WMU Campus History

Part 1: Campus History

from the Technical Report of the 2000 Master Plan

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View of Prospect Hill, where Walnut Street meets Davis Street

Olmstead Brothers

On May 27, 1902, Governor Aaron T. Bliss signed the Michigan Legislature bill authorizing Michigan’s fourth Normal School.  The location of the new school was awarded to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in a vote by the State Board of Education on August 28, 1903.

The original tract of land on which the Western State Normal School was built was donated by the City of Kalamazoo.  It consisted of 20 acres on Prospect Hill, overlooking the city, accessible either by walking up from Davis Street on the east or via Asylum Road (now Oakland Drive) on the west.

Battle Creek architect E. W. Arnold and John C. Olmstead of the renowned Olmstead Brothers landscape firm participated in the site selection.    Later, in 1904, John C. Olmstead devised a landscape and planting plan for the new campus.  The plan was well received, but financial considerations prevented it from being implemented.

Dr. Dwight B. Waldo, President of Western from April 1, 1904 to September 1, 1936
Dr. Dwight B. Waldo;
President from August 4, 1904 to
September 1, 1936

The first building, the Administration Building, was completed and occupied on September 1, 1905, although classes had actually started in temporary quarters in 1904.

Dwight B. Waldo was selected as Principal (later changed to President).

Initial enrollment was 107 students.   By 1909 two wings had been added to the first building: the Training School and the Gymnasium.  Together these became known as East Hall.  Its three columned porticos and lit cupola could be seen from afar, and inspired Will Rogers to dub Prospect Hill “the Acropolis of Kalamazoo County”.

East Hall was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

From the beginning, access to the Prospect Hill site was an issue because of the steep grade elevating it above the city.  In 1907 funds were appropriated for an electric railway. “Normal’s Railroad”, or the "Western Trolley”, carried people up and down the hill from its base on Davis Street to the summit at the grassy lawn between East and North Halls.

The Trolley operated until 1949, by which time the campus was moving in new directions and the automobile was making inroads as the preferred method of travel.

Dr. Paul V. Sangren, President from September 1, 1936 to June 30, 1960
Dr. Paul V. Sangren;
President from September 1, 1936 to June 30, 1960

By the early 1940’s both the School and its facilities had expanded.  The Western State Normal School became the Western State Teachers College in 1927, and then the Western Michigan College of Education, in 1941.

Paul V. Sangren became President in 1936.

The Western campus grew from 20 acres to nearly 60, from one building to over a dozen, including athletic facilities and residence halls.

It comprised roughly all the land bounded by Prospect Hill (now called Normal Hill) on the east, the Michigan Central Railroad in the valley on the northwest, and Austin Street and the State Psychiatric Hospital to the south.  Enrollment in 1940-41 was 2,620.

Known today as East Campus, or Historic East Campus, it was registered with the National Register of Historic Sites in 1990 as the Western State Normal School Historic District.

For many reasons, not the least of which were all the veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill to get a college education, the end of World War II signaled the beginning of an education boom.  Western Michigan College of Education's administration anticipated this growth and investigated expanding the campus south to Wheaton Avenue.

In 1944 Western received a gift from Mrs. Ann Carstens Kanley towards the purchase of land to the west of the railroad tracks.  Together with funds appropriated by the Michigan Legislature and a donation from the Upjohn Foundation, Western purchased a total of 155 acres of land and several existing buildings. 

This roughly formed a triangular area bounded by US-12 (now Stadium Drive) and the railroad tracks, West Michigan Avenue, and a north-south line to the east of where Miller Auditorium now sits.

Western immediately made use of this property by moving the President into The Oaklands, one of the existing residences that had been purchased. (The Oaklands was listed with the National Register in 1983.)

Many “temporary” structures were built, mostly as housing for veterans and their families but also some classroom facilities.  Among the first permanent facilities built on the new “West Campus” were the Burnham Residence Halls in 1948, followed by the first classroom building, McCracken Hall, in 1949, Kanley Memorial Chapel in 1951, and Seibert Administration Building in 1952.

The new West Campus rapidly became equal in importance to the original East Campus.  While physically separated by U.S. 12 and the railroad tracks, the entire campus functioned as a whole.  Records show that, between 1950 and 1959, 50 percent of all undergraduates owned a car and 50 percent lived on campus.

Enrollment, which had declined during the War, increased in 1946-47 to 4,134, including 112 graduate students.   Gradual but steady growth was experienced over the next decade.  In 1957, when the Legislature approved a change of name and status to Western Michigan University, enrollment was nearly 6,000 students.

Wood Hall 1961 construction
Wood Hall construction

During the late 1950’s and throughout the1960’s the University experienced drastic increases in enrollment.  In 1960 almost 10,000 students were enrolled; by 1970 there were nearly 22,000 students.   Complicating the growth were the increased use of cars.  In the 1960s 63 percent of undergraduates owned cars and 61 percent commuted to campus. 

In an effort to meet the demands of growth, by 1964 the University had acquired an additional 179 acres.  There was expansion north of West Michigan Avenue to build the Bernhard Center, Sangren and Rood Halls, and Everett Tower.  The University also acquired what is known as Goldsworth Valley and the land for the Goldsworth Valley Residence Halls.  It expanded west to Knollwood Avenue and reached south to build Lawson Ice Arena and Gabel Natatorium and the Stadium Drive Apartments.

Despite a very ambitious construction schedule (which included Wood, Kohrman, Brown and Rood Halls, Sprau Tower, Waldo Library, and a parking structure), it was perceived that the physical plant of the University did not adequately handle this level of enrollment.  Congestion and pedestrian/vehicle conflicts on and around West Michigan Avenue were a significant problem.

Dr. James W. Miller, President from January 1, 1961 to February 28, 1974
Dr. James W. Miller;
President from January 1, 1961 to
February 28, 1974

In 1970 a “Campus Development Plan” was crafted to provide a flexible but organized framework for the expansion of the physical facilities at the University. The philosophy and goals put forth reflected the criteria developed by the President’s Faculty Advisory Committee on Campus Planning, and by its successor, the Campus Planning Council of the Faculty Senate. President James W. Miller and the Board of Trustees endorsed the plan.

Cover for the 1970 Campus Development Plan
The Main Campus as it exists today is the result of the 1970 Campus Development Plan, which was based on five guidelines.

Development Plan Guidelines:

  1. Make this a pedestrian campus by eliminating from the academic core all vehicles other than those of a service nature. Maintain a ten-minute walking time between extreme points within the academic core on the campus.
  2. Locate all main service driveways and parking facilities outside the academic core of the campus.
  3. Locate all non-academic facilities on the periphery of the campus.
  4. Designate specific areas that must remain vacant for controlled density purposes.
  5. Those responsible for the long-range plan must be urged to give at least as much attention to vistas and to the outdoor spaces formed by the location of buildings as to the shape and location of the structures themselves.

The key objective of the Development Plan was to create a pedestrian, or “urban” campus.

This was to be achieved by closing off West Michigan Avenue where it bisected the campus, and by extending Howard Street on a northwest arc from Stadium Drive to West Main Street, creating a new cross-town artery.  To achieve its desired physical growth, the University would then systematically acquire the residential properties east of the new Howard Street and contiguous with the West Campus.  (The University was already leasing many of these properties as offices and studios.)

Dr. John T. Bernhard, President from September 1, 1974 to June 30, 1985
Dr. John T. Bernhard;
President from September 1, 1974 to June 30, 1985

1970's graduation ceremony in Read Fieldhouse.  Annual graduation numbers peaked in 1973-74 at 5,635.
Graduation at Read Fieldhouse Paul V. Sangren, September 1930 - June 1960

The 1970 Campus Development Plan anticipated that academic programs would require more than double the existing building space, from about 1,500,000 to over 3,000,000 square feet, and that parking for faculty, staff, and commuters would require about 5,200 parking spaces.

The corollary to the creation of an academic core on West Campus was the intention of moving all academic programs out of East Campus buildings.  The only defined uses for East Campus in the 1970 plan were for maintenance and athletics facilities along Stadium Drive and for “park areas” along Davis Street.

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