The University’s Law School was founded in 1859, and just 11 years later, it was the largest law school in the country.
As the school continued to grow, the University was forced to make additions to the school to fulfill the need for additional space, and by the mid-1970s, it was decided that an addition to the library was necessary.
Mary Clemence, the administrative specialist at the Law Library, said the University was concerned at the time that “an above-ground building would not mesh with the rest of the Law Quad,” and so the decision was made to build the addition underground, essentially invisible to the uninformed observer.
The University enlisted the help of Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, of Birmingham, Mich. Birkerts joined the University faculty in 1959 and, according to the American Institute of Architects, had earned numerous awards from the Michigan Society of Architects. After much planning, construction on the new addition began in 1978.
Clemence, who was also a part of the University staff during the construction of the addition, said “the vision was so interesting.”
“You really did not have a sense of how it was going to look,” she said.
Building an underground library would prove difficult, though, and the construction was wrought with setbacks. Layers of sediment and sand meant that collapses were a very common event. The fear of collapses caused setbacks in construction, making a lack of funds a very real threat to the construction of the addition, according to the Law School’s website.
But in August 1981, the 77,000-square-foot addition finally opened to the public. The new addition was named the Allan and Alene Smith Law Library, after two prominent donors to the Law School.
Aside from the panes of glasses sloped down into the ground, the design of the library addition, located at the corner of Monroe Street and Tappan Avenue, is almost undetectable.
The large light wells that make up the “ceiling” of the addition were designed to provide sunlight to the library. The addition has the capacity to hold 475,000 books according the Law School’s website.
Nearly one million volumes are currently in the library — covering a broad range of topics including foreign, comparative and international law, as well as court documents — making it the largest public university law library in the country.