Hill Auditorium and its historic design
memorabilia are on sale at: http://www.hillauditorium.com/Home.php
By Susan Wineberg
On January 8, 2004, the University’s Hill Auditorium itself took
center stage when President Mary Sue Coleman cut the ribbon and rededicated
the building before an audience of 3,000.
When the building, designed
by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn, opened in 1913 the Ann Arbor
Daily Times News heralded it in a front-page story as one of
the most complete music auditoriums in the United States. The headline
declared that the new auditorium would be the site of the “Greatest
May Festival in the U.S.” The University Musical Society was bringing
the “stars of the [New York] Metropolitan Opera Company to Hill
for the occasion," the article said, with a program commemorating
the centenaries of Verdi and Wagner.
But the Hill Auditorium site had a fascinating history decades before
1913. In 1858, when only six houses lined North University between State
and Fletcher (then 12th Street), Prof. Alexander Winchell, a geologist
and paleontologist, built an enormous octagon house, situated far from
the road and surrounded by gardens and lawns.
The Octagon House Craze
Winchell’s Octagon House (1886) on the site
where Hill Auditorium stands today.
The octagon house was part of an American architectural craze that ignited
in 1848 when Orson Squires Fowler published his popular book, A Home
for All, or the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building, and lasted
Fowler was primarily a phrenologist (someone who could supposedly tell
your fortune by rubbing the bumps on your head) and also a writer interested
in improving the human condition. He maintained that octagons clustered
purposes in the center of the house—such as heating and plumbing—and
thereby saved the housewife unnecessary work. He also claimed it was
more beautiful because it was closer to a sphere, “the predominant
or governing form of Nature.”
Winchell used concrete, a progressive
material for the era. (He and other builders of octagon houses were like
the forward-looking people who built geodesic domes and solar houses in
the 1970s.) Old photographs show a large greenhouse on the west side of
Winchell’s octagon, perhaps part of his scientific investigations.
The vogue for such houses, professor of architecture Fiske Kimball said
in 1919, derived from the “initiative of Thomas Jefferson, who
at his little-known plantation of Poplar Forest [in Virginia] realized
the paper projects of Italian and English academic theorists. Surprisingly,
the interiors of these houses had novel facilities by ingenious planning
which also disguised the unusual shape of the exterior. In cruder examples
of the fashion there was a single chimney with rooms around it, arranged
very like so many pieces of pie.”
Arthur Hill (1847-1909) of the Class of 1865 left
a bequest to the University to build the auditorium that bears
his name. He made fortunes in lumber and steamshipping.
(Professor Winchell was as complicated
and controversial as his house, and is famous for two things in University
history: he was a strong advocate for the admission of women and a fierce
opponent of U-M’s first president, Henry Tappan, whom he despised
because Tappan allowed students to drink beer and skip chapel. It seems
that part of Winchell’s animosity was personal rather than principled:
Tappan had shifted him from a chair in the Department of Physics to one
in Natural History, in response to what Tappan said were Winchell’s
“inattention to details.” In any event, Winchell was successful
and Tappan was fired in 1863, ending a career that many academic historians
credit with having set the stage for Michigan’s emergence as a great
In 1875-6, while Winchell was at the University of Syracuse serving
briefly as president, the octagon house was rented to Alpha Delta Phi,
making it the first fraternity chapter house at U-M. Winchell went on
to teach at Vanderbilt University but was fired because of his advocacy
of evolution. He returned to Ann Arbor and was a professor in geology
and botany and zoology and paleontology until his death in 1891.
Kahn’s 3rd Major U-M Building
|Kahn used bands of applied decoration for
Hill as Sullivan had done for several Midwestern banks, like
the 1907-08 National Farmer's Bank in Owatonna, Minn, shown
After Winchell’s death Delta
Tau Delta used the house until 1909, when it was sold to the University
and demolished the following year.
Kahn’s design for Hill
Auditorium on the site was his third major building for the University.
Kahn employed a spare style that reflected his grounding in the Prairie
Style popular in this period. Beginning with Louis Sullivan and developing
under his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright, this very American style emphasized
straight lines and simplicity of decoration.
|Kahn developed the concrete framing system
for factories like the Ford Motor Co. auto assembly plant in
Highland Park, Mich., which opened in 1912 a year before HIll.
The facade of Hill, with its banding of tiles around the columned entryway
and its use of tapestry brick designs, is classical in spirit and somewhat
Sullivanesque in its decoration. Sullivan’s bands of applied decoration
can be seen in the banks he designed for small Midwestern towns in the
early 1900s. But his masterpiece, the Chicago Auditorium built in 1889,
illustrates the arcing bands of lights that we now see restored in Hill
In his Points of Interest at the University of Michigan (1976),
Don Hunt notes that the critic Lewis Mumford called Hill Auditorium one
of the outstanding interiors in the country. Kahn went on to design other
campus buildings in this style, including Natural Science Building (opened
in 1917) and the Hatcher Graduate Library (opened in 1919).
Hill Auditorium’s renovated
According to Hunt, the Natural
Science Building was closest to the factory designs that made Kahn internationally
famous. In it he uses the famous reinforced concrete framing system developed
by his brother Julius (known as the Kahn system), which allowed for a
generous amount of window space, an innovation for academic buildings
then, and one scientists welcomed for the additional natural light.
Kahn first developed the concrete framing system when he worked with
Henry Ford to design the first automobile assembly line in a long, low
building in 1909 in Highland Park, Michigan. Kahn went on to design many
more factories and of his 2,000 works, some 500 were factories built
in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Susan Wineberg ’67, ’71 MA, ’75 MA,
studied Near Eastern Languages and Literature and anthropology at U-M,
where she is now an assistant at the Institute of Labor and Industrial
Relations. She is a frequent writer and lecturer on Ann Arbor’s
architectural history. (Also see in this issue a related article on the
reopening festivities for Hill Auditorium.)
< Hill Auditorium reopens: Historic restoration, modern amenities