WMU’s East Hall to be renovated for use as alumni center

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Photo of WMU's East Hall.

East Hall, circa 2006

KALAMAZOO—With the proposed private development of Western Michigan University’s historic East Campus at an official standstill, WMU officials have decided to focus all preservation efforts on renovating the institution’s birthplace, East Hall, making it an alumni center that will once again put the building into play as a central part of campus life.

“More than a dozen years ago, we had all of our East Campus buildings assessed,” says WMU President John M. Dunn. “We were told then, we needed to ‘save something, or lose it all.’ We’ve decided we can wait no longer, and it is of paramount importance to our campus and community to save the core of East Hall.”

The decision means the remainder of the East Campus buildings at the top of Prospect Hill will be razed, allowing the space those structures occupy to be opened up for campus green space and parking for the new alumni center.

Community support was appreciated

More than a year ago, WMU announced that after seeking proposals nationwide, it had selected private developer KDC to resurrect the rapidly decaying buildings of the East Campus historic site at no cost to the University. The developer’s plan was to use state brownfield redevelopment and historic preservation tax credits—which were not available to nonprofit WMU—to renovate East Campus buildings into a boutique hotel, commercial office space and both moderate and premium apartments. Without those credits, the renovations would be too costly to allow developers to recoup the costs of renovation.

The anticipated Michigan tax credits were eliminated over the past year and replaced with a loan program for community development that would allow only a $10 million repayable investment for what was anticipated to be a $60 million effort. Without the original tax credits, private development is not possible.

University officials praise the support WMU has received from neighborhood groups and the Friends of East Campus throughout the private development initiative. Even that communitywide involvement and extraordinary work by KDC, they say, could not overcome the financial issues involved.

“This has been an extremely difficult decision for all involved,” says Dunn. “The principals on the WMU staff who have been working through this are alums who spent their collegiate years in those buildings, and they work every day to both honor WMU’s heritage and meet the daily demands of a great university. Their conclusion is that we can and should revitalize East Hall and make that beautiful location part of the WMU experience for every student and alum.”

Prior to inking the development agreement with KDC, the University conducted a feasibility study to determine if there was sufficient private donor interest in East Campus preservation efforts to move ahead on its own with preservation work. That study revealed very little private interest.

Photo of students from the 1960s at East Hall.

Students exit East Hall; photo taken in the 1960s.

Plans for renovation

While work to accomplish the new vision for East Campus will not begin immediately, the area will not continue long in its current state. The only ongoing use of the buildings is for the Archives and Regional History Collections, which are housed in one of the East Hall wings. That unit will be moving late in 2013 to its new home in the Zhang Legacy Collections Center being constructed near the intersection of Oakland Drive and Howard Street.

While the decision on the future is new and plans for renovating East Hall are not yet complete, the concept is to focus on the building core—about 34,000 square feet of the original building that was completed in 1905 and includes the columned portico facing the community, the lighted cupola and the University’s original administrative and instructional spaces.

Consideration will also be given to keeping up the wing that once housed the training school for future renovation as a distinct project. In addition, the University plans to identify and salvage important architectural elements from the buildings that will be razed.

The renovation would turn that core into an alumni event center and gathering space that can be a focal point for alumni efforts and information about University history. The structure would also house part of WMU’s development and alumni operations. The reconstructed WMU Trolley that once carried students up Prospect Hill would be permanently displayed nearby, and the entire area would be convenient for alumni tailgaters.

WMU would commit $15 million in borrowed funds to the effort, and the extent of the renovation and the fate of the building’s wings would be determined by how much private support could also be garnered. Given WMU building priorities for mission-critical purposes, that $15 million is the limit that can be borrowed to accomplish the East Hall renovation.

The intent is to demolish West Hall, North Hall and the Speech and Hearing Center as soon as possible to avoid the continuing expenditure of WMU dollars for security, utilities and basic maintenance. Removing those buildings would also allow the new alumni center to be developed without the issue of having it surrounded by abandoned buildings.

The site is at the top of Prospect Hill overlooking Kalamazoo’s downtown area. Building on the site began in 1904, shortly after the University was founded as Western State Normal School. The campus, with East Hall as the oldest and most visible of the facilities, was once dubbed “the Acropolis of Kalamazoo” by humorist Will Rogers.