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History of the Rackham Building

In 1935, University President Alexander G. Ruthven wrote to the trustees of the Rackham Fund to offer them what he called the very heart of the University. He persuaded them to donate money for construction of a building, bearing Rackham’s name, that would house the graduate-school administration and serve as a focal point for graduate activities on campus. A separate graduate school had existed since 1912, but had never had its own headquarters. Eventually, $2.5 million were donated for the land, the buildings and the furnishings (construction of the building would cost $13,000 less than the contractors originally estimated), as well as a $4 million endowment to sponsor research and publication by graduate students and faculty.

The contract for design of the Rackham building went to Smith, Hinchman Grylls, then as now one of Detroit’s largest architectural firms, and was assigned to William E. Kapp, one of the brilliant young designers on the staff. Kapp had been trained at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked for several years under Albert Kahn, Detroit’s most famous architect and Smith, Hinchman Grylls’ main competitor. Unlike Kahn’s firm, Smith, Hinchman Grylls had a reputation for allowing their designers individual freedom, so Kapp moved to that firm in 1920. He stayed through the Depression, when he left to start his own architectural firm. The Rackham building was his last design for Smith, Hinchman Grylls. Ground for it was broken in May 1936, and it was officially dedicated in June 1938. Kapp did well for his firm: in 1980, Rackham’s endurance and beauty were recognized by the Building Stone Institute’s Tucker Award.

The building, which is made of Indiana limestone and has a copper roof, was designed with tremendous sensitivity to the surrounding area. For one thing, it was the terminus for the Ingalls Street mall [in 1980, S. Ingalls, a one-block street running between N. University And E. Washington, was replaced with a brick and grass pedestrian walkway], beyond the opposite end of which is the Graduate Library, designed by Kapp’s former mentor, Albert Kahn. Kapp wanted to design something that would be in balance with that building. But at the same time, the Rackham building was at what was then the edge of campus, and so it was adjacent to a residential area. The design, then, was kept low: the gabled roof and the strong horizontal line visually bring it down to the ground. So the building formed a transition between the large, massed structures of the University and the smaller buildings of the surrounding neighborhood.

Kapp’s affinity with classical styles included the color schemes he chose for the interior, which, according to Holleman, were earthy shades similar to those the Greeks created from natural pigments. For instance, the walls of the main entrance hall were originally painted Pompeiian red. (They were later repainted a light gray.) The building is also replete with terra cottas and cerulean blues, all right out of the Greek, and possibly the Pompeiian, repertoire. At the same time, the lavish decorations on the ceilings, moldings, and walls are in keeping with the Art Deco style, which was in vogue in the ’30s.

The other striking aspect of the interior is the way natural light and artificial light interact in the different rooms. This too, Holleman explained, was carefully designed by Kapp. You notice as you enter the main entrance hall that you go from the light outdoors into a rather dark room. Now, if there is something going on in the lecture hall, the lobby is lit and you are naturally drawn into the activities. If not, then the lecture hall doors, which are covered in dark blue leather, are closed, and your eyes are naturally drawn to either side, where indirect light is spilling down the marble stairways. As you proceed up the stairs, you are drawn either toward the lighter lounges, which are illuminated by sunlight, or the central rotunda, which is bathed in indirect light. Your movements through the building are directed by the patterns of light and dark, and all this was carefully conceived by Kapp.

Indeed, right down to the finest detail, the building is Kapp’s. The bronze window and door casings, the ceiling decorations, the colors, the carpets, the furniture – all were either designed directly by him or with his close supervision. This was in the era when an architect was very reluctant to turn over any part of a building to someone else for fear of losing the integrity of the design, said Holleman. Nor were any parts of the building simply ordered from a catalogue. They were designed by Kapp and made specifically for the building – right down to the bronze doorknobs. It was an age, also, when expert craftsmen were still available.

Elements such as the sculpted forms of the building’s facade, the exquisite bronze window casings and the relief work in the interior, are the work of Corrado Parducci, an architectural sculptor trained in his native Italy, who collaborated often with Kapp. Together they recreated a number of classical forms. For example, the bowl-shaped chandeliers in the massive study hall on the second floor exactly mimic the Greek light fixtures, which in ancient times were filled with oil that burned from a wick. The Greeks, of course, did not have desk lamps, but the ones built into the study-hall tables at least capture the spirit of the Greek design. The detailed decoration work found all over the building was again Kapp’s design, as was the furniture in the study and lecture rooms, modeled on Chippendale, Queen Anne, and Duncan Phyfe precursors.

The underlying philosophy for the design was to enhance all aspects of advanced intellectual endeavor without regard to disciplinary boundaries. An information booklet, prepared by the architect’s firm when the building opened, says: The varieties of ways by which new knowledge arises are not limited to books, the classroom, and the laboratory. All those intellectual contacts between individuals imbued with the curiosity to find out why things are as they are offer such opportunities. The informal intercourse of minds is often as significant as the formal search . . . . The building thus is conceived as a center for gathering together those stirred by this fundamental curiosity to know . . . The Graduate School Building . . . is neutral territory. In discussion rooms, lecture halls, attractive lounging and common rooms, and the reading room, the boundaries between subjects are less evident. The possibility of intellectual recreation is evident, and the specialist has opportunity to become a scholar.

The focal point for the building, and the part that dictates the spaces around it, is the 1,200-seat lecture hall on the main floor. Like the smaller and steeper amphitheatre on the top floor, the semi-circular arrangement is classically Greek, as is the stage jutting into the room and the absence of a proscenium. The two fluted columns on either side of the stage accentuate the Neo-Greek atmosphere. The Art Deco work on the ceiling is a spectacular intertwining gold-leaf pattern that converges over the stage. The room also has one of the earliest uses of recessed lighting – a departure from the usual chandeliers and a reflection of Kapp’s sensitivity to lighting design. It is a comfortable auditorium, with plushly upholstered seats and ample leg room.

The room was designed with lectures in mind, its built-in lectern on the stage and its projection screen concealed by a curtain on the wall. In addition to this use, the room is occupied several times each month by large groups attending conferences, conventions, and symposia. perhaps one of the happier, and not wholly unforeseen, circumstances is that the lecture hall is ideal for chamber music. The room is intimate – all seats are close to the performers – and the acoustics satisfactory, whether for a solo guitarist or an eighteen-piece ensemble.

It cannot be said that William Kapp didn’t foresee the use of his auditorium for musical performance. He was very familiar with theater and concert hall design. Indeed, one of his buildings was the Wilson Theater in Detroit, now called The Music Hall, which has excellent acoustics.

Former University Musical Society President Gail Rector was in the very first ensemble, in 1939, to perform on Rackham’s stage. Then a student in the School of Music, Rector was a bassoonist in the University’s Little S ymphony under the direction of Thor Johnson. In an interview, Rector speculated it was Johnson’s idea to hold concerts there. The building, of course, was spanking new at the time so it did not take long for the idea to occur to someone in the sixty-two-year-old University Musical Society to present the first chamber music festival there in 1941. The Musical Art Quartet of New York led off the annual series, and was followed by the Roth Quartet. Next came the Budapest String Quartet, a group which would return more frequently than- any other during the twenty-seven years of these weekend festivals. The chamber festival gradually expanded over the years into the present Chamber Arts Series, which in recent times has included the Julliard String Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, and many other famous ensembles. In the last five decades, the University Musical Society has presented festivals of ballet, folk, and ethnic dance on the Rackham stage.

Perhaps the most original use of the building for the performing arts occurred in 1976. A master’s student in the School of Dance choreographed a thesis presentation that was performed on the vast terrace of the top floor – to the accompaniment of the Burton Tower carillon. This unusual endeavor has been repeated a few times. The grand terrace is often used in good weather by students and Rackham staff members who want to take in the panoramic view of the rooftops of downtown Ann Arbor.

The study lounges on the second floor were originally dubbed the Men’s and Women’s Lounges, but in these egalitarian times (probably in the 1960’s, though no one is sure of the date) have been renamed the East and West Study Halls. the quietness, warmth, and elegance of the rooms inspire focused attention – although the plush furniture sometimes inspires a quick nap.

The building also serves, of course, as administrative headquarters for the Graduate School. The Dean’s office is a large room on the southeast side of the main floor. At the southwest corner is the meeting room for the Rackham Executive Board, the decision-making body comprising the dean, associate deans, elected faculty representatives from various departments, and Rackham Student Government representatives.

On the ground level, which is almost a basement, the east side offices are taken up by the graduate student services offices (Admissions, Academic Records Dissertations, Fellowships and Recruitment).

It is almost impossible to imagine what it would cost to build the Rackham building today. The thought of marble stairs with bronze railings would send shudders through any budget manager. In this era of public funding, streamlining and stripped down forms are the order. And even finding the craftsmen and materials would be a challenge: where in the 1920s there may have been thirty marble companies in the Ann Arbor-Detroit area, today there are only three. But Tom Holleman, the architectural historian, wondered if cost is really the problem, or if some deeper principle has been sacrificed.

I think this is more a reflection of how we philosophically approach the use of materials these days. Take this building, for example, he said, referring to the Renaissance Center, the pride and joy of Detroit;The roof of this building may be guaranteed to last twenty years – no more. After that it has to be fixed. The walls may be good for twenty-five to thirty; same for the aluminum window casings. Now, compare that to a building like the Rackham building. If you use the best materials and the best craftsmen to start out with, there’s no reason why a building shouldn’t last a thousand years.

The Rackham building, in all its glory, looks as if it is here to stay.

from an article by John O. Biderman