By 1917, because of the growth of the several natural history museums it was evident that new quarters would have to be provided if they were to continue to develop. On the basis of estimates made by the University, the legislature of 1925 appropriated $900,000 for a museum building and equipment and in another act provided for the purchase of the necessary land for the site between North University and Washtenaw avenues. The appropriation for the building became available in 1927; construction was begun in the same year; and the building was completed in the spring of 1928. Albert Kahn, of Detroit, was the architect; Spence Brothers, of Saginaw, held the general contract; and Randolph A. Wiese designed the equipment. The building cost $724,952 and had a gross floor area of 128,976 square feet.
The Museums of Anthropology, Zoology, and Paleontology and the the University Herbarium were housed in the building. Of these the Museum of Zoology was the largest and most diversified. In planning the building it was necessary to recognize differences in size, the rate of growth and activities, and the needs of the four museums. No attempt was made to provide for any of the other University collections.
The site chosen for the new building — the block bounded by Washtenaw, Geddes, Forest, and North University avenues — was interesting in its topography. Almost level along the Washtenaw Avenue side, it droped off to the east so that the garages in the basement of the north wing were only slightly below the grade of the street, and much of the basement was lighted by windows. The site was large enough to permit expansion of the building to more than twice its dimensions, and, with a change in one street, to three times the size of the part first erected. In addition to the garages, the basement, which extended the full length of the north wing, housed vaults for valuable specimens and volatiles, machine rooms, and a large storeroom.
The general plan for the building was largely determined by a general policy adopted after a study of existing institutions and the relations of a state university museum to science, education, the state, and the university. On the basis of this idea the several directors and curators prepared detailed plans, which the architect, Albert Kahn, used in preparing the final design, completed in December, 1926. The building was a modern adaptation of Renaissance masses and details and was particularly adapted to the expression of the functions of the building. The windows were smaller than in most of the campus buildings and did not exceed the columns in width. The sashes were steel with heavy members.
The building was of buff Bedford limestone and maroon tapestry brick; the first floor, entrance façade, cornices, and spandrels were stone with contrasting brick throughout the body of the structure. The first story and parapet were variegated stone, the other stone being plain. A special feature was the reproduction of heads of pioneer American naturalists in relief on the spandrels between the third and fourth floors, on the entrance façade, and between the pilasters which repeated the entrance motif of each wing. The decorative motifs were principally animals, including mythological ones. The fourth-floor spandrels and stone plinths were ornamented with a series of these designs alternating on the spandrels with a conventional figure. Similar designs were on the carved main door lintel and jambs, on the bronze doors, iron grills, lobby and vestibule ceilings. The main entrance doors were perforated bronze.
On the entrance façade the parapet was continued upward to form an entablature which bears the inscription “University Museums” and Louis Agassiz’s admonition: “Go to Nature; take the facts into your own hands; look and see for yourself.” Two puma-like figures in black terrazzo, the work of Carleton W. Angell, stand at either side of the main entrance. The plan of the building consisted of two wings meeting at an acute angle transected to form the entrance. The difficulty of housing the working quarters and the exhibit rooms in the same building was solved by placing them in different wings.
The main entrance, at the corner of North University and Washtenaw avenues, opened into a vestibule and that in turn into a lobby. The lobby, which was two stories in height, with a balcony at the second-story level, opened directly to a broad staircase and the two wings. On the second floor balcony were the general offices, the library, and the map and mailing rooms. In the vestibule, lobby, and on the main stairs the walls were of polished Italian travertine marble — the floors badger gray and Tripoli pink Tennessee marble in attractive designs, and the ceilings of molded plaster, appropriately decorated. The ornamental iron balcony and main stair railings were finished in verd antique and had bronze rails.
The north wing, which was 298 feet long, contained the working quarters of the Museums of Zoology and Anthropology and the Herbarium. This wing had a northeast exposure and most of the laboratories and research rooms were on the north side. The south side of the north wing was given over to darkened ranges, to work rooms that did not require north light, and to aquarium rooms. The studios, which were on the fourth floor, were illuminated by skylights.
The first floor of the south wing, which was 238 feet long, contained laboratories, offices, ranges, and the preparation rooms of the Museum of Paleontology. Above this floor the south wing was devoted to exhibits. The second-floor exhibit hall was partly a single story and partly two stories in height, the two-story section being at the east end of the wing. The partial third floor and the fourth floor were each a single story in height. The third and fourth floors in this wing were suspended from the roof, thus doing away with columns in the second-floor hall.
The corridors of the north wing and the first floor of the south wing were closed at the lobby entrance by ornamental iron gates, so that the public was diverted to the exhibition halls at each level.
Built on the unit plan, of reinforced concrete with no load-bearing walls, the rooms could be rearranged, enlarged, or reduced in size, with little more expense than would be entailed in moving the equipment and removing or constructing curtain walls. There was but one fixed point — the entrance. From the entrance both wings could be extended to form a large quadrangle without departing from the style of architecture. The end walls, although finished, were temporary, and the structure was otherwise designed to be extended without remodeling.
The building was completely equipped for research, for instruction of graduate students, for public demonstrations, and for the preservation of research materials. To avoid the disadvantages of built-in systems, unit systems were adopted, as far as possible. The several divisions had improved types of laboratory tables and sinks, and each laboratory had gas, electricity, compressed air, and hot and cold water.
In the exhibition space the wall columns, which had been fitted out to carry the plumbing, were treated as pilasters, and from these toward the middle of the wing, cases and screens were arranged to form alcoves, separated by a middle aisle eighteen feet wide.
The floors in the exhibition halls were of rubber tile, comfortable benches had been installed, and attractive rest rooms were provided. In fact everything possible had been done to minimize “museum fatigue.”
The large cases were movable and built in five-foot units, which could be put together with or without division to form cases five, ten, fifteen, or twenty feet in length.
The floors of the exhibit rooms, the halls, main offices, and library, had a covering of gold-black and black-gold rubber tile. The gates across the corridors of the floors devoted to research were of wrought iron, designed and executed by Mr. Roscoe Wood, and presented by Mr. Otto Hans.
Dean B. McLaughlin (The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey, p. 1738)
In 1929 an Animal House was erected in the courtyard of the Museums Building. An alumnus who gave the little zoo to the University was interested in out-of-door things for children. He wanted to give them the opportunity to know and understand animals. He knew that right across the street in South Department of the University Hospital (the 1900 Homeopathic Hospital) there were always children, recovering from illness or fighting against the crippling diseases that so often attack youngsters, and he wanted to have something interesting for them to look at, and something to get them out into the healthful sunshine.
A truly Michigan menagerie was set up in the neat little animal house, and populated with wild animals found in the state, two bears, a coyote, a fox, a pair of opossums, several raccoons and skunks, and a porcupine. The courtyard was laid out with walks and shrubbery, and a pool in which several varieties of turtles made their home. There were benches, and a notice saying, “The public was cordially invited."
The animal house had its practical uses as well. The zoologists of the Museum were interested in live animals as well as stuffed ones, and the zoo offered a splendid place for them and their students to study the behavior of wild animals. These were not experimental animals however, and they had a very easy life. All they were asked to do was to eat three meals a day and act natural. (Michigan Alumnus, 1929-30)
“When the mercury was down to ten below, loafing around on the front porch was no occupation for a self-respecting bear, and these much-advertised beasts stay within the walls of their little round home, newly built for them behind the Museum, except when they venture out to snatch a bit of food. The little raccoon was somewhat braver, lying out in his front yard several hours at a time, but not looking very happy about it.” (Michigan Alumnus, 1929-30)
In December of 1968, the Regents named the Museums Building after Alexander Grant Ruthven, the seventh President of the University of Michigan.