landscape

Arial photo of MSU
Arial photo of MSU

This is a Campus Archaeology Intern Update by Eve

In 1855, the Michigan Legislature decided to purchase 676 acres of marshy, woodsy, swampy land. These 676 acres would later evolve into what we know today as the beautiful campus of Michigan State University.

When the college opened its doors on May 13, 1857 the campus consisted of three faculty houses, a little cabin, College Hall, and a barn. As years went on the campus expanded; new buildings were built, the land was used for different purposes, and the number of students grew exponentially.

So why is all of this important?? If I were to ask you where the center of campus is located, what would you say?
The answers I have received thus far are very interesting. Some say Shaw Hall, others Spartan Stadium, others say the center of campus is at Beaumont Tower. As you can see, these are all extremely different places. So why do people look at the center of campus as being in such different places?

This semester, my research will be focused on exploring the center of campus, both as a literal center and where people perceive the center to be and asking myself why this is the case. I will be looking at changes that occurred in the four phases of MSU set forth by the Campus Archaeology Program. When looking at the literal center of campus I am first asking myself, “where is it?”. Should be an obvious question to ask right? Thus far in my research however, I have yet to find a source that provides me with this information. I’m then looking at how construction has affected its location and why the campus expanded in the way it did. When researching people’s perception of the center of campus I’m asking my self questions such as “where is it generally located?”, “has it changed and if so when?”, “do landmarks have an influence on the location of the center of campus?”, and “why do people view a certain area as the center?”. I am also interested in looking at how archaeological contexts can be used to observe trends in use of space and identify historically where campus center is located. This research becomes important because it helps us understand how the university has evolved and how students view the change in landscape over time.

Historic photo of main campus
Historic photo of main campus

So far I have been focusing on the first fifty years of MSU (aka the first “phase” set by forth by CAP). This phase, from 1855-1875, marks the beginning stages of the university. At this time the buildings were concentrated in one area and the boundaries of the campus were the “Lansing-Detroit Plank Road” to the north, the farmlands to the east, the Red Cedar River to the south, and the forests to the west. The buildings that were built reflected the student life at the time. There were dormitories for men only (seeing that Morrill Hall, built for women, was not constructed until 1900), laboratories for students to learn in, barns for the animals that grazed the fields, houses for the faculty, and College Hall which served as the chapel and classrooms among other functions. The buildings were all along what we know today as West Circle Drive.

As I am beginning to look into the next 25 years of MSU history I am beginning to understand the construction and expansion of the university. Although I have yet to look at the actual buildings that were being built, I am noticing trends in the location of the new buildings. In 1900, the mandatory manual labor that students were required to participate in began to fizzle out. The need for the immense farmlands was becoming unnecessary. I am predicting that the building expansion eastward onto the farmlands is a result of the change in class structure. I guess only more research will give me an answer…so back to the books I go!

3 thoughts on “Intern Update: Evolution of the MSU Landscape”

  • I love this project, Eve. I’m very glad you’ve decided to tackle it. The expanding campus certainly has led to a changing concept of where the “center” of campus is. Take into consideration where the Student Union is built in the 1920s…that should give an idea as to where MSU thought the center of campus was then…certainly not now. I also think the movement of The Rock says a lot about the central area of campus…looking forward to seeing what else you come up with!

  • Very interesting to learn about how we have used campus in the past! I feel like we are very lucky at MSU to have such a long and full history. I have always thought of Wells Hall as the “center” of campus. Excited to read more on this.

  • I’d be cautious about your statement that large ag fields weren’t necessary…they’ve always been necessary: our current campus is over 5,000 acres, and most of that is ag fields! While the campus is certainly diversifying the amount of offerings to students, with the addition of a women’s college, engineering, and so on, agriculture was still a major driver in why the college existed…what begins to happen is that the agricultural fields just keep getting pushed south. This is important for your project, though: because the campus expands in the direction that follows the ag fields, because that’s where the open space is….there are tons of factors that come into play during the 20th century regarding campus expansion. Check out the Beal Street Report for a discussion about some of it!

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