For more than a decade, Western Michigan University’s East Campus has been a virtual ghost town. However, the University announced last December that it would turn its original home into a new alumni center. To do that, the university plans to tear down two historic buildings and part of a third, and that isn’t sitting well with some in the community.
East, North, and West halls on what’s known as “Prospect Hill” on Oakland Drive are considered to be WMU’s birthplace. East Campus also includes the Speech and Hearing Building. East Hall, which opened in 1905, is the oldest building on Western’s campus.
Today, East Hall is the only one of buildings still in use. The others have been closed to the public for over a decade and have fallen into disrepair. WMU President John Dunn says finding a way to stem the gradual decay has been a big concern since he took office six years ago. But Dunn admits that finding a way to restore to do that hasn’t been easy.
“People say, ‘No, don’t tear them down.’ We won’t have to tear them down, they’re falling down. We’re spending $250,000 a year there just to provide some primitive maintenance, upkeep, and little bit of heat in those structures.”
Dunn and other leaders have considered various options on how to re-use East Campus in the past. They included a partnership with a private development company that wanted to turn East Hall into a “boutique” hotel. But that project fell apart when the state eliminated its historic tax credit program. So, in late 2012, the university’s administration announced that it would act on its own to save what structures it could. Dunn says the proposed alumni center, “Really represents the history, the legacy, of the university, the importance of that first, great structure on this campus.”
Western plans to borrow $15 million to turn East Hall’s main core into the new alumni center. But a grim fate is in store for the other buildings surrounding East Hall. All three are slated for demolition later this year. The space these buildings now occupy would be converted into parking and green space. That’s unwelcome news historic preservation advocates like Roger Parzyck.
“It just doesn’t make sense. East Campus is listed on the national register of historic places, and it is the heart and soul of the university.”
Parzyck owns the architectural salvage firm The Heritage Company in Kalamazoo and is a former WMU student. Shortly after Western announced its redevelopment plan, Parzyck circulated a petition asking the university to seek an alternative to demolition. He says the buildings could survive another 20 years or more with only minimal upkeep.
Parzyck isn’t the only one opposed to the administration’s decision. Members of the local advocacy group Friends of Historic East Campus have also spoken up against it, sending an open letter to the Board of Trustees requesting a moratorium on the planned demolitions. Chairman David Brose says Western should hold off on the wrecking ball until it becomes more financially feasible to restore all of its original campus.
“We do applaud the university for stepping forward with an idea to use the core of East Hall for university use. We don’t see anything that mandates the destruction of the rest of those buildings.”
Brose says East Campus could be used as studio space for Western art students or as additional student housing.
President John Dunn says he expected controversy over the university's decision. But Dunn also says he’s delighted by the number of positive responses he has received from those who are excited about the transformation of East Hall. “There are people I don’t even know who come to me and say ‘we really like the plans for East Campus.’ Those individuals are highly unlikely to write a letter to the paper, they’re highly unlikely to go public. Are there people who are pleased we are doing something in proactive way? Let me just say, absolutely.”
Not surprisingly, however, preservationists like Roger Parzyck see it differently. “When those buildings are gone, that history is gone, it’s gone for good, and people better be ready for that when they drive down or they come back for homecoming, that those buildings are gone. They’re gone forever.”
Dunn says there isn’t a definite timetable for the demolitions on Western’s East Campus. This summer, Western will move its Archives from East Hall to a new facility. Until then, no further work will take place. But the controversy is likely to linger.