The University Museum was completed in 1880 and housed the natural history and anthropological collections of the University. The Museum, designed by William Le Baron Jenney, Professor. of Architecture and Design was a four floor building constructed of brick with stone trim.
William Le Baron Jenney was a civil engineer and an architect trained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Paris. As a major in the United States Army in the Civil War, he built Forts Henry and Donaldson, as well as the defenses at Shiloh, Corinth, and Vicksburg. He served with distinction as Chief of Engineering on Grant’s and Sherman’s staffs. After the war, Jenney opened his first architectural office in Chicago in 1868. Jenney was appointed University of Michigan, Professor of Architecture and Design, in 1876. His teaching activities were suspended by 1879, however, because the appropriations for the architecture course was discontinued.
In his annual report for 1878-79 President Angell stated: “The new Museum Building will enable us to store and display our collections much better than has heretofore been possible, and will relieve us of the solicitude we have so long felt concerning their safety.” He added, however: “The sum placed at our disposal will not be adequate to furnish the lecture rooms which ought to be connected with the Museum” (Regent's Proceedings, 1876-81, p. 418). In 1890 he suggested the desirability of adding a series of laboratories at the east side of the building. Nothing came of this plan.
During subsequent years, when the building was used as a museum, many defects in its construction developed. Built without a basement, the ground floor settled and a new one had to be installed. In 1894 the original roof proved too heavy and was replaced with “a makeshift affair fastened together with so curious a system of trusses and bolts” that classes from the Department of Architecture were accustomed to visit it. The building also was inadequate in point of space. Only one floor and half of another could be used for exhibits; there was also a shortage of storage room, which necessitated the use of an abandoned elevator shaft for this purpose; moreover, the building was very badly lighted for the display of exhibits.
These difficulties in the use of the building as a museum became increasingly obvious. By 1923 it was reported that at least 75 per cent of the specimens possessed by the University were kept in storage because of inadequate facilities for display and that some of the collections had not been unpacked since 1878. The risk of fire to the collections, which were valued in 1923 at $2,000,000, was serious. The result was that while the Museum was still housed in this building the University was forced to decline many valuable collections.
These problems continued until 1928 when the new University Museum was completed. The original Museum building, because of its advantageous position on the campus, was assigned to the Department of Romance Languages. Extensive alterations, including the construction of classrooms at a cost of about $20,000, were carried out, as far as possible, with fireproof materials. The building, which was painted a light gray, contained the offices and classrooms of the Department.