The History of Laboratory Space at MSU: Part III

The History of Laboratory Space at MSU: Part III

Welcome back to our blog series on research and historical laboratories on MSU’s campus! In our last blog, we talked about the first two laboratories on campus, the Chemistry and Botanical Laboratories. Both laboratories highlight MSU’s commitment to agriculture, as a better understanding of the hard science as well as the plant species themselves likely directly impacted the types of plants and crops grown at the College and how they were cared for. As mentioned in the first blog of this series, Michigan was still trying to establish itself as a new state in the existing market and the research from early MSU, the only agricultural college in the state, must have made large contributions to the state’s efforts!

In fact, MSU quickly realized the benefit of their new laboratory spaces and soon began to expand beyond just agricultural research with the addition of the Mechanical Building and Laboratory Row. A look at these spaces demonstrates MSU’s strong research ethics across the board!

Mechanical Building (1885-1916, 1916-1966)

Upon the establishment of MSU, the College was tasked to teach a variety of hard sciences, “such branches of learning as are related to … the mechanical arts” (as cited in Kuhn 1955:146). But the adoption of a curriculum in the mechanical arts, besides a few courses related to farming, was slow. At first, the College just didn’t have funds – if they were to offer a degree in mechanical arts to the level of their agricultural one, the College would need a wood-shop, a foundry, and a metal-finishing shop at minimum (Kuhn 1955:146). However, even when the College overcame their financial insecurity, friends of the College objected to the creation of the new degree – what if students chose mechanical arts over agriculture?

This all changed when Hon. Edwin Willits took over as a new president of the university. Willits recognized the importance of a degree in mechanical arts and refused to take office unless the College agreed to fund one! Not only was his request fulfilled, but the College received $17,000 for one new building and a salary for a professor of Mechanics (Kuhn 1955:147).

Mechanical Building, dated to 1888. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
Mechanical Building, dated to 1888. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

With the necessary funds available, a new structure of engineering shops, known as the Mechanical Building, was constructed in 1885, southeast of College Hall (Forsyth 2020a). The Mechanical Building included office spaces, a woodshop, a blacksmith shop, an iron shop, a brass foundry, and an iron foundry – this enabled the students to “carry a machine from the drawing-board through the wood pattern to the casting and the finished machine” (Kuhn 1955:148). While much of the first decade was spent creating new tools for the shops, including an electric motor, the shops were open for personal projects on Saturdays, which allowed the students to build and sell folding beds for dorm rooms (Kuhn 1955:148).

Left: Interior of machine or mechanical shop, dated to 1888. Right: College of Engineering Shop, undated photograph. Images courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

Although the program began as part of a general Mechanical Department, soon other courses were added to the basic curriculum. In 1901, an option of civil engineering coursework became available for juniors and seniors. A course catalogue from 1906 stands as the first evidence of the College offering courses in electrical engineering, but they must have been a huge success as just one year later the Mechanical Department formally changed to the Engineering Department (Beal 1915:149). Although mathematics and civil engineering later split from the Engineering Department, it continued to house civil engineering, drawing and design, mechanical engineering, physics, and electrical engineering (Beal 1915:149) – quite a selection for potential students of the College! The department grew so fast that a separate Engineering Building had to be built in the adjacent plot in 1907 in order to accommodate office and shop space for each of the different courses.

Unfortunately, on March 5, 1916, a fire broke out in the shops that burnt down both the Mechanical Building and the Engineering Building (Forsyth 2020a). Little could be salvaged from the fire, but luckily, due to a donation from Ransom E. Olds, the college was able to rebuild the Shops, as well as a new Forge and Foundry (Forsyth 2020a). The new buildings were built and ready that same year – clearly, the College recognized the importance of the Engineering Department and the need for working shops!

Forge and Foundry, dated to 1934. Image courtesy of MSU Physical Plant.
Forge and Foundry, dated to 1934. Image courtesy of MSU Physical Plant.

Over time, the Engineering Department has grown and changed to reflect its current mission, but shifts in the curriculum and the ability to relocate buildings across campus affected the continued use of the Mechanical Building. Today, only Olds Hall and the Electric Engineering Building remain, as the rest were torn down in 1966-68 to create space for the new Hannah Administration Building (Forsyth 2020a). Although the old shops are no longer a feature on campus, their growth in both space and courses offered highlights MSU’s efforts to increase research and hands-on learning across their curricula and not just those related to agriculture!

In 2010, CAP had the opportunity to perform a series of shovel tests around the current Hannah Administration Building, the plot of the old Mechanical Building (CAP Report No. 27). During this excavation, historical artifacts including glass, ceramic, brick, coal, and drain tile were uncovered (CAP Report No. 27). It is likely that these artifacts hail from the shops that previously rested on this plot of land! No further excavation has taken place in this region of campus to date, but it has been recommended that any future construction work be carefully monitored due to the high abundance of artifacts found in the 2010 shovel testing.

Laboratory Row

The need for more laboratory space for a multitude of departments soon became apparent, as curricula began to shift to purse the more hands-on approach already fostered within the Chemistry Department and Mechanical Arts. This need led to the construction of Laboratory Row, a row of seven separate buildings, constructed over a twenty-four-year period, which provided laboratory spaces for a variety of different departments. Construction began in 1885 with the Veterinary Laboratory and finished in 1909 with the addition of the new Agriculture Hall.

Laboratory Row, dated to 1912. From left: Horticulture, Bacteriology, Botany, Dairy, Entomology, and Agriculture (Veterinary is out of view to the right). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Laboratory Row, dated to 1912. From left: Horticulture, Bacteriology, Botany, Dairy, Entomology, and Agriculture (Veterinary is out of view to the right). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As time passed, most of these departments moved away to larger replacements elsewhere on campus, calling into question the need for these buildings. In fact, in the early 1920s, several plans were made to demolish the row, including plans made by T. Glenn Phillips in 1926 to replace the row with one single building with double-wing offices and classrooms (Forsyth 2020b). However, this plan did not come to fruition due to a lack of funds. Another attempt to replace the row with a single large building for the Basic College (Social Science, Humanities, etc.) was put forth in 1958, but was never executed. Today, the remaining six buildings are still in use and are included in the State Historic Register (Forsyth 2020b).

While the buildings on Laboratory Row do not necessarily house the departments they were built for anymore, their creation demonstrates the College’s efforts to increase research in all departments! To learn more about the departments included in Laboratory Row, join us next week for the next part of this blog series!


  • Beal, W. J. 1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and biogeographical sketches of trustees and professors. Agricultural College, East Lansing, Michigan.
  • Forsyth, K. 2020a. Accessed at:
  • Forsyth, K. 2020b. Accessed at:
  • Kuhn, M. 1955. Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.
  • Stawski, C. 2010. Administration Building Survey Report. MSU Campus Archaeology Program, Report No. 27, East Lansing, Michigan.

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