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Decommissioning North Hall. Image by Eric Bronson

If North Hall could talk

By James Tobin
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The long life of a campus workhorse

Joseph Evans

“She faithfully served us all.” — Captain Joseph H. Evans, July 2014. (Image: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

For 114 years, North Hall treated the sick and trained the brave.

So it was with tremendous pride and a little sadness that a small crowd gathered July 11 to watch the American flag lowered for the last time near its entrance. This workhorse of a building was known to recent generations as the headquarters of uniformed student-cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

Scheduled for imminent demolition, North Hall is one of the oldest buildings on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus, after the President’s House and Tappan Hall.

An early town-gown collaboration

In the 1890s Ann Arbor was getting short of hospital beds. At the same time, the University was in need of a building to replace its aging, ramshackle Department of Homeopathy on North University, about where the Kraus Natural Science Building stands today. University officials eyed a parcel of five acres on the northeast corner of North University and East University; for years it had been the estate of a prominent family named Smith, but it had since come into the city’s possession.

A deal was proposed: If the city would hand over the five acres of the old Smith place, the University would spend $50,000 for a new homeopathic hospital. The city agreed and the University followed through, though the cost would exceed the original budget by $30,000.

“A model of beauty and utility”

Builders began to haul in stone in November 1899, and doors opened just over a year later. A writer for the Michigan Alumnus praised the interior: “The broad corridors, wide windows, and glistening red oak woodwork make an attractive interior. At the end of each hallway are double glass doors opening into a ward, each intended for sixteen beds. At the front of each ward is a large sun parlor, to be used as a sitting room by patients able to leave their beds. Admirable forethought has taken care that there be no square corners or angles to catch dust and germs …

Wide shot of North Hall

(Image courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical LIbrary.)

“The operating rooms are up to date in every respect. The surgical amphitheater is finished in gray marble and is a model of beauty and utility.”

On the outside, however, the building was no gem. A dour, frowning edifice of gray-pressed brick and granite greeted visitors, the only bright spot its roof of red tile. Still, the hospital offered the community six new wards and 20 private rooms, 140 beds in all, and that, the University said, would provide “ample clinical facilities for years to come.”

The trees of the Smiths’ old apple orchard still stood out in back, and the Ann Arbor streetcar line ran right in front, making the facility convenient and accessible for townspeople living west of the campus.

The building served its homeopathic duty for some 20 years, treating, among others, victims of the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19. A children’s ward was added in 1918; in the 1930s, young patients often were escorted out for visits to the University’s miniature zoo next door.  (See “Animal House,” Michigan Today, February 2012.) 

By the time of World War I, homeopathy’s bid to match the prestige of mainstream allopathic medicine had about petered out, and in the early 1920s, the U-M Regents decided to end the short life of the Department of Homeopathic Medicine. Soon after, the building was recommitted to service as the South Department of the new University Hospital, which was rising several blocks to the northeast.

Reporting for duty

North Hall in its early incarnation. (Image courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

North Hall, from the back. (Image courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

In 1940, with World War II underway in Europe and Asia, the University was seeking space to train students for military preparedness and possibly war. Planners’ eyes fell on the hospital annex. Medical staff and patients moved out and the uniformed officers and students of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) moved in. So did the Department of Naval Science.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, students lined up at North Hall to enlist for duty.

The NROTC units shared the space for some years with a grab-bag of other U-M offices, including the Extension Service and the Red Cross. Army, Air Force, and Marine ROTC units joined the Navy after the war, and from then on, the building known as North Hall was home to all things military at Michigan.

In that guise it has had a lively and controversial tenure.

Firebombs and haunted houses

Cadets perform a "room-clearing" exercise inside North Hall, 2011. (Image: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

Cadets perform a “room-clearing” exercise inside North Hall, 2011. (Image: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

North Hall was U-M’s only public symbol of the American military, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as on other campuses, that identity attracted protests and even violence. The building was bombed at least twice (with relatively minor damage, luckily), vandalized, and occupied by protesters. Undaunted, the ROTC programs continued to train new officers.

With the waning of the Vietnam era, North Hall soon achieved local notoriety for an entirely new reason. Cadets discovered an enchantingly spooky sub-basement, originally the hospital’s morgue, and one of them had the bright idea that the space offered the perfect venue for a Halloween haunted house. So for a number of years — until the fire marshal stepped in — ROTC attracted crowds on Halloween for charity tours of the creepy space down below, where bloody handprints (in red paint) covered the clammy walls.

“She faithfully served us all”

North Hall was endlessly versatile. Rifle teams trained on the range in the basement and marine cadets rappelled on the outer walls. In all, some 5,000 sailors, soldiers, and marines were trained there.

Cadets fold flag

The bittersweet folding of the North Hall flag ended the decommissioning ceremony, July 2014. (Image: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

The University will pull the building down soon and replace it with a new Biological Science Building, which will join the buildings of the Life Sciences complex just to the north. The officer training programs will move temporarily to the neighboring Willard Dow Chemistry Building and the Ruthven Museums Building, awaiting permanent quarters.

At the ceremony in July, Captain Joseph H. Evans, commander of Naval ROTC, admitted that it was a little irregular to decommission a building that had never been officially commissioned to military service in the first place.

“I think we can make an exception in this case,” Evans told the assembled crowd. “North Hall, like any naval ship, faithfully served us all.”

Top image: Representatives of the U.S. military lower the flag at North Hall for the final time in July 2014. (Image: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.) 

Sources include Michael Spaeth, “University ROTC members, officers and alumni say goodbye to North Hall,” The Michigan Daily, 7/11/2014; Ben Freed, “University of Michigan’s historic ROTC headquarters at North Hall decommissioned in military ceremony,” Ann Arbor News, 7/11/2014; Camilla Roper and J.H. Evans, “North Hall: 1900-2014,” http://tiny.cc/9l62jx; Wilfred B. Shaw, ed., The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey.

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University. For the story "Hair down to there," he delivered this alternate profile picture to showcase his own long locks, circa 1974,