In 1950, the Board of Regents purchased a few hundred acres of land located north of the Huron River near the Medical Campus. The land, full of hickory and oak trees, was primarily used for farming. Located in the Huron River Valley, Native American tribes often crossed through in their travels. There was no immediate use for the land; the University just wanted it in case they were looking to expand. After all, once World War II ended, government money was constantly pumped into new engineering research and a growing student body was overflowing on Central Campus. Eventually, the demand for more research facilities grew too large, married students needed a place to live, and enrollment had increased to the point that the University began planning to possibly accommodate more than 100,000 students. The land was put to use, and North Campus was born.

Sarah Royce
The botanical hallway of the EECS building. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)
Sarah Royce
North Campus houses the schools of Art and Design, Architecture and Urban Planning, Engineering and Music. (STEVEN TAI/Daily)
Sarah Royce
Doug Kelbaugh stands in the architecture studios. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)
Sarah Royce
Students walk the four-story spiral staircase at the new Computer Science building. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

More than 50 years later, North Campus, which has grown to include more than 800 acres of land, is still trying to shake the stigma of being the home to everything that doesn’t fit on Central Campus. North Campus has a Diag, a bell tower and a recreation building, but they are perceived as secondary to their Central Campus counterparts. The Northwood apartments serve as dorms when Central Campus runs out of space. The best concert venues and restaurants require at least a 10-minute bus ride, and most sporting events are two campuses away. The twisting roads are more tailored for automobiles than pedestrians, creating an isolated, spread-out feel.

Still, the land has a natural beauty and a unique atmosphere. Students who live on North Campus enjoy the tranquility of the area and the open spaces that are its trademark. Where some see nothing, others enjoy the naturally sloping landscape.

“You don’t have the same hustle and bustle as on Central,” said Michael Swanigan, director of Pierpont Commons, the North Campus equivalent to the Michigan Union or Michigan League. “The ambiance is a lot more relaxing – a lot more laid-back.”

The University – as it does with Central and South Campus – has constantly evaluated the land and offered solutions for its future. Now, the wheels are in motion to make North Campus the destination spot that University members believe it can be.

The history

Since there were no original intended uses for the land, the University needed a plan. It turned to Eero Saarinen, an esteemed Finnish architect. In a piece-by-piece fashion, the land began to develop. First came the Mortimer Cooley Electronics Laboratory in 1951, then the Phoenix Laboratory in 1955, and so on.

Even though the buildings have been there for more than 50 years, North Campus has not always been a haven for “enginerds” – the slang term used to describe engineering students. In fact, the College of Engineering didn’t even complete the move from Central Campus until 1986. The move ended up happening slightly ahead of schedule, according to James Duderstadt, former University president and Engineering dean. In his book, “On the Move: A Personal History of Michigan Engineering,” Duderstadt tells the story of going for a run on Christmas morning in 1981 and learning that the economics building had been burned to the ground by an arsonist. The economics department had to relocate, and since the College of Engineering was planning on moving anyway, the problem was solved. When the college made its move, it joined the School of Music – which, in 1964, was the first school to travel north, settling into a building designed by Saarinen himself – and the School of Architecture and Art.

When considering different aspects of constructing new buildings on North Campus, many factors are taken into consideration. According to University planner Sue Gott, every project is taken on a case-by-case basis.

“We look at the nature of any project and understand what the siting requirements for any project are,” she said.

Those requirements include placing units in close proximity to promote more interaction between faculty and students, matching up needed sizes to available sites and maximizing efficiency with regards to entry points and materials.

“Every project may have some unique principles that respond to either the particular site . or the program and how the program needs to be reflected,” Gott says.

The 1984 North Campus Planning Study, the report suggested that North Campus buildings generally be low-profile and fit in with the east-west grid of the original Saarinen plan. Buildings should also try to mesh with the existing land and vegetation, whose slopes and contours are a result of glaciers moving through the Huron River Valley area millions of years ago.

“The challenge is to build on current developable sites so we protect the important natural features,” Gott says.

North Campus Redux Project

In 2002, Doug Kelbaugh, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning dean, along with the other deans on North Campus, wanted to conduct another study regarding North Campus. This, of course, had been done before, but this time, students would be more prominently involved.

“I think the North Campus deans were frustrated that the University had not developed a comprehensive plan for North Campus in many years,” Kelbaugh says, sitting in his office in the Art and Architecture Building, across the street from Pierpont Commons. Wearing a dark blue shirt, gray suit and reading glasses, Kelbaugh sits across from a wall where three large campus maps – which he references frequently – dominate the room.

After Kelbaugh proposed the plan, then-interim University President B. Joseph White agreed to fund it, earmarking about $40,000 for the study. In the summer months of 2002, the deans met with University officials and the development firm Venturi Scott Brown and Associates. It was about this same time that Kelbaugh asked the Masters of Urban Design Studio to work with students – who “have a fresh vision” as Kelbaugh says – to propose a few alternative plans for the campus.

Kit Krankel-McCullough, a lecturer in urban design, taught the seven-week spring course that worked on this project. Three teams of students each created their own vision of what they felt North Campus should be. As the moderator, Krankel-McCullough helped students organize the problems.

“What I encouraged the students to do, what I felt was lacking in the discussions about North Campus was a solid idea of what kind of environment it was or should be,” she says.

Each group had its own idea. The first group felt that North Campus should stick to the original plan by Saarinen, which had lots of open space, was tailored for automobile use and had a classically modern feel. The second group thought that North Campus should be more urban, following in the footsteps of Central Campus. Krankel-McCullough describes Central Campus as “fairly rational and bizarre, with defined symmetrical spaces.” The third idea was an amalgamation of the first two, with a more postmodern approach.

The three visions were presented to Kelbaugh, who then selected seven students to work on developing more substantive plans from the course’s preliminary work. These plans became known as the North Campus Redux project.

In October 2002, after a few more months of work, Kelbaugh and his students presented their work in Pierpont Commons, inviting the public to examine their two proposals and comment on them. The two proposals – scheme A and scheme B – both incorporated existing North Campus buildings and offered suggestions for future building endeavors. Scheme A – which eventually garnered the most votes from the public – was more traditional and symmetrical.

One of the ideas to come out of the North Campus Redux project was “Grid in the Green” – an alternative way to thinking about how a space should be organized. Central Campus for example, is considered “Green in the Grid” – trees and greenery are located in the center of the campus and are surrounded by buildings (the Diag is a perfect example of this). North Campus, on the other hand, can’t be like Central Campus – the University won’t remove the wooded areas and there’s no town around the campus. Therefore, it was better to flip “Green in the Grid” around, so that buildings are in the center of a natural space.

Important still was the matter of figuring out a way to make North Campus more of a commercial hotspot. In his introduction to North Campus Redux, Kelbaugh wrote: “Despite the fact that the North Campus is now two generations old and home to a student population as large as that of Yale University, there are few reasons for people to voluntarily visit or spend time there.”

In the summer months, retail on North Campus all but dries up. Bursley and Baits Residence Halls are primarily used for sports camps, and many of the more than 15,000 people who live and work in the area during the fall and winter terms are nowhere to be found. The report mentions a more 24/7 atmosphere, increased retail, more housing and a better automobile route as goals to consider. The report even joked “if destination is the first of the 3 ‘D’s, we also need places to have a ‘date’ and buy a ‘drink.'” Robert Venturi is even quoted in the report, saying “North Campus needs a little sin.”

According to Kelbaugh, the University incorporated many of these ideas into “North Campus Vision 2005-2025,” a 13-page document that is essentially a mission statement for North Campus. Constructed by the University of Michigan Planning Advisory Committee, which is made up of the University’s deans and reports to University President Mary Sue Coleman, the plan was completed in 2006 after almost a year of work.

“North Campus stands at a critical juncture” is the opening sentence of the report, which reinforces the goal to create a “single university.” Like North Campus Redux, the vision acknowledges the lack of attractive destinations and the need to create a more accessible campus.

“It is important to augment the lively and rich mix of uses – research, academic/instruction, housing, recreation – with additional amenities such as cultural venues and retail services,” the vision statement says. Everything is geared to enhance the core parts which already exist, link everything together, keep on developing but also respect traditional open spaces. Called a “succinct and potent document” by Kelbaugh, North Campus Vision is a symbol for the future. North Campus will never be Central Campus, but it can still be a vibrant community with plenty to do and see.

“I think there’s been a paradigm shift in the University to see North Campus as more of a destination than a satellite to Central Campus,” Kelbaugh says.

It is this idea that is appealing to students who dwell on North Campus, who can be hard-pressed to find good entertainment and good parties close to home. Pierpont Commons may offer open-mic nights and swing dancing, but most students long for the more exciting night life on Central.

“People ask ‘Why isn’t (North Campus) more like Central?’ ” said Engineering junior Bretlan Fletcher, co-chair of the North Campus Affairs Commission for the Michigan Student Assembly. “Well, (Central Campus is) much more dense, it’s easier to get around, there’s much more activities. It’s more urban.”

The intimidating physical distance between Central and North has always been a problem, especially for LSA students who live in Bursley or Baits and have to commute to class each day. The eight-minute trek is not something many students eagerly anticipate.

“Welcome to college. You get to ride the bus first thing every morning,” as Fletcher puts it.

One idea that both Fletcher and Kelbaugh mention is to have some LSA classes on North Campus. In addition to reducing travel time for those who reside there, LSA students from Central would get the opportunity to experience what North Campus has to offer.

“One of the reasons they don’t know about Pierpont and the Duderstadt Center is because they don’t have any classes up (on North Campus),” Fletcher says. “Everyone feels like the Diag is their community. Up here, it’s too fragmented.”

The Future

With this “if you build it, they will come” mantra in place, North Campus seems to have discovered its cornerstone, thanks in part to a famous playwright and University alum. The Walgreen Drama Center is a tremendous coup for North Campus. The center, which will prominently feature the Arthur Miller Theatre – a tribute to the late playwright and University alum – was first conceptualized in 1997 by University president Lee Bollinger. When Miller agreed to lend his name to the theater, the idea took off.

Now, the 97,500 square-foot complex is scheduled for completion in January 2007. Originally slated to be situated near the Power Center on Central Campus, decisions to move the Theater & Drama and Music Theater departments led to its current location next to Pierpont Commons.

It’s a big upgrade for North Campus. Currently, the largest auditorium is the Chrysler Center, which seats just 230 people. The Walgreen Center will feature an auditorium that seats 460, in addition to the Arthur Miller Theater, which will accommodate 250 people.


University officials praise the building as being a great new academic and social resource. Gott calls it “a wonderful new enhancement” to the campus; Kelbaugh speaks excitedly about how “North Campus can host events that will bring people from Central Campus and beyond.” Symposia, conferences and more seating for Basement Arts plays are all possible now. The opening of the center will no doubt generate buzz and the surrounding areas will all benefit from the center.

One such area is Pierpont Commons, the student union of North Campus, named for Wilbur Pierpont, the former vice president of the University. Pierpont was originally intended to simply serve as a conference center but it has evolved into a spacious epicenter for North Campus. Over the past few summers, Pierpont has undergone numerous renovations.

“It was time,” said Swanigan simply, when asked about the timing of the improvements.

In 2004, student services offices were moved around and corridors were expanded in order to create more of a one-stop shop for students. Last summer, the Chinese food chain Panda Express moved into the area formerly occupied by McDonalds – who opted out of their contract with the University – and opened in time for fall term.

Since Pierpont seemingly serves as a hub for the entire campus, it answers all sorts of questions; everything from places to eat on North Campus to concerns about lighting on the sidewalks. Swanigan and his staff take the initiative to make changes such as shelters at the bus stops and emergency phones.

“We feel like we need to be involved with North Campus as an entire community,” he said.

Monorail, Monorail

There are always new ideas springing up as to how to avoid the isolation that North Campus can exude. In 1998, Kelbaugh and Bob Beckley, his predecessor as dean, co-taught a studio to explore possibilities for constructing, of all things, a monorail connecting Central Campus or the Medical Campus to North. At first, considering that the development of Central Campus is all but completed and well-established roads have been around for years, the mere idea seems ludicrous. However, Kelbaugh, pointing at various spots on the maps in his office, showed me several options. Track could be installed along Fuller Road – the only major thoroughfare to North Campus – or along Huron by the railroad tracks, or even cut into Nichols Arboretum.

The beauty of Kelbaugh and Beckley’s idea, even though it has never gotten past the discussion stage, was that the monorail could go above ground, at the grade (on the ground) or below grade (underground). At the time, the consensus was that it was premature to have a monorail at the University and there wasn’t enough density to support the high cost. Buses would still be widely used – because of the flexibility in their routes, according to Kelbaugh – but the monorail would allow for a smaller fleet. Kelbaugh estimates that it would take about two miles of track to build the system he envisioned and he sees potential for future construction.

“Over time, as congestion becomes worse, a monorail would become cost-effective,” he said.

What’s next for North Campus? Many ideas are being tossed around. Kelbaugh stresses the importance of a parking structure. One of the main reasons for this is because the Walgreen Drama Center, despite its great location, eliminated about half the parking spots near Pierpont Commons. Currently, there are only about 125 parking spaces for the Walgreen Drama Center, but plans are already in the works to expand on that lot when the center opens and to build a new parking structure near the new Computer Science and Engineering Building by 2009.

Whether the addition is a restaurant near the campus – an establishment such as TGI Friday’s, for example – a dorm or even, as Fletcher suggests, a shuttle that travels around North Campus and hits the hot spots – North Campus is still continuing its evolution. There’s more to it than the Maya Lin-designed wave field and the impressive, state-of-the art Duderstadt Center. Between one-fourth and one-third of the University community live and work on North Campus. It won’t be the most exciting place on campus, but for those who venture up Fuller Road to 800 acres there will be something to do. Perhaps Swanigan said it best: “North Campus is growing.”

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