July 25, 2013

Western Michigan University's East Campus: The Debate and Decision

  • By: Paulina Tam
East Hall, the first building completed in Western Michigan University’s East Campus. Credit: Roger Parzyck.
East Hall, the first building completed in Western Michigan University’s East Campus.

Perched high on a hilltop surverying the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, is Western Michigan University's East Campus.

Completed in 1905, East Campus -- the first at WMU -- was purchased by the citizens of Kalamazoo and donated to the state with the stipulation that a university was to be built with the acquired land. As several years passed, buildings and halls such as East Hall, West Hall, North Hall, and the Speech and Hearing Building were created.

Then, in December 2012, the University issued a plan to tear down all but East Hall, which it plans to convert into the WMU Alumni Center for $15 million.

Some alumni, current students, and city residents are shocked by the University's decision to tear down the campus where they -- and their parents and grandparents -- attended class, and where the buildings and halls boast such beauty, history, and architecture.

Close to 1,500 signs that read "Stop the Demolition of Historic East Campus" are picketed within the University and Kalamazoo.

Some of the many signs inside Kalamazoo and the University’s grounds that show the disagreement between the public and the University’s choice to demolish East Campus. Credit: Rodger Parzyck.
Some of the many signs inside Kalamazoo and the University’s grounds that show the disagreement between the public and the University’s choice to demolish East Campus.

"East Campus is the heart and soul of the University," says Rodger Parzyck, a local business owner and concerned citizen who requested a moratorium to stop East Campus' demolition and was denied. "The buildings are structurally sound (contrary to what President Dunn says) and relatively unchanged in their exterior appearance other than the window replacement many years ago on West Hall."

East Campus' construction gradually halted in the 1950s to start building West Campus -- now the primary and largest campus in WMU. East Campus' location on top of a hill was a challenge for commuting students and faculty members.

The $90 million needed for East Campus' renovation was also unaffordable, says WMU's Executive Director of University Relations Cheryl Roland.

"Our final decision came after a two-year effort to allow private development of the buildings," she says. "Once the private development option was gone, we decided it was simply untenable to continue spending the more than $250,000 in annual maintenance and utility costs necessary each year to keep the buildings minimally safe and intact."

The exterior of West Hall, one of three historic buildings subject to demolition. Credit: Rodger Parzyck.
The exterior of West Hall, one of three historic buildings subject to demolition.

"The cost to maintain the building for the next four to five years is much less than the cost of tearing them down," says David Brose, the chairperson of the Friends of Historic East Campus, a nonprofit association that strives to preserve the East Campus' well-being. Roland confirms that demolishing the three buildings while leaving East Hall will cost $2.2 million in comparison.

Throughout the campaign to save East Campus, there were also claims that the University will build a football tailgate parking lot over the razed buildings.

"That is a myth long bandied about by a few local opponents of our plans," Roland says in response. "In fact, the preliminary site plans show that area dedicated to formal and informal gardens and plaza spaces."

She adds that the University is moving along with the East Hall design process and is collaborating with noted Michigan historical preservation specialist Gene Hopkins from Hopkins Burns Design Studio.

"East Hall will join a number of other buildings in the area that have been carefully conserved and are in daily campus use," says Roland. "A lovely Art Deco theatre is across the street, and the facade of the original campus gymnasium has been incorporated into a major athletic facility."

A closer look at the architectural characteristics of the buildings. Credit: Rodger Parzyck.
A closer look at the architectural characteristics of the buildings.

Brose argues that other buildings could have a similar treatment.

"The North Hall -- which is a beautiful building -- has a reading room and a large fireplace," he says. "We could certainly put the welcoming student orientations there, and at one point, some of the developers proposed turning those [into] condominiums for alumni."

Despite the community efforts, pre-demolition work started on July 22.

"This week, we began abatement and salvage of architectural elements from West Hall and the Speech and Hearing Building," says Roland. "That process is expected to take three to four weeks and will be followed by demolition, which will be complete by the end of September."

Still, for individuals like Parzyck and Brose, the Save East Campus Campaign continues. Protestors advocating for the East Campus' preservation made their stance outside WMU's Bernhard Center two weeks ago as reported by Mlive.

"Saving the East Campus is an important battle in this community," Parzyck says. "It's not just the buildings but how we view our community -- what's important -- what's beautiful -- what we want to leave to our children. It is more than the dollars saved or the dollars spent on restoration."

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