Soon after the Michigan Union was completed, the Women's League of the University undertook to secure the funds necessary for the erection of a women's building. In February, 1921, a communication was received by the Regents from Mrs. W. D. Henderson, secretary of the Alumnae Council of the Alumni Association, requesting approval of a million-dollar campaign to raise funds for a women's building (Regent's Proceedings, 1920-23, p. 129). This was approved and President Burton addressed the opening meeting in Hill Auditorium in October, 1921. Of the amount secured by 1927, it was planned to use $600,000 for construction, $150,000 for furnishings, and $250,000 as an endowment. Heat and light were to be furnished by the University.
The Regents in 1921 agreed to furnish the site if the alumnae could raise $500,000 or more to construct and endow the building. In 1927, the sum of $350,000 was appropriated by the legislature for the purchase of a site (Regent's Proceedings, 1926-29, p. 279).
The first large gift was made by Robert Lamont '96, of Chicago, for the establishment of a memorial to the League's first president, Ethel Hussey. A gift of $50,000 from Gordon Mendelssohn, of Birmingham, provided the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, a memorial to Mr. Mendelssohn's mother. The New York state alumnae contributed $15,000. Gifts were made by alumnae from all parts of the world. Chinese women alumnae in Tientsin sent antique tapestries made from a royal Manchu dynasty robe. Oriental rugs, vases, silver services, pianos, and many other furnishings were donated by alumnae.
Life memberships in the Michigan League were also included in the plan for raising funds. Various organized alumnae groups assumed the responsibility for raising definite quotas over a five-year period.
At the December meeting of the Regents in 1921, the location of the League had been fixed as the block bounded by North University and Washington streets, covering the area between the Mall and Fletcher (Twelfth) Street. The final cost of the site was $332,105.23. In May, 1927, Mrs. Henderson informed the Regents that the million-dollar fund would be completed by June and that work on the building could be begun. The ground breaking ceremonies took place on Saturday, June 18, 1927, with Dr. Eliza Mosher, the first Dean of Women, turning the first shovelful of earth. On May 4, 1929, the building was formally opened. Dedication ceremonies were held on June 14, 1929, in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.
Laying the Corner Stone, The Michigan League, March 29, 1928
Mary Bartron Henderson (1904) was the driving force behind the construction of the Michigan League. At the time of her death in April, 1937, the Regents announced:
"Her name will forever remain associated, in the history of this institution, with the organization of the alumnae and the campaign which resulted in the building of the Michigan League, to which she devoted herself tirelessly and loyally. From 1926 to 1931, when she was the Executive Secretary of the Alumnae Council, Mrs. Henderson was the leader of the building campaign through its most critical period to its completely successful conclusion, and thereafter she remained chairman of the building fund until all the payments on the League had been made. The University is gratefully aware that, though this splendid addition to the facilities came as the result of the united efforts of many, the executive ability, the abounding energy, and the courage of Mary Bartron Henderson were indispensable factors in the success of the enterprise. The Regents, therefore, once more make record of their lasting gratitude for the extraordinary service rendered by Mary Bartron Henderson to her University, and express to her surviving family their heartfelt sympathy." (Regent's Proceedings, 1936-39, p. 224.)
The architects for the Michigan League were Pond and Pond, Martin and Lloyd, the same firm of architects which had designed the Union; Lovering and Longbotham were responsible for the construction.
The Michigan League Building gave the impression of being a low, somewhat rambling structure; in reality it rose five floors above street level and was compactly built. It was constructed of soft red brick with white stone trim, and the many details, such as dormer and casement windows, alcoves, and balconies, lend variety to the general design without overembellishing it.
The building was divided into three parts: the central section, containing the tower, the lounges, main concourse, offices, kitchens, and, on the fourth floor, bedrooms; the wing bordering North University Avenue, included the dining rooms, the ballroom, and a meeting room; and the northern wing, was devoted almost entirely to the theater, checkrooms, workrooms for making costumes and scenery, and the linen supply closet. The northern and southern wings partly enclose a court on the east side of the building, forming a charming garden bounded on the street side by a high brick wall.
The most frequently used entrance was the south side entrance, which was approached by a circular drive. The main entrance, facing the Mall, directly across from Hill Auditorium, gave access to a spacious lobby, and on either side of the double entrance doors, two steps above the floor level, were alcoves, equipped with desks, chairs, and lamps. The lobby itself was comfortably furnished. Opposite the door, on the east side of the lobby, was the central information desk. From the main lobby, steps ascend to a corridor on the south, on the right of which were a ladies' lounge, a checkroom, conference room, and the Alumnae council office, while on the left side, near the south door of the building, were entrances to the cafeteria, one of the most popular campus eating places. Here the ample serving counters were separated from the dining room section by a wall of wood and glass, and the dining room itself, large, cheerful, and well-lighted, occupied most of the southern half of this wing.
Branching north from the main lobby was another corridor, on the left side of which were public telephone booths, a suite of rooms for the undergraduate offices of the League, and, at the far end, the lobby of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. On the right side of this corridor were the offices of the Drama Season and the business manager of the League.
Just to the right of the main desk a staircase ascended to the concourse on the second floor, a room similar in size and arrangement to the first floor lobby, but more richly furnished. On either side were large lounges, the one on the north being named in honor of Ethel Fountain Hussey; the other, furnished by Grand Rapids alumnae, was known as the Hazel Whitaker Vandenberg Room. Both had fireplaces and were provided with grand pianos and comfortable chairs and sofas. Tall windows broke the long lines of the paneled walls. To the left, at the top of the stairs, was the Michigan Room, and, to the right, another lounge, the Kalamazoo Room. Just beyond this lounge was the Ann Arbor Room, sometimes used as the Student-Faculty Lounge. Beyond the Michigan Room to the south was a large beautiful ballroom, with arched ceiling and stained glass windows.
At the north, or opposite end, of the second-floor corridor were the entrances to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. The beautiful small theater had a main floor, balcony, boxes, and an orchestra pit, at either side of which rounded steps ascend to the stage. The lower walls were paneled in walnut, with white plaster above. The theater, which had a seating capacity of approximately seven hundred, was in use almost every day during the academic year. The Drama Season presentations were given here in the spring, and the Play Production classes also made regular use of its facilities.
At either end of the long second-floor hall, staircases led to the third floor, containing the Henderson Room, the Listening Rooms, and meeting and rehearsal rooms. On this floor was also the Jessie Horton Koessler Library, a restful, low-ceilinged room, furnished with comfortable lounging chairs, as well as with sturdy tables and straight chairs conducive to study.
The fourth floor provided bedrooms for guests of League members and for alumnae. These rooms were completed through gifts of various alumnae groups. At the end of the corridor was the Cave, a room equipped for informal meetings. The fifth floor, consisting of one large room, was used as a dormitory for women.
The basement housed a “snack bar.” Two murals painted by students of the College of Architecture and Design decorate two of the walls. This room was used by the students from early morning until late evening.
Ruth Gjelsness (The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey, p. 1684)
Michigan League Chapel
Michigan League Garden