Looking into the Heart of MSU’s Campus

This is a Campus Archaeology Intern update by Eve

Over the course of the past semester I have been spending a lot of time in the MSU Archives and Historical collections digging through books, course catalogs, yearbooks, scrapbooks, and newspapers trying to find answers to my research question. There is a plethora of information at the archives and to be honest, this research was not an easy task. It seemed as though I had an overwhelming amount of information yet I was having some trouble piecing it all together. Once I developed my final outline, I began to see some major trends and I was able to start forming conclusions. So, it looks like all of my time, hard work and tired eyes have paid off. I think I have finally come to a conclusion about how the evolution of landscape at MSU has affected the shift in the center of campus.

My research has led me to divide up the history of MSU into six phases. The Campus Archaeology Program has established the first four while I have created the last two. The phases are as follows: Phase I: 1855-1875, Phase II: 1875-1900, Phase III: 1900-1925, Phase IV. 1925 – 1955, Phase V: 1955 – present era, Phase VI: future.  In each phase I have observed general trends going on at MSU, noticed physical changes of campus landscape, and acknowledged student social life events that were taking place as a way to gain a clear understanding about what took place in each of these phases that would help me determine where the center of campus was located both literally and metaphorically.

Although looking at the physical changes of campus helped me to determine where the literal center is, geographically speaking, it did not help in determining where the “heart” of MSU campus is located. By observing student social life throughout the course of MSU history, I was able to see trends and changes in the location of the heart of student social life.

Phase one begins at the very conception of the university. When the college was first established, the curriculum was developed to center around scientific agriculture, a very new concept that other higher education institutions had not previously seen. Laboratory practices became a staple to every student’s training. In addition, students were required to participate in manual labor out on the agricultural fields. After long days of work on the fields, the students would return to their respective dormitories. During this phase, three buildings for student use existed on campus: Saints Rest, Williams Hall, and College Hall. These buildings were not only the residencies of students but served as the center of student social life.

Earliest buildings on campus - College Hall, Williams Hall and Saint's Rest. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections
Earliest buildings on campus – College Hall, Williams Hall and Saint’s Rest. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

As we progress into phase two, we see the introduction of the Women’s Program. The integration of co-eds into the social life of MAC really changed the way that students interacted with one another. Henry Haigh, class of 1874 writes in his diary about eating dinner with three of the first women to attend MAC. He expresses the following: “I promptly fell in love with all of them, and they were an influence for good” (Henry Haigh, Diary, 9 March 1871). As campus began to grow physically in land acquisition, building construction, and student growth, we see the element of social life become more prevalent in the days of a student.

Phase three is a period of “tradition” development. During the early 1900s, we see many clubs, sporting teams, and traditions begin to develop at MAC. Traditions such as the annual Barbeque and the Night-Shirt parade became very popular amongst the student body. Both of these events took place in Sleepy Hollow, which seemed to be the common place for student gatherings. We still see the concentration of student life in the “sacred space” area of campus around the present day Beaumont Tower. Towards the end of this phase we also see the development of Literary Societies and Fraternities. Although they had been organized since close to the beginning of the college, it was not till the 1920s that they were officially established as official organizations. These societies had a huge impact on social life. All of these organizations “stimulated intellectual life outside of the classroom, gave birth to student publications, and staged dances and parties, all of which enriched the lives of MAC Students” (Widder, 292). Despite the impact that these societies had on lives of students, the social center still remained in the sacred space area, for many organized student events took place in the Armory building, located at the site of the current music building.  It is the end of phase three and the beginning of phase four where we really see student life beginning to expand.

Early Spartan Stadium. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections
Early Spartan Stadium. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections
Barber Shop - Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections
Barber Shop – Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

During phase four, the firm establishment of sports, sororities and fraternities, dances, and theatrical productions, as well as the construction of the Union Building, really altered the social life at Michigan State University and therefore heavily influencing the location of the “heart” of student social activity.  We see a shift in land use from the north part of the Red Cedar River to both the north and south and a move towards the east with addition of the Auditorium building. Although sporting events were being held since the late 19th century, it was not until 1925 when most sports teams began to compete at the intercollegiate level. It was during this time period when we see sports beginning to become an integral part of the university’s student social life. Prior to the firm integration of sports, most of the student activity was concentrated on the north side of the river.  The use of the football stadium and old college field really began to shift the center of student life. In addition, the Union became a central location for student activities as many dances were held here as well as various student events. The auditorium also really influenced the location of student social events. This was used as a venue to show various theatrical productions and became a place for students to go watch shows on the weekends. This final phase is really where one begins to see a large shift in the location of student social life.

The location of the heart of campus evolved yet again from 1955 to present times. With the addition of numerous campus buildings, a plethora of student groups and events, and the exponential rise of student enrollment, there were and still are events being held everywhere on campus. It seems as though the center of every student’s social life is located in a different area. Individuals involved in sports concentrate their activity around the sports facilities, where a music student spends all of their time in the music buildings. In the present time, many students also consider large parts of their social life to be off campus.

Beaumont Tower.
Beaumont Tower.

Overall, the “heart” of campus today is based upon each individual’s perception of campus. Each person views their life at Michigan State University differently, and their perception of the location of the heart of campus is a result of which part of their college experience is most important to them. Where do I think the heart of campus lies? I must say that I view the hill where Beaumont Tower stands and chimes to be the true heart of campus, for that is where our university had its humble beginnings.

Works Cited:

Widder, Keith R. Michigan Agricultural College: the Evolution of a Land Grant Philosophy, 1855-1925. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State UP, 2005. Print.

Henry Haigh, Diary, 9 March 1871, note after entry, Kuhn Collection, UA 17.107, Box 1140, Folder 10

Photos from MSU Archives and Historical Collections

Author: Eve

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