By Nora Strehl
The date is Sept. 1, 1905. Students, eager for their teaching certificates, walk through the double doors of the newly built college. Sitting on top of Prospect Hill, Western State Normal School, known today as East Hall, could be seen from around Kalamazoo. With its three columned porticos, lit cupola, and a panoramic view of downtown Kalamazoo, the school was thought to be inspirational, provoking deep thought.
As the enrollment of students continued to grow, so did the college itself. With the addition of the gymnasium and the training school, West Hall, North Hall, and finally the three dormitories: Walwood, Vandercook, and Spindler, Western State Normal School became a fully functioning, and well-known, teachers college.
Over a period of fifty years, the normal school would change its name to Western State Teachers College in 1927 and Western Michigan College of Education in 1941 before becoming Western Michigan University in 1957.
As the number of students increased, so did the need for more space.
Construction on West Campus began in the late 1940s when the university acquired 179 additional acres of land; but with the amount of time and money put into the new, more modern, part of the University, East Campus was slowly becoming a thing of the past.
As the walls crumble, and ivy grows thick on the exterior of the buildings, the history behind the once thriving East Campus seems to be dying with it.
Amy Withrow, historian for Students for East Campus, a registered student organization, said that by the 1990s, the buildings could no longer be used for classes due to water damage, asbestos, and wear and tear.
After vandals began defacing it, and the homeless started using it for a place to sleep, all of East Hall, with exception to the Regional Archives in the gymnasium, was closed.
“In 1998 it would have take 66 million dollars just to bring East Campus up to code with the state regulations,” Withrow said.
“To keep East Campus up to code and modern standards, [the administration] knew it would cost more to fix an old building rather than build a new one. So when something was messed up, WMU just basically put a band-aid on it.”
WMU’s Associate Vice President for Community Outreach, Bob Miller, said that refurbishing the buildings on East Campus would be ideal, but the cost would be outrageous.
“WMU already pays over $150,000 a year in maintenance and utility costs to care for those buildings,” Miller said. “Even though they are not really used for daily programming, the university still pays a significant expense to care for them.”
Letting the buildings sit there for another fifty years is not WMU’s plan, but Miller said that until a private partner comes along with an idea for the structures, there really is not much that WMU can do.
“We’re not trying to predetermine what the uses for the buildings will be,” Miller added. “We’re open to all ideas, but the university just does not have the money to refurbish the buildings.”
Miller and David Daykin, director of campus planning, both co-chair the East Campus Redevelopment Task Force. Students, faculty, and members of the community sit on the task force and try to find alternative uses for the East Campus properties, as well as try to find a financial partner willing to put money up to do it.
“The university will not sell the properties but we would ground lease them for an extended period,” said Lowell Rinker, vice president for business and finance.
“We may do a 50 to 75 year ground lease. We would allow a company to put several million dollars into the buildings to get them how they want them.”
Rinker said that the task force would have to make sure that the use of the properties are compatible with the university.
“It would be very closely coordinated with us,” he said. “We would want to keep the original image of East Hall and we would not have a use that was disrespectful.”
The fate of the buildings are still to be determined, but although it would probably be less expensive to demolish the buildings then to try and remodel them, Rinker said that there is no way that WMU would take the buildings and completely destroy them all.
“You have to take into consideration how historical East Campus is; East Hall was the birthplace of WMU, the original 1903 building,” Rinker said. “Several buildings do not have the full historical significance of East Hall, so it is very likely that if we found a private sector partner, that one or several could come down.”
East Hall can be found on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic landmark, and has been there since 1978.
“East Hall itself has a special significance as a building,” Rinker added. “So at the very least, East Hall would certainly survive whatever plans we allow to take place.”
Gregory Moorehead, Ph.D., a 1989 WMU graduate, and former associate director of the WMU Alumni Association, can remember a time when East Campus was a lively area.
“It was the largest college at the university, when East Hall was the business college,” Moorhead said. “Students would go over to West Campus, buy their books, and then you would never see those students again because all of their classes were on East Campus.”
Moorehead, now the current director of disability services at Rutgers University in New Jersey, knows that, of course, money is an issue—but as a student in the Business College in the ‘80s, he has seen little progress over 20 years toward trying to find uses for the campus.
For Moorehead, the problem is that the university has invested money in many other projects.
“They have found aviation schools, expanded the football stadium and the [The Business Technology and Research] park,” Moorehead said. “I know it is going to cost a lot of money, but I think at some point the university should be just as resourceful about East Campus as they were about Parkview.”
Moorehead said he understands the need for the removal of asbestos and other hazardous wastes, in addition to making the building compliant for students with disabilities; but he also said that it will take the right people to get involved, so the university can begin to explore options, rather then just let the buildings crumble.
“I do not fault President [John] Dunn, the buildings were old when he got here,” Moorehead said. “I do not fault President [Judith] Bailey, or President [Elson] Floyd, not even Dr. [Deither] Haenicke, but people are waiting for WMU to stand up and take initiative. The buildings belong to the University, so it is up to them what they do with it.”
Although East Hall has stood Normal Hill for 104 years, it still has value to students today., whether they’ve been at WMU four years or four months.
Freshman Melanie Mahalkl has been at WMU for only a few months, but already feels a connection to the buildings.
“East Hall has been here over one hundred years, it is something that needs to be preserved because it is a part of Western Michigan University,” Mahalkl said.
“Maybe [the university] could have classes over there or something, but destroying it would be destroying the heart of WMU.”
Another student, Elliot Novers, a senior at WMU, has been in Kalamazoo for the past four years and has not been to East Campus until last year.
“Until then I knew [East Campus] was a part of WMU, but didn’t really know anything else.”
Novers, like many students, had never learned about the buildings, so his interest in them was minimal.
Danielle Wiedenmier, a history major at WMU, is a perfect example of this.
Even as a junior at Western Michigan University, she has never so much as stepped foot on East Campus.
“To be honest, I don’t even really know what East Campus is,” she said.
Wiedenmier said she felt a little angry that even her history professors never took the time to teach her, and some of her classmates, about WMU’s heritage.
“I think it is important that all students have some knowledge about East Campus,” Wiedenmier added. “How can we have pride in our school, if we don’t even know every detail about it?”
Although there seem to be several different perspectives on what should become of the buildings, one thing that can be agreed upon is that something needs to be done.
Richard Barron, Chairman of Friend’s of Historic East Campus Board of Directors, does not care what goes into the buildings, as long as they are maintained.
“The North and South portico used to be a set of columns like their used to be in the main buildings,” Barron said. “They were torn down in 1978, and for 31 years they have stood there kind of like a kid with their two front teeth out.”
“When the sun would come up in the morning it was just beautiful,” he added. “Three big pillars was such a beautiful sight.”
Barron said that he agrees that something needs to become of the buildings, but it is important to WMU’s heritage that the exterior be restored.
“We say put the building to good use,” Barron said. “Restore the exterior but completely renovate the interior so it is a 21st century building.”
In a time when sustainability and carbon footprints are taken more into consideration, Barron said it would make more sense to take an old building, with good bones, and restore them and put them to use.
“We’re not saying to make it an antique movie set, but we do have some ideas,” he said. “Make it a home for the school of education, where WMU began over 100 years ago. Make it a magnet school in corporation with the Kalamazoo Public Schools, turn it into an academy that trains students for college—help them take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise and to get ready for school. It would also make a good home for all of the non profit organizations at Western, because all they need is office space.”
Barron said Friends of Historic East Campus feel strongly that WMU needs to come forward with a division on what they want to do with those buildings.
“Standing there without a purpose they will fall apart. It will be a tragic loss, you cannot recreate heritage; you either treasure it and preserve it, or lose it”