The Sacred Space
In a lot of our blog posts we refer to an area known as the “Sacred Space” on campus. The earliest goals for campus construction in the 19th century aimed at creating an open and natural environment, where students and faculty could easily walk between buildings that were divided by open lawns and groups of trees. Therefore, an area known as the oak opening was left natural in the middle of the buildings. In 1982, President Clute argued against the construction of Old Botany within the open space. Kuhn notes “when the first load of brick was delivered… President Clute looked out from his office window in [Linton Hall] at this sudden invasion of the sacred circle. He then ordered that the brick be moved to the site where the building we now know as Old Botany was erected” (Stanford and Dewhurst 2002:13). The space was first given its ‘sacred’ designation in 1906, O. C. Simonds, a well-known prairie school landscape architect, was creating the plans for the construction of West Circle road.
Simonds wrote “I should regard all the ground included in this area, marked… as a sacred space from which all buildings must be forever excluded. This area contains beautifully rolling land, with a pleasing arrangement of trees, many of which have developed into fine specimens. 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”. It was at this point that construction was forbidden in this space.
In 1915, the space was further defined by the work of the Olmstead brothers, a professional heritage group. They recommended the expansion of the sacred space and its continued protection. The space was expanded to include more area to the east and south, including all of the the extant buildings. They argued to keep the oblong shape and winding paths in order to prevent the more quadrangular and linear shapes of open spaces found on urban campuses (Stanford and Dewhurst 2002:17). In 1930, the space was simplified in order to create a more open feeling. The drive that ran from Music Practice Hall to Cowles House was removed. This plan also included the expansion of the space to the area to include the area north and south of the Red Cedar River.
Stanford and Dewhurst (2002:32) argue that “The responsibility for the future is to prove that a campus such as Michigan State can continue to be a place to study, work, reflect and join together in an inviting natural and built environment. A campus should be an enduring example of how we live on the land and the relationship, in microcosm, of society to nature”. The campus is a public resource for students and faculty. The way that Michigan State has been constructed was done with foresight to protect the open land and natural resources.
The sacred space, however, is more than just a natural resource. It is a historical resource. When the space was expanded to include the extant buildings in 1915, it protected the original campus buildings from destruction. Both Saints Rest and College Hall, the first two buildings on campus, can still be found underneath the ground in this area. Had construction been allowed to occur, it is highly likely we would have lost the foundations and artifacts, therefore losing a major part of our history. At Campus Archaeology, we continue the mission of these early campus architects and protect the space from damage or construction. This summer there is going to be extensive construction and demolition around the sacred space (some of which has already begun across from the Union). Campus Archaeology will be carefully watching the space and conducting a number of surveys to protect the historical heritage of Michigan State.
Author: Katy Meyers Emery
Stanford, L and Dewhurst, C. 2002 MSU Campus: Buildings, Places and Spaces. Michigan State University Press.
MSU Campus Master Plan. History of Campus Development: https://xcms.gis.msu.edu/masterplan/2001/existing-conditions/history-of-campus-development