University Main Building - Mason Hall

The University Main Building


In September of 1841, the University opened its doors to a class of seven students, six freshmen and one sophomore.  The first building for students on the new Ann Arbor campus, known initially as the University Main Building was completed in the summer of 1841. The four-story structure was stucco over brick.

Sketch of Student Suites from a Student Letter


The student quarters consisted of three-room suites or apartments, each with two bedrooms and a common study room with a fireplace. The building was divided into two sections, each a complete and separate unit consisting of sixteen apartments opening on a central stairway. A tutor, who occupied an apartment on the first floor, presided over each of the sections. The first and second floor also included a chapel and a recitation room. The Chapel appears to have occupied the space on the main floor at one end of the University Main Building that would have accommodated two student suites. The library was on the third floor and a museum on the fourth.

The students paid $7.50 a term for their room, $2.50 for incidentals, and $1.25 to $1.50 for firewood, which they had to split in the wood yard and carry to their room. They collected water from a pump for washing and furnished their own candles. The bedrooms were furnished with a bed, chest, and closet. The study room contained study tables, two chairs, a stove, and a wood closet (Howard Peckham, The Making of the University of Michigan, p. 24).


In 1843 the University Building was named Mason Hall in honor of Michigan’s first governor, Stevens Thomson Mason. In 1831 Lewis Cass, governor of the Michigan Territory was appointed Secretary of War. President Jackson appointed John T. Mason to succeed him. Mason appointed his twenty-year-old son Stevens T. Mason as territorial secretary. A short time afterward, John Mason tired of Michigan, resigned, and went west. His son, who had not resigned as secretary, became acting governor under the law. Since he was not yet twenty-one he became known as “the Boy Governor”—a situation President Jackson soon remedied by naming George B. Porter, a politically prominent Pennsylvania lawyer, as the new governor. In July 1834, just as the border dispute over Toledo reached its peak, Porter unexpectedly died, and the Boy Governor was Governor again (Bruce Catton, Michigan...A History, p. 90).

Stevens Thomson Mason


The Chemical Laboratory for Dr. Silas Douglas was set up in the University Main Building (Mason Hall), probably in 1844. In 1848 it was moved to the South College, where it remained until the completion of the first Laboratory Building (eventually known as the Medical Building) in 1850.
Silas Douglas


In 1856, at a cost of $3,500, the entire central part of Mason Hall was renovated and equipped to house the Library and the Museum. This coincided with a decision to abandon the dormitory plan and to encourage the students to find rooms in the town. The new arrangements provided a gallery around the room devoted to the Library. In the gallery and in the rooms opening from it, the Museum and the art exhibits were displayed. The Mineralogical Cabinet was placed in the north half of the gallery, with the geological collections in the south half; the Fine Arts collection, begun in 1855 by Professor Frieze, was accommodated in three adjacent rooms.

The University Main Building Henry Frieze
The University Main Building Professor Frieze’s Classroom


When the Law School was established in 1859, the Law Library also had to be housed in the Library room in Mason Hall until the completion of the Law Building in 1863, when both the Law and the Literary College libraries were moved to the new building.


In 1862 a small room was attached to the north end of Mason Hall to house Randolph Rogers’ statue of “Nydia."  Funds to purchase "Nydia" were obtained from benefit lectures and concerts by citizens of Ann Arbor and the University.  The small room was removed in 1899 and replaced by a bay window.

The University Main Building Small Room on north side of Mason Hall
The University Main Building "Nydia"

The fourth floor of Mason Hall apparently continued in use for a time as dormitory rooms. As late as 1870, an apartment was occupied by various tenants who acted as caretaker for the Museum.