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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 is an author and historian. His latest book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency,was published by Simon & Schuster in November 2013. He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.

COMMENTS

  • Ann Ringia - 1970, 1975

    Such a shame to tear it down! These treasures from the past can’t be brought back once they’re gone. Someone in the future might appreciate this historic building and put it to good use – how about as a museum of university history?

    Reply

  • Robert Arthur - 1977

    A few of the real pleasures of experiencing campuses are: the juxtapositions of buildings from different eras ; the interplay of scale, textures and styles; and the variety of exterior interstitial spaces between the various structures.

    North Hall has never been a particularly noteworthy piece of architecture, but its well-proportioned masonry and red-tile roof have always presented a solid and respectable facade to both North University and the abundant pedestrian traffic on the bridge to the hill dorms. With its plan oriented at an obvious angle to the normal campus grid, once this building is demolished, the skew of the Life Science Institute will have lost its original rationale, and unless the new Biology building replaces this geometry, nearly all semblance of the “old” campus footprint in this region will be lost forever.

    I still mourn the loss of the gorgeous Waterman Gymnasium, which has been replaced with the bloated and banal Chemistry building. Now with this recent news, I can predict that this stretch of prominent boulevard will cement its place as the least attractive stretch on the main campus.

    Reply

  • Harold McDonald - BS:CE

    Many great memories at North Hall and the people as an AFROTC cadet in the late 70′s

    Reply

  • Judy Avery - 1967

    Although I worked near North Hall for quite a number of years — at the Undergraduate and Graduate Libraries — I only went in it once. It was during one of those Vietnam War protests, and the building had been occupied by protesters. I was quite struck by the rolls of brown paper they had taped on the walls for people to leave comments without doing damage to the paint. I had never thought of protesters as being so thoughtful.

    Reply

  • Richard Stableford - 1956

    Sad news. I remember North Hall well. As an NROTC Midshipman, I attended classes and drill there for 4 years (1952-56), and commanded the NROTC Battalion in 1955-6.

    Col. R. H. Stableford, USMC (Ret.)

    Reply

    • Scott Howell

      Col Stableford, could you shoot the unit an e-mail at navystaff@umich.edu?
      Very respectfully,
      CDR Howell

      Reply

  • John Leinonen - BSE '59, MSE '60

    Great Memories of North Hall. Attended AFROTC classes there during my undergrad years 1955-59. Deputy Cmdr of cadet unit Senior year. Also, Cmdr of the Pershing Rifles Drill Team– State Champs my Senior year.
    Sad to hear of the passing of one of the last vestiges of the Campus I fondly remember.

    Reply

  • Donald Hall - 1981

    This retired Colonel is sure goung to miss her. I spent a lot of time there as an Army cadet, and it was the only building on campus that I visited every single time I returned to campus. Farewell, old and faithful friend.

    Reply

  • Jeff Sen - 1983

    Such a significant place for so many of us!
    I can vividly recall the first exposure to the bldg as an incoming freshman, and 4/c Midn, and through the years of training, and capstoned with the honor to serve as Navy Battalion Commander, and as temporary “staff” after commissioning, pending departure to NNPS. The many facets of this unique place added to the rich texture of the whole NROTC experience at University of Michigan. My last memory of North Hall was my final active duty performance (as a Reservist), closing 30 years, there at the place where it all began, to present the Midn an overview of NAVSEA and the Engineering Duty Officer program.
    V/R,
    Jeff Sen
    CAPT (ret.) USN

    Reply

  • John Grettenberger - 1959 BusAd

    Many fond memories of the classes, drill, and solid leadership training I experienced in North Hall ro help me as a naval officer and beyond. Midshipman Battalion Commander ’58 & ’59. Prersidents award in 1959. Would like to acquire the main floor plaque of President Award winners in my era! Maybe someone knows how they were being disposed of.

    Reply

  • Tanja Rindler-Daller

    Ach, why would UM not hold on to this historic jewel left ?? In a related case, I remarked that, if you are repeatedly tearing down your past you will make sure you have none…. This happens throughout U.S. university campi. Apparently, national or state preservation laws get a hard time to be applied to university buildings. Possibly on the grounds that a full modernization and renovation cost more than building an entirely new building. Well, then, donors, be cautious ! Your named buildings of the present have a good chance to be torn down in less than 114 years….

    Reply

  • R. C. Rochte - BA - 1980

    Campus will never look the same. Many fond memories.

    R. C. Rochte
    LTC, USA (Ret)
    UM AROTC Cadet 1976-1980

    Reply

  • Richard Gaskill - 1957

    My 4 years in NROTC were 1953-1957; 3rd year we took a cruise on The USS Newport News, heavy cruiser. Went through the Panama Canal. After graduation it was on to The Navy Supply Corp school in Athens GA. After 3 Months of that in the Fall of 1957 I was assigned to The USS Hancock CVA 19 (aircraft carrier) out of SanFrancisco/Oakland. Tour of duty was to Hawaii; Japan, Hong Kong, Phillipines and Okinawa. 4 years at U of M plus 18 Mo on active duty and that was that. Wonderful experience.
    Just had time to be An Ensign and a Lt Jg in the Supply Corp. Then into the work force as a Bank Manager and Loan Office for Wyandotte Savings Bank.

    Reply

  • Joanna Daneman - 1974

    I remember North Hall well as the focal point of many anti-war protests . In particular, I recall a big crowd throwing chairs and I was trying to thread it without getting arrested or injured on my way to turn in a term paper that was due.

    Reply

  • Robert Pohtos, Cdr, USN ret - 1973

    Sad to read this. I was a midshipman there 1969-1973. It was a launch pad for me and many others into wonderful careers of service. Such good memories.

    Reply

  • Sam Miller - 2002

    When I think about my years at UM, most of my memories involve North Hall. 1997-2002 Air Force ROTC cadet, Wing Commander, and then on to 7 years in the Air Force as an F-15E WSO. I am so disappointed to see the building go, but even as I was graduating in 2002, we knew it didn’t have long as building inspectors surveyed the large cracks in the walls and shifting foundation. In that building, I made my best friends, had 6am mornings preparing for our summer field training, did PT on the front lawn, raised and lowed the flag numerous times, volunteered at the basement Haunted House, held cadet meetings and had classes, gave speeches, and learned how to be a military officer. I cherish those memories and the friends I made in that place.

    Reply

  • Aimee Hachigian-Gould - B.S. 1976, M.D. 1979 (Inteflex)

    Living in East Quad, I had many friends in ROTC who were in Engineering. Civilians were allowed to take the ROTC Riflery classes on a space available basis, so being an avid hunter, I enrolled. After winning the high point rifle award, I was made an assistant shooting instructor by Sgt. John H.L. Thomasson. I spent many afternoons at North Hall on the shooting range at North Hall, teaching classes. It was near the end of the Vietnam era and I took a lot of grief from the Residential College “liberals” for my role in training future officers. I’m proud of my contribution to the education of future military leaders at Michigan and continue to teach Hunter Education courses to this day. It makes me sad to think that North Hall will be no more-a lot of good memories were made for me there.

    Reply

  • Sara Stubbins - 1969 and 1972

    What a shame! I was born and raised in Ann Arbor and am sad to learn of this demolition. I agree, that this might have become a museum to save the structure. The University of Michigan used to be so beautiful on the main campus and now appears to lose, once again, a sense of the past and the ambiance of the “feeling” of the true Michigan. Sad.

    Reply

  • Anna Calkins Miller - 1990, 1991

    During a layover in Detroit a year ago, I went to UM for the first time since graduation. Although North Hall was closed/locked on that Sunday in late May, I peered through the front door windows. It was like looking back in time — as if nothing had changed from 1986-1990 when I was an AFROTC cadet. Great memories!

    Lt Col Anna Miller, USAFR (Ret)

    Reply

  • Martha Oliver Derr - 1990

    The four years (1986-1990) spent at North Hall were an excellent foundation for my military career. It’s sad to see a bit of history be torn down but, I expect that excellence will continue in the future home of the ROTC units!

    Reply

  • David Derr - 1990

    As an NROTC student from 1986 to 1990, I spent many hours in and around North Hall. What a range of great memories – from doing USMC pullups in the basement, to participating in the Haunted House, to learning all about Naval Warfare from some great instructors, to building relationships with amazing people, including my wife (Martha Derr – AFROTC – 1990). Thank you North Hall, UM, and all fellow service members – keep the tradition strong for future generations.

    Reply

  • Michael High - 1982

    What wonderful memories I have of that fine old building, and the lessons in leadership I learned there.

    Mike High
    LtCol, USAF (Ret)
    AFROTC Cadet Corps Commander, Fall 1981

    Reply

  • Ralph ("Dan") Danielson - 64 BSE(CE), 74 MSE(CE:Construction)

    Sad to hear this. Was planning to stop by North Hall during my 50th Reunion visit this Fall. Many memories as an Army ROTC Cadet during my undergrad days, and while I was officially assigned to the Army’s Student Officer Detachment at then-Fort Benjamin Harrison, IN during my time as a grad student at UM, North Hall was my “home away from home” for staying connected to the Army in those days (before cell phones, the internet, et al)

    R. M. Danielson
    Colonel, Corps of Engineers, USA Retired

    Reply

  • Susan (Anderson) Sanders - 1982

    Thank you for the “salute” to North Hall, and especially thank you to the commanding officers and staffs of the ROTC units for conducting the thoughtful and respectful decommissioning service. I’m so disappointed that the officers who protected our country and were proud to have attended the U of Michigan didn’t know about the demolition sooner. How can the university demolish the third oldest building on campus? Did a historical preservation committee review this decision?

    North Hall is a big part of my memories of Michigan as an Air Force ROTC cadet, from my swearing in ceremony in 1978 to my commissioning ceremony in 1982. It’s where I heard that President Reagan was shot and our hostages were being freed from Iran. I witnessed a change in the attitude toward the military–it was still very hostile when I started shortly after the Vietnam War ended and we didn’t
    wear our uniforms on campus much, but was becoming more accepted by the time I graduated. Most of all, North Hall became my community. I attended a small high school and the campus was a big change for me with different students in every class and a large dorm. But I found common ground among the ROTC cadets, midshipmen, and instructors in the many hours I spent in the “sky blue” Air Force section. Whatever will be built at that location, the campus will always be empty without North Hall.

    Reply

  • Kurt Tek - 1980

    Great memories- I was always proud to wear a uniform on campus and be part of the “new counter-culture”!

    Reply

  • Bruce Bills - 1989

    I have a red, terra cotta, acanthus shaped, corner roof tile that I “acquired” from North Hall shortly after my graduation in 1989. Anyone interested in it may contact me at mistyDOTmtnATsbcglobalDOTnet

    Reply

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