The North Campus

Space on the University of Michigan campus became inadequate to accommodate the post-war growth of the University. In anticipation of this growing need, the Regents had begun to acquire farmland property on the sloping hills lying just to the northeast of the Huron River. Although there were some early thoughts given to relocating the School of Education, Natural Resources, Music, and Fine Arts to the North Campus, the construction of the Phoenix Memorial Project soon re-purposed the site for engineering research. More specifically, the early plans for the North Campus included the Cooley Memorial Laboratory to house the electronics research associated with the Willow Run Laboratories, the Phoenix Memorial Laboratory, the Automotive Laboratory, and a storage library. The development of the rest of the campus would proceed as needs arose and funds were secured. Possible projects suggested for the long-range future included a fine arts center where teaching facilities in music, theater, television, architecture, and design could be concentrated; residence halls and multiple-housing units for both single and married students, and staff; and facilities for the study of natural resources.

On January 17, 1952, the newly appointed president of the University, Harlan Hatcher, held a press conference to announce plans for a new North Campus for the University: “The increasing responsibilities and demands upon the University and the projection of necessary growth in the future have made it imperative that plans for expansion be formulated now. Of course, there must be some further construction on the present campus, but we know now that there is not adequate space for an enrollment of 25,000 students or more, which it is reasonable to anticipate in the 1960’s.” (Michigan Alumnus, 1951-52, p. 257)

Harlan Hatcher


Wilbur Pierpont played a key role in this massive expansion plan for the North Campus. Pierpont, a native Michigander, earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Business. In 1946, after the war, he returned to the University to work first with President Ruthven and then President Hatcher as the University’s chief financial officer. The early purchase and development of the North Campus can be traced to Pierpont, who saw the needs of the growing University. His contributions were honored in 1995 by the naming of the Wilbur and Maxine Pierpont Commons.

Wilbur Pierpont

The Farmland That Would Become the North Campus

The noted Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen, the first president of the Cranbrook Institute and the son of the former University faculty member, Eliel Saarinen, was retained in 1951 to develop the master plan for the North Campus site. Saarinen was one of the most creative architects of the 20th Century, noted for his bold designs including Dulles International Airport, the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and the residential colleges at Yale.

At the time Saarinen was commissioned to develop the plan for the North Campus, he was just completing the design for the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. There is a striking similarity between the two designs, even including an exhibition dome, typical of automobile development centers to display new models.

Eero Saarinen

The Saarinen Plan for the North Campus

The first building to be completed on the North Campus was the Cooley Memorial Laboratory in 1953. Much of the classified electronics research associated with Willow Run Research Laboratory was conducted in the Cooley Laboratory.

Mortimer Cooley Memorial Laboratory

Mortimer Cooley -
Professor of Mechanical Engineering 1879 - 1928
Dean of Engineering 1903 - 1928

(1) Ford Nuclear Reactor and Phoenix Laboratory (2) Automotive Engineering Laboratory (3) Cooley Laboratory
(4) Library Annex (5) Printing Services (6) Aeronautical Engineering Wind Tunnels and Propulsion Laboratory

In 1955 the Phoenix Memorial Laboratory was completed. It was the result of the Phoenix Memorial Project. The Ford Nuclear Reactor was completed in 1957. It was the first reactor not in a large fenced-in area and the largest on any campus with a power level of two million watts.

The Automotive Engineering Laboratory, which had previously been in a lean-to next to the Engineering Shops (West Engineering Annex) was relocated in a new North Campus building opened in October of 1957.

The Aeronautical Engineering Department also moved its research activities to the North Campus in 1957. The Aeronautical Engineering Laboratories consisted of two buildings, one of which housed the supersonic and low turbulence wind tunnels, and the other for propulsion research. The College also built a large research laboratory for fluid dynamics research, first known simply as the Fluids Laboratory and later renamed the G. G. Brown Laboratory.

The buildings at the lower right of this photograph were the North Campus Library Annex, and Printing Services.


One of the first and most important projects for the new North Campus site was the Phoenix Memorial Laboratory. Following the war, there was strong University interest in creating a fitting memorial to honor the 579 Michigan men and women who had fallen in wartime service. It was the students themselves, many of whom were veterans, who proposed that rather than build “a mound of stone, the purpose of which might soon be forgotten”, the University instead create a project that would aid mankind in living in a war-free world.

To this end, in May, 1948, the Regents adopted a resolution that “the University of Michigan create a War Memorial Center to explore the ways and means by which the potentialities of atomic energy may become a beneficent influence in the life of man, to be known as the Phoenix Project of the University of Michigan”. President Ruthven called the Phoenix project “the most important undertaking in the University’s history”. Even President Eisenhower highlighted the importance of the Phoenix Project: “Few causes are more urgent today and more noteworthy of your support. In war or in peace, the atomic research being done at the University of Michigan will strengthen America.” (Michigan Technic, December, 1950)

Because the Phoenix Project would utilize the first nuclear reactor to be constructed on a University campus, it was natural to locate its laboratory on the North Campus.

Phoenix Memorial Laboratory


Although many academic programs in the University were involved in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, the College of Engineering had a particular responsibility to develop both instructional and research programs in nuclear energy. The first course in nuclear energy applications was taught in the College of Engineering in 1947, only five years after Enrico Fermi first demonstrated a controlled fission reaction during the Manhattan Project. In 1953 the country’s first graduate program in Nuclear Engineering began as an interdepartmental program. The success of this graduate program led to the establishment of the Department of Nuclear Engineering in 1958. The Department granted only graduate degrees until 1965, when the undergraduate program was begun.

In 1963, three new buildings opened: The Institute for Science and Technology, The Earl V. Moore School of Music named in honor of the first Dean of Music, and the Research Administration Building. In 1965 the North Campus Commons gave the residents of the new campus a place to gather, and next door, the Chrysler Center for Continuing Engineering Education opened in 1967.

(1) Music School (2) North Campus Commons (3) Institute of Science and Technology


The University Main Building
School of Music

Chrysler Center for Continuing Engineering Education
Institute for Science and Technology
Research Administration Building