Early Beginnings & Struggles

James Angell Portrait

Portrait of U-M president James Angell, who in 1885 believed there to be a "pressing" need for a gymnasium. 

The campaign for a gymnasium at Michigan began in March of 1868, when University President Otis Haven called on the Board of Regents to construct such a facility.[1] Later that year in  December, Haven presented a student petition that prayed for the construction of a gymnasium. The Regents, though, denied this petition, because of the University’s precarious finances, but they hoped to research constructing a gymnasium in the future.[2] In March of 1869, however, the Regents appointed a faculty committee to investigate plans to build a gymnasium for less than $5,000. After this committee reported at the meeting the following September of 1870, the Regents requested the University Senate to make a study of the entire subject of a gymnasium and report their decision to the Board. The Senate eventually recommended that Michigan establish a Department of Hygiene and Physical Culture with a minimum of $25,000 to be spent on a gym.[3] The report advocated that the University should “look to a rich benefactor”[4] to build the gymnasium, rather than request appropriations from the state legislature. The Regents believed that this $25,000 amount was “quite beyond the present resources of the University,” and that without a wealthy patron, Michigan would not be able to build the gymnasium.[5]

By 1878, Michigan students took up the initiative themselves, creating the Athletic Association with the express purpose of raising money for a gymnasium aiming to secure $20,000. The students dedicated themselves to this cause, convincing local Ann Arbor businesses to donate 5-10% of their profits on certain days to the gymnasium fund. Nearly 20 years later, despite receiving additional support via the leftover revenue from the baseball team, the students had raised just over $6,000.[6]

University faculty and administrators at the time reacted to the gymnasium with mixed feelings. Some, like President James Angell, wrote that a gymnasium was a “pressing need,” for the University and in 1885, faculty from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts urged to the legislature to accept their recommendation for a gymnasium.[7] Mostly, however, the faculty disapproved of the gymnasium. The 1869 University Senate report emphasized that “other needs should be met first,” and in December of 1890 the Senate rejected a student petition urging the legislature to appropriate funds for a gymnasium.



[1] Proceedings of the Board of Regents, 1864-1870, p. 258. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1870.

[2] Ibid., p. 314.

[3] Studies in the history of higher education in Michigan / Claude Eggertsen, editor. Pages 97-100: “The Struggle for a Gymnasium at the University of Michigan." 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Proceedings of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, 1870-1876. p. 21.

[6] Wear, Robert E. History, 1950, “University of Michigan’s Waterman Gymnasium — Its Development and Expansion from 1894 to 1930."

[7] Ibid., p. 98.