On the move
President Mark Schlissel, his vice presidents, and their staffs are preparing to depart the Fleming Administration Building for new headquarters. Next year, they will cross the Diag to remodeled offices in the old Ruthven Museums Building, the one with the black stone pumas in front and the dinosaurs inside. The pumas and dinosaurs already have moved across the street to the Biological Sciences Building, which is home to U-M’s Museum of Natural History. And “Fortress Fleming,” the brown-brick blockhouse where the administration has run the University for 50 years, will return to the dust from whence it came.
No one I knew ever liked it much. When I heard it was on the schedule for demolition, my only twinge of regret had to do with Robben Fleming. As president of the University from 1968-79, he navigated U-M through the mayhem of the 1960s and ’70s in one piece. He was a friendly and decent man who seemed to genuinely like students, even when they were yelling at him.
He was a good guy to name a building for. But not that building.
In fact, said one of his successors, Lee Bollinger, who admired Fleming: “Never has a building been more ironically named. No University administration, at least not one that seeks engagement, should reside in such a bunker-like, repelling structure.”
The entrances are little and uninviting. Most of the windows are slits at the level of the ceiling or floor. People have said for years it was designed as an actual fortress to protect administrators from marauding student protesters. Even the tour guides say that. But it’s an urban legend. The building was designed years before students started taking over buildings.
Still, Bollinger was right. It looks like a bunker. Yet it was designed by a gentle man of deeply humane taste whom the architectural superstar Frank Lloyd Wright called his “spiritual son.”
The architect was Alden Dow (1904-83), who grew up in Midland, Mich., as the son of Herbert H. Dow, founder of the corporate colossus Dow Chemical. Alden Dow majored in engineering at Michigan for three years, then begged his parents to let him transfer to Columbia to study architecture. He took further training in Wright’s studio. Family connections helped with design contracts, as did his connection to Wright. Major awards soon followed, and his renown spread.
The designs that Dow drew for private homes are lovely and inviting, with big windows and lots of light. They seem to flow into and out of their landscapes. (He once said: “Gardens never end, and buildings never begin.”) You can see the kinship to Wright. But his public buildings, at least the ones in Ann Arbor, seem much less welcoming. The Institute for Social Research and the Larcom Municipal Building do arrest the eye. But you don’t especially want to go inside.
For the Administration Building, Dow took his inspiration from the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1877-1944), a founder of the modern art movement. Mondrian’s work became so abstract that he wound up painting simple geometry — lines, squares, rectangles.
Look at any side of the Fleming Building and you’re seeing a version in brick of a Mondrian painting. (According to one of Dow’s biographers, “the original proposals had windows and colored squares and rectangles in a white stucco surface,” and if he hadn’t been vetoed, Dow would have made the windows blue with maize trim.)
Mondrian once said that if art were to approach the level of the spiritual, it must take as little as possible from the everyday world of human beings. You can’t help but see that idea in the facades of the Fleming Building. From the outside, you’d never know there were six floors inside where lots of people work every day. As the Ann Arbor realtor Ed Surovell once remarked, it looks like “a cube in space.”
Inside the cube
The interior was not much more inviting, especially as more and more cubicles jockeyed for space to accommodate a growing staff. The vaulted first-floor room designed for regents’ meetings reminded more than a few visitors of a well-appointed cave. Upstairs, close quarters and the scarcity of windows induced an occasional wave of claustrophobia.
One of the prime tenants, James J. Duderstadt, president from 1988-96, said the building actually served its mission well for those who worked there. But he conceded that “it really did have a blockhouse character… There was a sense of isolation that you had to break through or you’d get in big trouble… We forced ourselves to leave the building to get out to the campus.”
When Duderstadt oversaw the plans for what would become the Duderstadt Center on North Campus, designed by Albert Kahn Associates, he advocated for multiple entrances and soaring windows — the antithesis of the Fleming Building.
In the 2010s, the exterior masonry started to peel away. There had to be emergency repairs, then annual inspections to ensure safety. Planners concluded the cost of a full-blown fix would be prohibitive, and their eyes turned to the grand old Ruthven Building, designed in 1928 but still sound — and, in the eyes of many, a more appealing home for the administration.
The Fleming Building is scheduled for demolition in 2022.
Sources included Grace Shackman, “Alden Dow’s Ann Arbor,” Ann Arbor Observer, August 1998; Sidney K. Robinson, The Architecture of Alden B. Dow (1983); Diane Maddex, Alden B. Dow: Midwestern Modern (2007).
Stuart Bagley - 1978
Who am I to contradict the author? I only know what I like. I didn’t think the exterior of that building was ugly. I’ve never been inside it. But architecture like any art is in the eye of the beholder. Sorry to see the Fleming building go. We hardly knew you.
Steven Ald - 1981
Patrick Kirchner - 1993
My first thought was that a building that only lasts 50 years was either poorly designed, built, or maintained. Perhaps all three. It’s kind of a waste.
Alison Swan - 1991
That was my first thought too: What a waste.
Charles Kalstone - ‘64 Medical School
Poor decision to overrule Mondrian, Frank Lloyd Wright and Dow.
Kathryn Sanderson - 1990
“Mondrian once said that if art were to approach the level of the spiritual, it must take as little as possible from the everyday world of human beings.”
That works for art. On the other hand, architecture, especially a building designed to work in, is an integral part of “the everyday world of human beings.” There are many ways to make architecture spiritual without being isolating and forbidding.
Robert Primeau - BBA 1972 MBA 1974
The Fleming Building, Plaza and Cube are central to my freshman year ‘69-‘70 living in West Quad and to hundreds of campus visits since. History was made in that building. Decisions that helped change Michigan and the world were enlightened by the sunbeams that filtered into those spaces and enlightened Leadership. Restore, Honor and Rejoice in the history of Michigan … Leaders & Best!
Steve Hartig - 1980
It was certainly popular wisdom in the 70’s that it was designed to be able to protect the administration when the students decided to take over
grace shackman - 1965
actually that’s not true. it was built with the regent’s meeting on the first floor to make them more public.
John Hilton - 1974
You’re right, of course, but I also remember that when I lived in West Quad in 1970, grounds crews took up the bricks around the trees facing Fleming and replaced them with some kind of plasticized mulch. That was when SDS was giving its members lesson on how to kill police dogs – the threats of violence were real. https://annarborobserver.com/articles/from_teacher_to_terrorist.html#.Ye9mcfXMI7Y
Kathryn Sanderson - 1990
Popular wisdom, yes, and not just the Fleming building. (Check out the Modern Language Building, for instance.) Not just as U of M, either. When I was an undergrad at Illinois, people said the same thing about certain building from the late 60s/early 70s, and universities all over the country have stories like that about building from that era. Modernist style of the time tended to be cold and off-putting (look at Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe). To learn whether campus buildings were actually designed as “bunkers” as a reaction to students protests, you’d have to go back to the proposals for the buildings, the minutes for the meetings where such buildings were discussed, etc. Would be an interesting topic for a research paper or a thesis. 🙂
Carl Freire - 1990 (Rackham)
Popular wisdom, yes, but inaccurate.
“Though the riot-prevention narrative is widely known, every architectural historian or critical source that I consulted viewed it as extremely dubious. For one thing, the claim is somewhat anachronistic. Many campus Brutalist projects were planned (if not totally completed) before the student movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s really took off, so crafty administrators would have to have been very prescient to foresee the countercultural-quashing usefulness of any particular style. Plus, as one practical-minded source put it, “not only was [Brutalism] in vogue, architecturally speaking, but building in concrete was way, way cheap. Hence its widespread use in institutional building” during the period.”
David DeMarkey - 1972, LS&A
Even as an entering Freshman Engineering student (I later transferred to LS&A.), I recognized that the building’s design was inspired by Mondrian’s art. I was also delighted by the accompanying Cube. And knew that it was a copy of the original that is in New York City.
During the 13-day strike for Minority Admissions in 1971 a friend of mine who was a Vietnam veteran pointed out to me that it would be a very easy building to defend. The only sit-in I remember participating in during that fortnight was held in the old Administration Building, which had been repurposed as the LS&A Administration Building.
Thinking back it’s clear that the Administration Building would have been a much more appropriate venue if it were accessible and had the ground floor space for such a demonstration. Clearly, it didn’t.
It was during that strike that I had my one and only in-person exposure to President Fleming. My 51 year-old memory of that confrontation doesn’t quite jibe with the glowing memories that some of the other commentators have. I was just a spectator and it is to Fleming’s credit that he met with the leaders of the Black Action Movement in a sufficiently public space (possibly the Regents’ meeting room) that I was there at all. I distinctly remember that the BAM leaders got sufficiently antagonistic that the University President walked out of the meeting rather than answer the pointed question he was asked. So, between the time-span and the nature of that very limited exposure I should take the other commentators word for it that he was a good man and a good president of the U of M.
Ultimately, all of that is beside the point insofar as the building itself is concerned. It proved to be ill-suited to its purpose, it was falling apart and in such poor condition that it was less expensive to tear it down and start over fresh. And that’s based on the initial cost estimate. Anyone who has remodeled an old house, as I have, knows that you really don’t know what you’re in for on a major restoration until you start the demolition work. There are always surprises. And they (At least those related to the structure.) are almost never pleasant ones.
That said, I agree with the commentator who pointed out that from a resources and environmental perspective, renovation generally makes more sense than demolition and reconstruction. And in the cases of particularly beautiful or historically or architecturally significant buildings, the cost/ benefit calculation has to account for the intangibles.
Another commentator raised the questions of whether it was the original design, the quality of the original construction or the way the building was subsequently maintained that was the root cause of the Fleming Building’s (relatively) short life-span. Ultimately, the architect was responsible for all three. Institutional structures are supposed to be built to last and sufficiently robust to stand up to heavy usage during that extended lifespan. That’s why they tend use masonry so extensively.
In addition, the architectural firm is responsible for supervising the construction to ensure that not only the vision, but also the specifications are met. Taking into account the unforeseeable field conditions.
Finally, it’s well known that buildings, equipment, automobiles and even people are rarely properly maintained. Consequently, to ensure her institutional building will meet the test of time it is the designer’s responsibility to take that into account in the design and construction. In addition, an architect’s closing documents should include a maintenance plan including highlighting any special maintenance needs.
In short, demolition may be doing Dow’s legacy a favor; we’ll have buried his mistakes.
As a side note, if the design of the now demolished Fleming Administration Building made it difficult, if not impossible to maintain; Dow’s defenders can legitimately claim the man came by that shortcoming honestly. The buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Dow’s mentor, are notoriously difficult to maintain, because Wright was continuously pushing the envelopes of construction technology with his radical designs. Aside from its look, what else about this building was leading (maybe bleeding?) edge?
In short, because the Fleming Building was meant to meet a practical need and cannot meet it economically, whatever its historical and architectural value it seems to me that the most sensible answer is to demolish it and replace it with something that’s designed with its functions foremost in mind that’s built to last. That also keeps in mind that all institutional construction should also inspire the generations of people who will use it and see it.
Aldis Lapins - 1966 (LSA); 1971 (Law).
Unfortunately, I had to endure this paean to architectural ugliness for years while going to classes on the Diag. I was not aware but am not surprised that the intellectual godfather was Frank Lloyd Wright, who seems to have specialized in designing buildings for people of short height, like himself.
James Cooper - 1968-1970 Ann Arbor; 1970-1972 Dearborn
As a freshman in 1968 I stayed in the West Quad. I could look out my window on the third or fourth floor (?) and see this building. There is a block M in the brickwork close to the top of the structure. It must be on the south side (?). I don’t know if this was part of the design or just a bricklayer showing his loyalty.
I still come to Ann Arbor from Traverse City every year during homecoming to play in the Alumni Marching Band. I actually will miss this building.
Steve Bekkala - 1998
Never noticed that before, but you’re right — you can see the block M on the south side of the building in the Google Street View here if you look upward:
Nancy Court - 1969 and 1971
Alden Dow is a renowned architect, and it seems a crime to tear down a piece of history, but everyone seems to be in a tear-down mode these days. It seems the University could better use these funds for a scholarship program for students. I certainly profited from scholarship money in the generous years of the late 60’s. Higher education has become a burden to youths and their parents.
Who wants to work in a building with hardly any windows, and really small ones at that?
Gretchen Kopmanis - 1988
What will be going in its place?
i’m pleased to read everyone is upset. i hope the regents read the comments.
Mary Sandberg - 76 dental hygiene, 1992 dental school
My aunt Grace Oerther worked on the third floor in career planning and placement. She was the first woman I knew who had her own secretary and I loved going into the building and up to her office to say hi, or sometimes cry on her shoulder. Every time I show someone new around campus I point out that building and tell then about my aunt. I never thought of it as anything but beautiful and it has a nice interplay of location, the cube, the union, and surrounding area. I’m sad that it will be torn down. Such a work of art.
Deb Nystrom - ‘79
CP&P was in the Student Administration Building, the SAB third floor. I remember Grace Oerther. My name was Wittbrodt at the time.
Thomas Goodsell - 1978, 1982
As a frosh beginning in 1974, my roommates from Brownsville, TX joined a group requesting more minority representation on the campus and took over the building. I remember wondering where they were, and being impressed with their initiative though I know they always felt that their efforts did not bear the fruit they desired. If the regents met on the first floor, they neither advertised it to the student body nor were they particularly visible there!
Jaime Colmenero - 1978
Is that you who your roommates called “Burnout Tom”. If it is, then your roommates were from Edinburg, TX which is about 70 miles northwest of Brownsville. Your roommates and myself where a small group of Chicanos from the southern tip of Texas, known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. And yes we were part of probably the last protest group to have a sit in at the Fleming building in February, 1975.
Joel Batterman - 2021
GEO had a “grade-in” in Fleming as recently as 2017!
Dan Meisler - -
I worked in this building for a short time, and my impression was that neither the exterior or interior were designed with human occupation in mind.
David Smith - 1969, 1981
Before the Fleming Building there was a parking lot. This was convenient to the back of the old administration, which is adjacent and fronts on State Street. Will it revert to parking or will it be renamed Students’ Plaza?
Karen Grassmuck Kraushaar - 1986 MA
The good news is that the marvelous Ruthven building will be preserved and put to good use. I still have many fond childhood memories of the building and the great stone cats guarding its entrance.
Diane Demo-Sadler - 1968
Of course, you must remember the very sexist lore associated with those cats. Everyone from “the hill” had to walk by them to get to central campus. They were supposed to roar if the women were virgins, and if they didn’t…well….
Donald Garnett - 1982
I always heard it was the lions outside of Engineering (West, I think) that were the virgin sensors.
Despite what Mr. Tobin said, the pumas are not stone. The original pair were made of terrazzo, replaced in the early 2000’s with bronze copies, as the terrazzo was wearing down due to the weather. The restored originals are at the Biological Sciences Building.
Doris Rubenstein - BA 1971
I was in A2 when this was brand-spanking new and still unnamed. Couldn’t agree more that President Fleming deserved a more appropriate monument to his administration at the University. I don’t get back to campus very often, but when I do and I see changes, they are ALWAYS better than what had been there before. I’m sure this will hold true for the “new Admin building” (which is what we called it then) back then.
David Carlyon - 1971
It’s fascinating to learn that the Fleming was designed before student takeovers erupted. Still, it will take a lot to persuade me that the powers-that-be (that-were) didn’t think, “Hmm, this will protect us.”
Three design thoughts:
• Adding Mondrian-like colors may have gotten mocked BUT would have made it feel more welcoming.
• For an art history class at the time, I suggested it wasn’t fortress-like but instead, with its trees, a reference to the cliffs and crags of the Upper Peninsula.
• Alden Dow also designed Delta College in mid-Michigan a few years earlier, and it’s a wonderfully open and inviting building. And still feels modern.
David Kessel - 1959 (PhD)
I recall that this monstrosity was built in the era when student groups would periodically occupy university admin buildings; especially in California. The place was supposed to be ‘occupation-proof’, unlike the prior admin bldg that had lots of first-floor windows. Only thing missing was the barbed wire. Just as well that it is being moved to the dustbin of history, but there are still a sufficient number of trumpies on the Board of Regents to ensure that it will not be forgotten.
Jim Randolph - 1970
Having spent a bit of time inside, I can assure it was not at all suited to imaginative or creative reflection while gazing out the windows. It provided only small, rectangular still shots of the real world outside.
Anthony King - 2003, 2012
This article does a great job of ignoring the policies of Fleming and their often negative impact on the black community of the university and their decades long push for justice. There’s a great book that lays out, in incredible detail, the way Fleming undermined or coopted every black effort to make their time here better, using the university’s own administrative records. It’s called Undermining Racial Justice, by Matthew Johnson. It also details the creation of the university police force in response to the student protests, and will help you understand why your opening statement about the architecture is, if not blatant propaganda, at least tone deaf for a university that is supposedly trying to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can’t embrace those things without acknowledging the historical and ongoing systems of white supremacy, and putting money before people. If you haven’t read it, I’d strongly encourage you to do so before putting Fleming up with pictures of black students as though he is somehow our savior. The building, even if not designed to foil student protests, which it almost certainly was, has been an insult to students for the entirety of its existence. No administrator wants to be in a building with no windows, and no one is buying the story you are selling.
Douglas Sedon - 1978
That’s no reason to tear the building down. Definitely a reason to rename it, though.
John Hilton - 1974
The university police force came more than a decade after Fleming left, and two decades after the protests. It was a fad spreading across academia, but my recollection is that the triggering event was the city’s refusal to send extra cops to the Diag during Hash Bash.
Susan Wineberg - 1967,1971,1975
Demolition of a perfectly good building is a crime against the environment. The greenest building is the one already standing. The university should be a role model for this way of thinking. Instead, it is the problem. Three gorgeous houses on Huron, Fleming, CCRB and more prove they only mouth words on sustainability. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Shame on them.
Celeste Novak - 1982/84 MArch
I am not a fan of this building although I admire the work of Alden Dow in Ann Arbor. I find that it is a good example of what happens when a design “Parti” takes precedents over the way humans inhabit buildings. Architecture is at its best when people, the environment, place, and art are merged together. The University of Michigan can do better. I’m hoping they will and also consider a net zero building for this prominent site.
Douglas Sedon - 1978
As a “west quaddie” for 2 years, I think it’s a crime to tear down this building. Yes, it’s quite bizarre – all the more reason not to tear it down.
Clyde McKenzie - 1970, 1974
I’m happy to agree with most of the comments about the building. I bought in to the fortress story while on campus and have never abandoned it. Make a negative comment, and I’m likely to agree with you. The injustice to Robben Fleming’s legacy being tied to the building is profound. He was a wonderful leader of Michigan and a good man in all dimensions. Some excellent, well loved thing on campus should honor him forever.
David Hartsell - 1978 (LSA); 1982 (Law)
Agree that it looks like “a cube in space.” In fact, it could be the Borg vessel from Star Trek-Next Generation. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
Mary (Marsh) Matthews - 1953
Another dissent from the university’s current belittle/destroy/replace campaign that has now targeted the Fleming Building: I believe it’s a distinctive and handsome building that deserves preservation. My husband worked in the building for many years, so I admit to a biased affection for it. But I am also skeptical about executive decisions, like this one, that seem casually dismissive of recent architectural design. Would the Fleming Building qualify for more respect if it were a few decades older?
David Marker - 1980, 1995
Always hated the fortress as I walked past it each day between co-op housing and campus. The only time I was inside was to sign a GEO contract with the University in 1981, ending a many-year dispute. That building always told students to “stay outside”, even if the architect didn’t mean for that to be the message.
Lou Cartier - 1973
Thanks for the memories, editors. Newly employed by the University in 1969, I was among the first wave of administrative staff to “occupy” the Fleming Building, 6th floor, University Relations suite. Shortly came the era of student activism and protests, and I well remember Robben Fleming’s non-combative, open and largely effective demeanor, from his second floor office to the “cavernous” public meeting space of the Regents’ Room. Nor was he reluctant to venture outside the building onto “People’s Plaza,” between the fortress and the cube (thanks so much for the postcard). Exhilarating times, in the company of staff and faculty whom I respect and remember fondly, who seeded my determination to deepen my U-M experience … MA, ’73, Program in American Culture.
Larry Pease - 73, 75, 78
I remember the building for the confrontations between the city police and the students I witnessed there. I vividly remember the surrounded police car being rocked by hundreds of agitated students and the line of police gathered on the small knoll between West Quad and the Administration Building facing the anger of the students responding to the physically violent arrest of student protesters. People on both sides ended up in the ER. Those were important formative years for all of us and our country. The “fortress” architecture always represented the tension between generations to me. I will be sad to see the landmark go. Michigan’s contribution to the growth of our country during those troubled times is important to remember.
Erica Walz - 1985
The question now is, what will they replace it with? Will it be a unique design or will it meld into what we all have become familiar with in many of the newer central campus buildings: the bland Michiganesque style? don’t suppose I will miss the building, I always looked at is a thing to get around and past. And I only went in when I had to, such as a protest at a regents’ meeting.
Herb Bowie - 1973
Interesting article. Good stuff I didn’t know before. In some ways, I always kind of liked the building. It’s an interesting piece of art. On the other hand, as an office building, and in particular as the offices from which an entire campus is ruled, it’s unfortunate, to say the least. It certainly looks like it’s designed to be an impregnable fortress of power, and I can’t imagine how anyone — even in the tumultuous sixties — could have thought that was a good look to house those who actually held power over the campus.
John Bradley - 1968
I loved the U of M campus and its old buildings with style and strength. But, I hated the Fleming building. It looked like a garrison to me. To work in that building with no windows or sunshine would make me feel as though I had been sentenced to life imprisonment. I am happy to see it go and hope it is replaced with building that fits well with the other older buildings on campus.
Richard Macias - 1960, 1961
Fortunately many examples of architecture are controversial. This building is no exception. You either like it or you don’t. I have a personal affection for the building due to my role in the design of the adjacent plaza (with William J. Johnson). For me the structure is a piece of art. I believe it should remain as an example of how architecture reflects the concerns of the day. I am amused by the contrasting comments regarding its fortress-like design. I recall clearly, during the design process, members of the administration restricting all forms of brick pavers or other potentially loose items that could be thrown by “revolting students.”
Chris Campbell - 1972 (MA); 1975 (Law)
I’m an Alden Dow fan. Those who haven’t visited his home and studio in Midland are missing a revealing experience. I’m also aware of architectural cycles. Buildings may fall out of favor at 50 years and then attract renewed appreciation by the time they reach 100. At a century, structures will have lost most of the cultural associations they held earlier and we see them on their own terms. My inclination would be to preserve the building for other uses.
At the same time, it’s surprising that Alden Dow, who usually was generous with windows, was so parsimonious when it came to this building. Perhaps it’s better suited to uses for which some connection with outdoors isn’t expected.
Tish Lehman - 1986
I liked the exterior, the color and design, and so I was fond of the building until I worked in it for a few years. Not only were the windows few, but they were enjoyed only by those at the top of the hierarchy, most of whom also had splendid faculty offices elsewhere as well. So the people who worked in it the most, mostly lower-paid women, worked all day without sunshine.
The best perk of working there was leaving the office to twirl the cube. Best stretch for computer shoulder pain I ever found.
Dr. Fleming was such a lovely man. We should name another building after him. He came to our church to help us through a very difficult transition in the seventies, and showed himself a perceptive and responsive listener to everyone.
Peter Rogan - 1977
I shall miss the Robben Fleming Building terribly. With the Rosenthal Cube across the plaza, it formed a diptych of Michigan values — structure in stability, and structure in motion. I will see the Cube in the future and always feel the lack of the balance that once was there.
Charles Snead - 1982 BS Arch.
As a student I remember the spinning steel cube sculpture in front of the Fleming bldg. more than the building itself, which was unremarkable to me. The urban legend about it being a bunker against students taking over was alive and well at that time.
Buildings designed primarily with abstract art principles in mind, are always a challenge to usability and comfort.
And not every building is timeless and worthy of preservation. 50 years is a pretty good run! It’s time for something new, expansive and engaging for UofM, a true world class university.
John Lyons - 1977
Try as I might, I can’t find a by-line on this mis-guided, philistine piece of booster-ism, big-growth,
shamelessly ill-considered piece of PR disguised as criticism? Was the author ashamed to sign it?
Alden Dow was a serious and under-rated architect
who does not deserve this ignorant trash-talk. I highly doubt that Albert Kahn (does the author know who that is?) would appreciate being associated with
this wasteful, destructive act. In a world where the
smart folks are focused on preservation and sustainability this is sad and demoralizing. Why not preserve and protect and re-use. It’s actually a very good building that even more importantly respects a
very good and important public space on a campus that doesn’t have enough of them. I expect we’ll see another of the school’s high-rise, fake Gothic, soul killers on this site. UGH.
Chris Campbell - 1972,1975
On my computer, it’s clearly identified as a piece by James Tobin, a wonderful writer. Search for his U-M piece on Professor’s White’s Trees (it was also titled Professor White’s Diag, I think). If it doesn’t move you, something’s wrong.
By the way, what would be worse than college Gothic would be a new structure named for an ultra-rich donor. That’s our current plague.
Sally Goddard - 1963
I should visit the campus more often, for this is the first I have known of this Fleming Building. I l graduated
from the School of LS&A (1963) before this building existed. I admire Mondrian, but this is no Mondrian.
It is an eyesore.
Sally J. Goddard
Tanisha Scottham - 1991, 1994
Nice try! They are riot windows. The nonexistent type that get inspiration from places that have a lot of buildings with no windows. What about the heated sidewalk? Are we making that up, too?
James Tobin - 1978, 1986
Ms. Scottham: As the author of the story, I’d be very glad to see first-hand evidence of your claim that the Fleming Building’s windows are “riot windows.” When I see it, I’ll ask the editor of Michigan Today to amend the article. Until then, I’ll abide by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning: We are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts.
Tanisha Scottham - 1991, 1994
Thank you author for your prompt reply. As you write, “..People have said for years it was designed as an actual fortress to protect administrators from marauding student protesters. Even the tour guides say that. But it’s an urban legend…” So you are writing that because it is not printed in a book that it is not true or because the building was designed what, before protestors, that it is not another explanation for this design winning approval? Much of the design in Detroit was as some author wrote, “not to be in the city”. Say the Ren Center (now GM HQ) and Tigers Stadium (Briggs Field) as two examples. But when Comerica Park was designed the walls were lowered and the appeal was to be in the middle of the city. Dean Bollinger was nice enough to meet with me during his office hours when I was a law student and he was Dean of the Law School. He said at the time that his most important scholarship before becoming President of the University was “Images of a Free Press”. That being said, I’m sure I was not asking you to amend your article. You said it as most of us took it….irrelevant.
Daniel Swanson - 1975, 1978
The bunker-like structure of the Fleming Building was the perfect office for President Schlissel as he refuses to meet with Jon Vaughn and the other victims of Dr. Anderson who have been camping outside of the President’s House for weeks. Without windows to the outside, President Schlissel could go to work in the Fleming Building and isolate himself from Dr. Anderson’s victims who have been seeking to meet with him to talk about their pain and hurt. HAIL TO THE VICTIMS!
Bruce Goethe - 1983
Many great comments here. To the author: What street did the pumas and dino skeletons cross to get to their new place? Wait, admin moving to Ruthven? Yep, after the $150 million renovation. Green indeed. Yikes.
Rich Luker - 1984, 1986
You make a case for the building being designed before the protests.
When was it actually designed?
It seems the only way student protests – and other similar concerns – could not have factored in on the decision was if it was designed and approved before at least 1955:
– the beginning of Martin Luther King’s activism
– the start of the Viet war
– the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King were killed
– the inner city riots (the closet being in Detroit, but Ann Arbor was full of fear – and Ann Arbor High had issues).
One way or the other, you have a problem.
Either the university was tone deaf to the decade’s long social issues and put up a piece of art, or they were mindful, and killed two birds with one stone.
I doubt the author was in Ann Arbor at the time. I was. I cannot see that building and NOT see the protests of that time AND the blindness to what is still taking place on campus with the Anderson case.
Seems to me, you drank the Kool-Aid.
Steve Raphael - 1973 Rackhan
You can’t judge a book by its cover, nor a building by its uninspiring design.
In the winter and spring of 1973 I was an intern (with pay) studying for a Master’s degree in journalism.
I enjoyed my colleagues and the work, but I mostly enjoyed climbing daily the six flights of stairs to reach my office.
An elderly colleague walked the stairs everyday, and I told myself if he can do it so can I.
I have never stopped climbing stairs since, regardless of the numbers of the floors in the buildings where I worked.
Over the years I got good health grades from my doctors, never realizing until about 15 years ago that it was the walking that set the bar.
I’ll miss the Fleming building for my personal professional growth, but mostly for the rigors I endured to prove myself more fit than older colleague.
Chris Campbell - 1972 Rackham, 1975 Law
Walking up the the 6th floor in the new part of the grad library convinced me to quit smoking. And yes, stairs are an opportunity to get some exercise that most of us need. I still avoid elevators whenever possible. Once in a state office building in Lansing, I emerged from the stairwell into an office space, not a common area. They just assumed that nobody would actually walk up.
Jim Hemsath - 1975
It was a building perhaps not as attractive, whatever that means, as some. Always thought the brick was the best feature and yes there are aspects of a Borg cube. But buildings have to exist in synergy with people. It is a shelter, it is a tool and if it doesn’t function then it is a failure. Tearing it down, one always has to question that, but if there is a better function for the space than take it down.
As an aside it could always be repurposed as a dorm. I understand windowless dorms funded by wealthy Michigan alum are the new trend.
Gerald Hill - 1968
My wife, Sharon, and I met at Michigan and were married in 1968. That same year, we graduated and the Fleming Administration Building was completed. The truth is, we never paid much attention to its unusual architecture but have some fond memories of my rock band, Ragamoffyn, playing in front of it to a Regent’s Plaza crowd in the summer of 1971. We live in California now but we head back to Ann Arbor nearly every autumn for friends, family and, of course, football in the Big House. On those trips, we invariably find ourselves on campus and stop by to give Tony Rosenthal’s Cube a playful spin.
Maybe it’s not necessary to demolish the old Fleming Building after all. Maybe the solution has been there all along, right in front of us. It might be time to think outside the box a bit and put a new spin on things. What if The Cube, installed in 1968, is more than just a dynamic work of art. What if it is actually a visionary scale model, standing just across the plaza from the seven-story Fleming Building?
Michigan has one of the world’s great engineering schools. Surely, there must be an environmentally friendly way to seal up the old administration building, levitate it into the air, tilt it 45 degrees and then gently lower it onto one of its corners. Using Rosenthal’s unique minimal friction, hidden pole design, it could then be magically spun on its axis. Just imagine how many visitors from around the world would come to Ann Arbor to experience the wonder of “The Big Cube”. Maybe we could even guarantee all Michigan students a free ride 🙂
Dave Burgett - BA ‘77
Every building serves two constituencies: those who use it and those who experience it from the outside. It is easy to see how the Fleming building could be considered a failure for the former, due to its extreme lack of natural light and views. That limitation should have been obvious to those who approved the plans.
As to the latter, the building divides opinion. I count myself among those who appreciate it as a piece of sculpture. Yes, it can be characterized as “fortress-like” but the Mondrian facades offset that aspect nicely with a subtle and elegant design that draws attention away from the overall mass to the finer detail. The setting is appropriate, with considerable space around from which people traversing campus can look up and take in the entire facade without necessarily craning their necks. I also like the fact this this giant cube is in conversation with a smaller rotating cube—which also bears a mostly rectilinear surface design—positioned in front of the building.
I consider myself a historic preservationist. I have no regrets when poor or insignificant structures are razed, but I think we should be very hesitant to part with buildings that have artistic and historical merit, even if they are imperfect—as every building is. So I’m sorry to see the Fleming building go. Having been there for 50 years, it is part of the experience of the overwhelming majority of living alumni. There should be a historical panel to remind us of what stood there. Let’s hope that whatever is built there is a masterpiece that feels well worth the loss—and has large, well-placed windows.
Julia White - BA1971, MLS 1972
I hope the university will find a new way to acknowledge Robbin Fleming’s stellar contribution after the building is taken down. He held things together at a time of extraordinary unrest. A true statesman.
Stephen Steinberg - ‘71 LSA
Whether intentionally or not, the building did do an effective job of defusing at least some student protests. I was News Director at WCBN and remember covering some protest march (probably in 1968-9 or 69-70. As we approached the building (I was out in front of the protesters), I checked to see if the doors were locked. But they swung open in my hand and the marchers streamed through and out the other side, effectively ending the march. (As I recall, there was a narrow brick-lined central corridor on the ground floor and the stairwells, elevators, and office doors—the University news office was on one side and the Regents conference room on the other—were all locked, so they had no where else to go.)
Eugene Mossner - 1952
Why in the world would they tear down a very unique building like this? I liked it very much. And I will never vote for any of the Regents who voted to reduce it to rubble. A pox on all of you!
Matt Edwards - 1981, 1983
Ann Arbor is full of “bunker like fortress buildings”, none with the merit nor history of the Fleming Bldg. It’s a sacrificial totem on the altar of academic wokeness. I’m betting the executives, arrogant & presumptive snits that Dr Fleming never was, will have gold plated sinks, personal chefs and a bevy of Yes Men retainers in their new palace. And yet, these emperors will remain naked, base, unworthy of Fleming’s legacy at U of M.
M Smith - 1987
The Fleming Administration Building should have been torn down in 1987 immediately after then President Harold Shapiro and the Regents, led by the late Deane Baker, refused to take any meaningful action to address racism on campus in the wake of numerous high profile racial incidents that brought national disgrace to the University. Instead of holding constructive discourse and working cooperatively with students representing the Black Action Movement (BAM) and the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR) to address the multitude of issues facing the University, Shapiro, Baker, and other “leaders” hid behind an impenetrable building. It was a fitting metaphor on their laissez-faire approach to a significant issue that, to this day, still haunts the University. Tragically, their inaction led to Shapiro’s resignation and the suicide of Regent Sarah Power, who jumped off the Bell Tower in the middle of a Spring afternoon in 1987 as stunned students walked by. I’ve only been back to the University a handful of times the past 35 years, but every time I visited, I made sure to spit on the Fleming Building as a reminder of the failures of an institution, that as part of its core mission, is supposed to value differences, embrace divergent ideas and opinions, and promote diversity and inclusion. Nary a tear will be shed as the Fleming Building comes down and the University’s archaic attitudes toward diveristy, inclusion, cultural awareness, and racial sensitivity hopefully crumble with it.
Richard Von Luhrte - 1968 architecture and design
It is a fact that the most sustainable building is the one that exists. I think this building had great bones, and a very creative design. It is a shame that older structures don’t become repurposed. It could have been a stunning building with glass added in a layered pattern over the existing. It could have been converted to faculty offices, student organization offices or even classrooms. Turn this over to the Taubman Scool of Architecture and watch the students have at it. The employ a Michigan architect to implement the design. It is a shame to release all that carbon, dispose of all that waste in a landfill and throw away a building with a history, and with a useable life that hasn’t been explored. Such a shame.
Kent Frederick - 1984
While Alden Dow was certainly influenced by the Dutch painter in designing the Administration Building, you can also see the influence of his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright designed Unity Temple, the Unitarian church he attended in Oak Park, Illinois, as a block with a square footprint.
The building’s window arrangement may be based on the work of Mondrian, but the basic structure is based on Wright’s style.