EAST LANSING — Chittenden Hall has been vacant for 14 years but not entirely unused. The chalkboards, at least, have filled up with graffiti, a surprising amount of it dated. Alongside more obscene sentiments is the scribbled entreaty to “Save this building,” which Michigan State University has finally decided to do.
Built in 1901, Chittenden is one of the oldest buildings on campus, part of the “Laboratory Row” that sits along the eastern edge of West Circle Drive.
It was the Dairy Laboratory once, as a broad side door attests, home to the Department of Forestry for 53 years and given over largely to graduate assistant offices by the time the university mothballed it in 1999. The plan is to turn it into a home for the university’s Graduate School, a single location for services now spread across three buildings, “a visible symbol of the importance of graduate education at Michigan State,” as Stefan Fletcher put it.
Fletcher is the president of the university’s Council of Graduate Students, which has run a years-long campaign to convince MSU’s leaders to pursue a renovation. They called it “Get Chitt Done.”
“We’ve had everything from 5k runs starting at the facility through tailgates in the fall outside of the building to try and say, ‘If we can’t go inside right now, we’ll still stake out our territory outside,’ “ Fletcher told the Lansing State Journal.
The university’s Board of Trustees have given the administration authorization to plan the project. The estimated cost is $6 million.
The notion of making Chittenden into a home for the Graduate School didn’t begin with student leaders. The building was going offline just as the Graduate School was being born in its present form. The possible connection seems to have been there from the start.
“It’s just taken a while to come up with the money to be able to actually get it done,” said Karen Klomparens, dean of the Graduate School.
Not that the university hasn’t tried. MSU launched a Campus Heritage Initiative a decade ago as part of a larger fundraising campaign. The goal was to preserve several buildings along Laboratory Row, and Randall Pittman, an MSU trustee at the time, started it off by giving $6 million to restore Marshall-Adams Hall. No similar work has been done on Chittenden, Cook Hall or Old Botany. The planned renovation of Chittenden will be paid for out of the university’s general fund.
“We’ll try to save as much as we can, the doors, the wood framing,” said Amr Abdel-Azim, a senior architect with MSU, gesturing at a broad wooden door frame.
The interior of the building bears the marks of disuse, plaster fallen from the ceilings, fissures in the walls, splintered patches on the wood floors.
The project “pretty much is going to be gutting everything inside the building and starting over,” Abdel-Azim said, but some of the old features are salvageable.
The plan is to add offices and social spaces for graduate students and bathrooms and an elevator, to pull out the asbestos, to make the building accessible. If plans are approved by the Board of Trustees this fall, construction should start next summer and finish in 2015.
Klomparens toured the building earlier this month. It was “kind of desolate,” she said, “but there’s huge potential.
“It’s beautiful space, a classic building.”