OPINION: Grawn renovation chips away at CMU’s architectural character

Rendering of the Warriner Mall entrance to Grawn Hall after an $11-million renovation approved Thursday by the Board of Trustees. (Screenshot, courtesy: Central Michigan University)
Rendering of the Warriner Mall entrance to Grawn Hall after an $11-million renovation approved Thursday by the Board of Trustees. (Screenshot, courtesy: Central Michigan University)

By John Irwin

I consider myself somewhat of an architecture geek.

When I worked in downtown Detroit as an intern two summers ago, I made it a point to visit each of the Motor City’s architectural gems, from the cathedral-esque Guardian Building to the stunning Fisher Building. I do similar tours while visiting cities as large as New York and as small as Mount Pleasant.

That’s because architecture, at its best, can tell stories about a community’s past and add significantly to its character.

Unfortunately, CMU is disregarding historic architecture’s value in its plans for Grawn Hall’s renovation.

The most picturesque part of campus is Warriner Mall, the open rectangular area bound by Bellows Street on the north, Smith Hall on the east, Warriner Hall on the south and Grawn on the west. Powers Hall is also seen just to the west of Warriner.

All four of the buildings’ exteriors are noted for their early 20th-century architectural styles that lend a picturesque feel to the relatively open landscape.

Grawn Hall as it appeared in the early 20th Century. (Courtesy: Central Michigan University)
Grawn Hall as it appeared in the early 20th Century. (Courtesy: Central Michigan University)

That setting will be slightly upended by the planned Grawn renovation. The plan, pictured above, would give the Warriner Mall entrance to the 100-year-old building a facelift that would rid the hall’s exterior of its historic features, including the awning over the entrance supported by six brick pillars fashioned in the style of those typically seen in marble.

CMU, which made sure the new graduate student housing complex on the north end of campus fit in with the area’s historic architecture, is throwing away some of the history and character of its oldest building for a generic, corporate-looking entrance that detracts from the setting around it.

That would be an absolute shame, too, since CMU’s relatively small north campus is the only portion of the entire campus that contains historic buildings built in the first half of the 20th Century, before U.S. architecture took a turn for the bland between the 1950s and 1980s. (Need proof? Take a look at the unremarkable exterior designs of Brooks, Pearce, Anspach, Moore and most residence halls.)

Thankfully, architectural trends became more creative (and more efficient) again toward the end of the century and into the new one, and that’s best evidenced locally on the south end of campus with the Education and Human Services Building.

While newer buildings and modern amenities can be important to a university’s wellbeing, so too can a campus’ character. And while most of the interior renderings of the Grawn renovation look pleasant and promising, the proposed renovation to the east entrance shows a lack of vision and appreciation for history on the administration’s part.


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