How North Campus came to be


In a light spring drizzle on May 23, 1952, Regent Roscoe O. Bonisteel turned over a spadeful of good farm topsoil just north of the Huron River.

Next with the shovel came four deans, a professor, the Ann Arbor city council president, and a student, Howard Willens, head of the student legislature.

Shutters clicked and dignitaries applauded. Construction of the University of Michigan’s most significant expansion since its founding had begun.

Photo of the plans for North Campus as announced in the Michigan Daily.
The plans for North Campus as announced in The Michigan Daily.

The regents decided to build North Campus not just to gain space to accommodate growth. They were signaling the university’s full embrace of research applied to the demands of an urban, industrial society.

As early as 1906, President James B. Angell had warned the campus was straining at its original boundaries. Pressures for growth only intensified with time.

In 1932, President Alexander Grant Ruthven remarked that so many expected so much from higher education that a species of “super-university” was emerging, with U-M a leading example.

“The university as an institution is rapidly becoming the brain of society,” Ruthven wrote. It must prepare students for worthwhile lives and develop new knowledge for a thriving industrial economy. Both missions were essential to “insuring the welfare of society.”

Bursting at the seams

Meanwhile, in the wake of World War I, Michigan’s leading industrialists — and influential engineering alumni in Chicago — began to press the College of Engineering for help.

The regents agreed on a Department of Engineering Research, soon renamed the Engineering Research Institute. It would coordinate private research contracts to employ both faculty and students.

World War II brought a cascade of scientific and engineering research contracts to aid war industries and the military. And this was not research in a little glass beaker. It required heavy equipment housed in large buildings.

Photo of a dog, woman and uniformed soldier overlooking trees and farmland
Thousands of World War II veterans fueled U-M’s need for more space. These two students of the 1940s posed against a backdrop of the farmland that would soon become North Campus. (Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Peace brought crowds of returning servicemen funded by the federal “G.I. Bill.” Enrollment shot up to 22,000 students in 1948.

That year, recalled student government president Blair Moody Jr., the campus was “literally bursting at its seams … with young men fresh from battlefields who desired a good education to enter the business world and recover years that they had contributed to their country.”

Before the war, most students traveled to Ann Arbor by train. Now, many more had cars and they needed parking spaces. And more were married, with children who needed play spaces.

University planners tracked the sudden postwar “baby boom,” looked toward the 1960s, and knew campus growth was inevitable. But how?

A land-grant school like Michigan State University could expand into its farm holdings. An urban campus like Columbia could grow by clearing nearby “slums.”

No such options in Ann Arbor.

Three choices

According to Frederick W. Mayer, a longtime U-M planner and author of the authoritative “A Setting For Excellence: The Story of the Planning and Development of the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan,” U-M leaders were considering three choices.

  • They could buy and demolish properties in the blocks west of State Street and north of Huron Street. That would wreck central Ann Arbor.
  • They could decide they just didn’t have the space for extensive research programs and drop them. That would wreck the university’s reputation.
  • Or they could buy land somewhere distant from the central campus. Only that choice made sense. But where?

The farms south of the university’s golf course? No, the cost would be too high. The old “Lower Town” neighborhood north of the Broadway Bridge? They’d have to tear down houses, and the land might flood.

How about the rolling farm fields that rose north of the Huron River? That seemed like a good place for students to study and live. The land was affordable, and it was only a mile from the center of the Diag.

Yes, that was it. So, in 1949, the regents quietly bought 88 acres, then more, with an average price of less than $1,000 an acre. Within 10 years, the total land acquired would grow to 826 acres.

The designer

For plans, the regents aimed high and chose Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel Saarinen, a renowned Finnish-American architect who designed the Cranbrook Educational Community in suburban Detroit. The son had become even more renowned.

Photo of Eero Saarinen, the designer of North Campus, smoking a pipe
Eero Saarinen, the designer of North Campus. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Among many other buildings, including numerous corporate headquarters, he designed the modernist TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the main terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis,  beating his father in the competition to design the Arch.

Saarinen sent his first plan to the regents in the fall of 1951, a vision of roads (soon to be named for U-M regents), land use and the placement of buildings in several groups — engineering, research, fine arts, natural resources and housing.

Meanwhile, architects drew up blueprints. Within three years, four industrial research buildings rose along the new Bonisteel Boulevard:

  • The Mortimer E. Cooley Building, named for a beloved College of Engineering dean.
  • The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project Laboratory with its attached Ford Nuclear Reactor.
  • The Automotive Engineering Laboratory, later named for Professor Walter E. Lay, who had initiated auto research at U-M.

The exteriors were built of a modernist “North Campus Brick.” Four aeronautical and aerospace buildings quickly followed, plus married-student housing and a scattering of others.

The great migration

But that was just the start. Through the 1950s, Saarinen directed an evolving series of master plans. As financial estimates shifted and professors weighed in with their preferences, the planners added, subtracted and shifted buildings from place to place. The rolling landscape, with several stands of old trees, was largely preserved.

Saarinen’s early plans had arranged buildings in pavilions connected by covered passages. But try as it might, the university could never attract the massive funds needed to execute the architect’s vision in one grand sweep of coordinated construction.

Photo of an early model showing the arrangement of proposed North Campus buildings
An early model of north Campus arranged buildings in pods of connected blocks. (Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.)

In the end, piecemeal funding drove a piecemeal construction strategy. But the Saarinen design for the property as a whole is still visible in the basic outlines of roads and land use.

Eventually, North Campus would accommodate a great migration from what came to be called Central Campus.

The entire College of Engineering moved its operation there, as did the units that became the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; plus libraries and a phalanx of residence halls and student support facilities.

Harlan H. Hatcher, who began his U-M presidency just before North Campus broke ground, remarked to the Michigan Legislature: “It is a long road from the log cabin school in a clearing in the wilderness, the best the pioneers could do for their children, to the vast opportunities which we can now afford for ours — from the first small college hall to the intricate laboratories now required in engineering, medicine and their supporting sciences. And it has been accomplished within the single lifespan of men now living.”

This article was originally published in Michigan Today,



  1. R Curtis Hamilton
    on February 5, 2024 at 10:39 am

    > In 1949, the regents quietly bought 88 acres, then more, with an average price of less than $1,000 an acre

    That is about $1.1 million in today’s dollars.

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